Yesterday’s Enemies/Today’s Friends

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

best friend


For a number of years, my Dad worked alongside a man who had served in the Pacific during World War II. He had many stories to share, one involving a Japanese soldier who was spotted walking through their camp in the jungle wearing an American army uniform. Apparently, he was identified because of his walk, something unique to Japanese soldiers. Someone yelled, “That’s a Jap!”

The GI’s surrounded the man and proceeded to dowse him with gasoline, set him afire, and watched as he was incinerated. This story was not told with any sense of horror or regret but boastfully. The message seemed to be that American soldiers could behave as cruelly as any enemy.

There were atrocities aplenty during the second of the twentieth century’s global cataclysms, and yet, a peculiar contradiction seemed to exist with regard to our two most powerful former enemies. Many homecoming GI’s, several of my uncles included, seemed to regard their German adversaries, however formidable they may have been, as fellow soldiers who somehow got stuck in the whole thing and were just doing as they were ordered.

In contrast, they regarded their Japanese battlefield opponents with pure, unforgiving hatred. Perhaps such passion stemmed from Japan’s deadly sneak attack on our facilities at Pearl Harbor at the very same time when their emissary Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura was in Washington talking peace.  

Then again, attitudes could have been partially fueled by racism, some leftover fears involving the Yellow Peril myth. Domestically, there was no dearth of anti-Japanese racism, resulting in the arrest and incarceration of thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans in western concentration camps, yet another example of America’s lengthy history of xenophobia and racism.

It was not until years after the war, with the publication of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, that the brutal realities of Japan’s rape, torture and massacre of over 300,000 defenseless Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking was exposed. This episode, so brutal that the German ambassador to Japan complained to Adolf Hitler about it and later established a lifeline to prevent thousands of others from becoming victims.

Perhaps rumors of atrocities committed against U.S. prisoners during the infamous Bataan Death March had reached the ears of American troops, but few at the time were aware of the sufferings of thousands of so-called “comfort women,” female captives used as sex slaves by Japanese troops.

Discipline was harsh and physical in the Japanese military, with those higher in the pecking order doling out brutal treatment to those beneath them. Prisoners of war, those who opted to surrender rather than die needlessly, existed at the very lowest level of the Japanese social and military hierarchy, worthless pawns that had forsaken their very humanity. The international laws of warfare, the Geneva Accords, were never even recognized by Japan.

Many were aware of the mistreatment and torture of captives. My good friend and fellow contributor to El Ojo del Lago, Fred Mittag, tells of a scene that greeted the eyes of Justus Smith, his father’s brother-in-law, as his unit landed along the coast of a Japanese-held Pacific island. The beach was lined with the impaled bodies of US servicemen. According to Fred, the posts upon which the men had been impaled were set so deeply that they stood upright, a ghoulish warning to the next wave of invaders. Possibly, the hatred for the Japanese was a consequence of their misdeeds being more up close and personal than those of the Germans.

Fred says that Justus Smith was never able to forgive the Japanese. Mr. Smith had no shortage of company. Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Theater, ordered that upon his passing no Japanese delegation ever be permitted to attend his funeral, so incensed was he by the barbaric treatment of those of his men who had fallen into enemy hands during the war.

Conversely, during the post war era, a plethora of books and movies have appeared exposing the horrors perpetrated by Germany’s Nazi regime, while, with some notable exceptions such as the popular film Bridge Over the River Kwai, Japan’s record of atrocities committed against vast populations of civilians and POW’s has been largely understated. While the Nazi flag of World War II is most deservedly an object of revulsion, the Rising Sun banner of Imperial Japan inspires no such reaction.

Most of us are aware of the horrors perpetrated by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death,” but few know of the atrocities committed by Japanese scientists at the notorious Unit 731, where heinous chemical and biological experiments were conducted upon helpless POW’s and captive Chinese civilians.  

After the war, we found ourselves in the unique situation of rebuilding and reforming the governments and economies of our former foes in the face of a growing rivalry with the Union and Mainland China. Our former enemies are now among our most reliable allies. And yet, memories do not vanish so readily.

Alistair Uquhart, a former prisoner of the Japanese, relates in his memoir The Forgotten Highlander of being starved, beaten and tortured by his captors as he struggled as a slave laborer on the infamous bridge across Burma’s River Kwai and later aboard a horrendous slave ship. After the ship sank, Urquhart was rescued and put to work again as a slave, this time in a Japanese coal mine. Many of the survivors of Bataan and Singapore had similar nightmarish tales to share. To the end of his days, Urquhart suffered nightmares and flashbacks, as have veterans of most wars.

While Germany has attempted to come to terms with its Nazi past and American historians have uncloaked the savagery of slavery, racism and the genocide meted out to native populations, Japan continues to dismiss its offenses with such innocuous phrases as, “Mistakes were made.”

To date, there has been little or no admission of culpability with regard to the fate of the sexually exploited and often mutilated “comfort women,” and the slaughter at Nanking has been covered up. Denial has never solved anything.

Contemporary Japanese are no more responsible for the sins of their forebears than modern Americans are for the horrors of the Central Passage or the Sand Creek Massacre. Why, then, disinter the atrocities of the past at this late date. The historian functions much as the investigative journalist does, lifting up the rock, picking at the scab, exposing to the light of day whatever dark entities lurk beneath. Societies, like individuals, are alike in that only by first acknowledging their demons can they confront and defeat them and truly begin the healing process.

Ed. Note: Lorin Swinehart is a retired teacher, professor and National Park Service Ranger. He has served in five national parks in five states. His wilderness adventures have taken him throughout the Mountain West and the North Country, as well as into the swamplands of southern Florida. Since 2012, he has served El Ojo del Lago as Roving Correspondent. He and his wife LaVon currently reside west of the Mississippi and spend most of the year exploring national parks and wilderness areas where they make the acquaintance many species of wildlife.  

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