BATON ROUGE, La. -- Of those who are left, most of the men of the "Mukden tribe" are old and frail now. Yet a fire still burns in their souls.
Seventy of the 350 or so living survivors of one of the most notorious World War II prison camps came to Cajun country this weekend -- not to sample the crawfish and riverboat casinos at Catfish Town, but to see old friends in their self-described "tribe" and find out what they can do to get their government to come clean.
Many of the men who were imprisoned by the Japanese in a frigid camp in Mukden, Manchuria, are convinced they were subjects of gruesome biological warfare experiments. They accuse their government of covering up those crimes for half a century.
So, many of the ex-POWs who gathered for a reunion at a Ramada Inn were pleasantly surprised when a top official of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs flew down from Washington to tell them he was on their side.
"The message is that we want to work with you," said Quentin Kinderman, assistant director for policy, compensation and pension services.
He said getting a definitive answer on whether Mukden prisoners were used as guinea pigs was a top priority of his boss, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown.
The department is assembling a database of Mukden survivors, Mr. Kinderman said, so it can question as many as possible about what went on during the war.
Mr. Brown's aggressive stance has ruffled feathers in the Pentagon, which is sensitive to allegations that Gen. Douglas MacArthur and other U.S. officers protected Japanese scientists and physicians in exchange for data derived from human experimentation.
In an unusually sharp letter to Defense Secretary William J. Perry in May, Mr. Brown said appeals for documents and records about the Mukden camp had "largely gone unanswered."
On Aug. 7, Mr. Perry sent a letter to Mr. Brown in which he said that Army historians had made "extensive efforts" to uncover evidence to support survivors' claims -- and had found none.
But after a subsequent San Jose Mercury News report that U.S. intelligence agents had ignored postwar reports of germ-warfare atrocities at Mukden, the Pentagon's position shifted.
In a Sept. 6 letter to Rep. Pat Williams, a Montana Democrat, Maj. Gen. Jerry C. Harrison, chief of the Army's legislative liaison, said Mr. Perry had "authorized me to emphasize the administration's strong commitment to an open and responsive approach to releasing information."
Whereas Mr. Perry had contended that the search was exhaustive, General Harrison wrote that "no single repository for such documents exists within the Department of Defense or within the Executive Branch as a whole. Documents relating to Japanese biological warfare experiments are located in numerous archives throughout a number of agencies."
General Harrison, however, said the Army would continue to look -- and suggested other places such as the FBI archives and the MacArthur Library in Virginia to search for evidence.
But Greg Rodriquez Jr., the son of a Mukden survivor who has been trying to dig up written proof of the experimentation for nearly two decades, said the Pentagon wasn't going far enough.
"What they're saying is that if I tell them where the records are, they'll find them for me -- that is, if I can get a government pig on the leash, I might find these truffles of truth," he said.
If Pentagon officials were truly serious about helping the Mukden survivors, Mr. Rodriquez said, they would ask formally for help from the governments of Japan and Russia as well as Britain, with whom the U.S. government shared the germ warfare data.
The Mukden survivors gathering over the weekend passed around a collection basket to help Mr. Rodriquez pursue his research. But many remained skeptical that they'll ever learn what they were injected with.
"Never," said Robert A. Brown, who lives in Challenge, Calif. "Our government sold us out."
Mr. Brown, a robust 71, was a medic before he was captured at Bataan in the Philippines, so he worked in Mukden's camp hospital. He said he remembers three incidents in which 15 to 20 Japanese men wearing white smocks and white masks were dropped off in trucks. They fanned out through the camp and gave inmates various injections, said Mr. Brown, who suspects they were members of Unit 731, the Japanese army's germ warfare unit based 350 miles away.
Like Mr. Rodriquez's father, several other people at the reunion remembered having feathers passed under their noses. Western historians have determined that feathers were a common way of introducing germs into experimental subjects. About two dozen others recalled receiving unknown injections.