We are sad to report the passing of World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor Lester Tenney at age 96 on February 24, 2017.
Tenney was serving in the Philippines when he was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. He and his fellow soldiers were forced to trek 75 miles on the infamous Bataan Death March, in which thousands died from starvation, dehydration, and gratuitous violence.
Tenney was then enslaved for three years in a Japanese coal mine in Omuta, across the bay from Nagasaki. In a 2013 interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Tenney recalled the atomic bombing of Nagasaki: “We were in our prison camp in Omuta. We heard an explosion and we saw a tremendous cloud rise. It was the bomb at Nagasaki that we heard. I guess we were witnesses to it because we were right there. We didn't know what it was. But the war ended one week later.”
After the war, Tenney received business degrees from San Diego State University and the University of Southern California and became a college professor. He also spearheaded the post-war movement that pushed Japan to acknowledge the mistreatment of American POWs during World War II. In addition to calling for apologies from the Japanese government and Japanese mining companies, Tenney made enormous efforts to educate both Japanese schoolchildren and American society on what had happened during the war. In 1995, he published an account of his wartime experiences in a book called “My Hitch in Hell.”
Tenney attended Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress in which Abe expressed “my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.” The Japanese leader later made an apology in person to Tenney. In January 2017, mining company Mitsubishi Materials Corporation sent an apology letter to Tenney. Although this was not the specific company that owned the mine where Tenney was forced to work, he expressed optimism that other companies would follow suit.
Tenney remarked that all the while he pursued these apologies, he had come to realization that he had to forgive. “I couldn’t go there and talk with them if I hadn’t learned to forgive and get on with my life. So, the forgiveness that I did was not for them. The forgiveness was for me," he explained in his interview. “By my forgiving, I opened up my door. I’ve often said that my friends who still hate, they’re still prisoners. They’re still prisoners. They have not been released yet.”
In addition to those efforts, he also formed a company called Care Packages from Home, which sends care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan, after realizing he had never received his own package as a solider.