Herb Zincke thought he was looking at a skeleton that day in 1942 in Bilibid prison -- until the skeleton called him by name.
It was his Army Air Corps friend Paul Reuter. The Philippines had fallen to the Japanese, and the men had become prisoners of war. Reuter had already suffered the brutality of the Bataan Death March, and he and Zincke would go on to endure three years of starvation and cruelty in Japanese labor camps.
Fifty-seven years later, they lead comfortable lives in neighboring Maryland suburbs. But the men won't find peace, they say, until the Japanese corporate giants that forced them into slave labor apologize and pay for the prisoners' work and suffering.
Zincke and Reuter are among the former American prisoners of war who recently filed a class-action suit that accuses Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi International Corp., Nippon Steel Corp. and Showa Denko of violating international treaties and profiting from prisoners working in their factories, mines and shipyards.
The lawsuit, filed in September in New Mexico on behalf of about 500 former prisoners, is part of an intensifying effort to make the Allies' World War II enemies pay war reparations. German and American negotiators are working on a global settlement of about 30 class-action lawsuits against German companies. (The latest German offer to Nazi-era slave laborers, $3.3 billion, was rejected by lawyers for the victims.)
Policy protected Japan
Many lawsuits over the years have charged the Japanese government with prisoner abuse. But a 1951 agreement, known as the San Francisco treaty, shielded Japanese interests, part of a U.S. policy to reinvent Japan as a friend, said Linda Goetz Holmes, a Pacific war historian who has done research for the lawsuit.
"We wanted them [the Japanese] as a bulwark against Russia and an ally against communism," Holmes said, adding that American guilt about the use of nuclear weapons against Japan also played a role in the policy.
It was a policy that the former prisoners say betrayed them by denying them recourse. "Our own government let us down," said Reuter, who earned a Bronze Star (as did Zincke) and Purple Heart during the war. "They cut us out of that treaty."
The class-action suit, which takes advantage of recently declassified documents, targets only the companies. Mitsui and Mitsubishi issued statements expressing sympathy for the war victims but denying responsibility for war crimes. Mitsui says it is being confused with the scores of other Japanese companies with Mitsui in their names. Mitsui and a subsidiary, also named in the suit, "were formed after World War II, and neither has ever had any involvement in either coal mining or stevedoring activities, as alleged by the plaintiffs," the statement said.
Mitsubishi says that the suit has no merit because neither the company nor its predecessor has engaged in manufacturing -- they are trading companies -- but adds it will take the allegations seriously. Kawasaki, also expressing sympathy for prisoners of war, said the company was still studying the complaint. And a lawyer for Nippon Steel Corp. says "the action is barred by international treaties, among other issues."
Zincke and Reuter suffered malnutrition, beriberi and other ailments that cut short their work lives and thwarted their dreams. Both men say the former prisoners deserve money for their suffering, though the suit does not specify an amount. But more important, these men say, is their demand for an apology from Japan. They want history to record the injustice of their slavery in the Japanese war industry.
Bataan Death March
Reuter, 79, tells his story from the living room of his modest, sunny house in Oxon Hill, which has wine-colored Oriental rugs and a needlepoint family tree above the living room couch with the names of his five children and 10 of his 12 grandchildren.
Reuter, who grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania's coal country during the Depression and enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the Air Force) after high school, was working as a radio operator and mechanic on B-17 bombers in the Philippines when the Bataan Peninsula fell to the Japanese in April 1942.
He was forced into what became known as the Bataan Death March, trekking for seven days in 105-degree heat with no food and almost no water and seeing some of his comrades shot dead by Japanese soldiers. Several thousand U.S. and Filipino prisoners were estimated to have died on the march.
After the march, Reuter spent four days on burial detail at a prison camp, where he helped bury more than 200 bodies, saying a prayer over each one.
After working in the jungle, where disease was rampant, Reuter was brought to the hospital at Bilibid prison with a badly enlarged heart. He weighed 112 pounds, down from 205. And nearly 20 pounds of his weight was fluid retained because of beriberi, a thiamine deficiency that causes severe swelling and killed many of his comrades.
