WASHINGTON – Paul Reuter plans to attend Veterans Day ceremonies at his local American Legion post Thursday, but it won’t be without regrets or bad memories.
He will spend part of this Veterans Day the way he spends every day, remembering the torture he said he was forced to endure as a slave laborer for Japanese companies during World War II.
Reuter spent 21 years in the military, three and a half as a prisoner of war in Japan, but feels his sacrifice goes largely unnoticed today.
“I don’t think there’s that much recognition as far as my part, my time as a POW, goes,” said Reuter, now 79. “Few people really know what happened.”
Reuter, who lives in Oxon Hill, and Herbert Zincke of Silver Spring know firsthand what happened. They are two of 11 plaintiffs named in a federal suit that charges five major Japanese companies with profiting from slave labor provided by POWs during World War II.
Both men were captured in the Philippines in early 1942. Zincke was shipped to a frigid camp in Kawasaki, still in his warm-weather clothing. Reuter, who survived the Bataan Death March, was sent to do manual labor at a steel mill in Hirohata.
Both men, members of the same Army Air Corps squadron, said they were forced to work without adequate housing, food or medical care. Fed a diet of rice and water, they lost weight and became dangerously ill.
“Every time you got a tiny infection, it turned into something larger because you had no resistance,” Zincke said. His poor physical condition made recovery from injuries like the nitric acid burns he received while working in a chemical factory even longer and more painful.
Poor living conditions added to the problems. Zincke said the shelf he slept on each night at the Kawasaki camp often became infested with lice and other bugs. The men also received beatings at the hands of their captors.
“Being a POW … you shouldn’t be exploited, you shouldn’t work on government projects and you should be fed,” Reuter said. The two men saw each other only once during more than three years of captivity.
“We were being held at this medical prison when we passed each other,” Zincke recalled. “I heard a voice say `Hey, Zincke, you’re looking good.’ It was Paul Reuter. I turned around and I saw this skeleton. I didn’t think he’d make it.”
The attorney representing the men in their suit said he was horrified when he learned of the conditions in the Japanese work camps.
“I thought the concentration camp was the most horrendous thing I’d ever seen,” said Eli J. Warach, a New Jersey lawyer and World War II vet of the European theater. “But this comes very, very close. These companies used these men.”
The defendants in the suit are Mitsubishi International Corp.; Kawasaki Heavy Industries; Mitsui & Co., a trading company; Nippon Steel Corp., the world’s largest steel producer; and Showa Denko, an electronics company.
Mitsubishi has been the only company to comment on the case, saying in a statement that “we deeply sympathize … with the victims of war.” But the company said it was not involved in manufacturing and does not believe the suit should apply to it.
Warach said the companies are being sued because the U.S. government has prevented the POWs from suing the Japanese government itself.
A State Department official said Wednesday that a 1951 treaty included specific claim and settlement provisions, which prevents individuals from suing Japan today.
A bill offered in the Senate in late October would order the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay POWs who survived the Bataan Death March or the Corregidor campaign $20,000 as compensation for slave labor those soldiers were forced to perform during World War II. No action has been taken on the bill by Congress, which expects to recess within days.
But Reuter, who now has five children and 12 grandchildren, said the suit is about far more than money.
“At this point in my life, money isn’t primary. What I would like to see is an apology from the Japanese government … and recognition by the emperor,” he said.
Meanwhile, Reuter and Zincke, both in poor health and unable to attend Veterans Day events on Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery as they do most years, say they will observe the holiday privately.
“It’s very important to me,” Zincke said. “Most people just look at it as another day off of work, but this was an important part of my life.”