From malnutrition, Reuter went blind for three weeks and remains legally blind in his right eye. He also developed neuropathy in his feet, which still burn and itch.
He was taken to Japan, where he was assigned to the machine shop at a steel mill in Hirohata run by the company now known as Nippon Steel, according to the suit.
Beatings were common. The prisoners lived without soap or toilet paper. Meals were watery soup and a small ball of rice, sometimes flavored with silkworms.
The company kept control by controlling the food supply, a form of brainwashing, Reuter said. "There was always the message: If you didn't work you didn't eat. So if you could walk you went to the mill. You had this constant desire to eat, which kept you from thinking of other things, like breaking out of the camps."
After the war, Reuter married and had five children with his wife, Nikki; he retired in 1960 and went to work as a telemetry designer for Goddard Space Center. But failing eyesight forced him into early retirement in 1973, at age 53. He still has trouble distinguishing numbers, reading a laptop screen and reading print for more than 15 minutes.
Diary of captivity
A half-hour ride from Oxon Hill around the Washington Beltway, in a modest middle-class neighborhood in Silver Spring, lives Herbert Zincke, an 80-year-old widower with one stepson. He and Reuter have been friends for almost 60 years, since their lives first collided in the Philippines, and they share the same cause today.
Piled high on Zincke's dining room table are documents, old photographs, newspaper clippings and worn brown spiral notebooks that hold a diary of his 40 months in captivity, which were used in the war crimes tribunal after the war.
Zincke, who joined the Army after high school and worked as a flight chief in armament, was stationed on Mindanao in the Philippines when his squadron surrendered in May 1942.
Eventually brought to a POW camp outside Tokyo, he worked for Mitsui and Showa Denko, according to the suit, and was often assigned to haul 120-pound bags of rice on his back and unload toxic chemicals from tank cars. Once, leaking nitric acid burned his legs.
He lost 55 pounds from malnutrition, beriberi and diarrhea. He was beaten over the head after another prisoner stole a loaf of rice bread.
"There were guys who lost their mind," Zincke said. "One guy was wealthy -- he kept saying 'I've got $35,000 at home and I can't buy a candy bar.' It ate away at him. He died. He gave up."
His diaries offer a straightforward account of life as a war prisoner. He reveals an obsession with food, documenting every meager portion he is handed. And mundane accounts of meals and sleeping patterns are listed almost interchangeably with news of beatings and deaths.
"A Dutchman named Jansen died of the effects of beri-beri, malaria and pneumonia. Worked on Sempaku detail all day. Ed Lubiewski and Skinner each had a tooth pulled at Showa Denko. More mail came into camp."
After the war, Zincke specialized in armament maintenance, married his wife, Maudenya, in 1955, became a warrant officer and retired from the Air Force in 1959.
He had long planned to become a forest ranger and had just enrolled in a forestry program at the College of William and Mary when, at age 40, he had a major heart attack. The doctors told him it was linked to beriberi, and his dream of a forestry career was over. He also has degenerative spinal arthritis, which doctors also trace to his days as a prisoner, he said.
Zincke started a new career in engineering that took him to Silver Spring in the early 1960s to work as a staff specialist at Vitro Laboratories, which supported Navy ships. He retired in 1985.
Working for a cause
The two men carry half-century-old scars -- made worse, they say, by the resistance of both the Japanese and U.S. governments to their pleas for an apology and compensation. Each has worked in his own way to set the record straight.
Reuter started working with POW groups more than 20 years ago, researching, writing and lobbying. When he goes to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, he says, he flatly tells Japanese officials that their emperor was as guilty as Hitler and Mussolini, and should have met the same fate.
Zincke has lectured high school classes about his experiences, and he's now working with a writer to publish his diaries. What bothers him most is that teen-agers he meets know nothing about Japan's abuse of war prisoners.
"I want the American people, the children in particular," he said, "to understand what happened."