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Former Prisoner of War Serves the Troops

Daily Journal – Thomas D. Penfield

Carlsbad resident Lester Tenney is determined.

At 89-years-old, the old soldier slogs on, collecting small goods and items for our soldiers and sailors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in a program he calls <I>Care Packages from Home.<I>  Tenney is determined that they will not be forgotten by the country that asked them to sacrifice.

Tenney knows what it’s like to be abandoned.

In 1941, Tenny was a young soldier stationed in the Philippines. In the early morning hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was one of the first to feel the brute force of the Japanese Imperial Military as it bombed and strafed the air force base to which he was assigned. Severely outnumbered, outgunned, low on food and ammunition, his unit was captured by the Imperial Army and forced into the Bataan Death March. Tenney was determined to survive. Many of his fellow soldiers and sailors did not. He lost many of his teeth to a cruel blow to his mouth by the rifle butt of a Japanese soldier.

The U.S. Government made the strategic decision to abandon Tenney and the other survivors. Forgotten by the American public, the brave survivors of the forced march were crammed into Japanese container ships and transported from the Philippines to mainland Japan in conditions that were unfit for cattle.  Many did not survive due to the barbaric conditions.  More died when some of the ships were mistakenly sunk by American war planes.

Upon arrival, Tenney and the others were held in concentration camps and forced into slave labor for private companies by the Japanese government, working for three years in coal mines the Japanese companies had earlier abandoned as too dangerous for its own citizens.

Freed after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tenney returned home to an America who had forgotten him and the other survivors. His country had abandoned him.  His wife, thinking he was dead, had remarried. The government imposed a silence on the survivors because it needed post-war Japan’s cooperation in the battle against communism.

Tenney went on to become a college professor of finance and wrote a book about his experiences, which detailed his fight for survival, appropriately entitled, My Hitch in Hell. It was written with the encouragement of his family and fellow survivors so that Americans could learn and not forget what happened in that far-off place, in a forgotten part of the war.

But the men who survived have not forgotten.

The private Japanese companies grew rich and powerful in post-war Japan partially due to the wartime, American soldier-slave labor, which permitted them to prosper during the war years.

In 1998, some 40-plus years after regaining his freedom, Lester Tenney saw his chance. A statute of limitations law enacted in California permitted the late filing of lawsuits by Holocaust survivors. The language was broad enough to open the courthouse door to suits not just against Germany, but also against the other Axis powers.

Lester Tenney was determined. Could the legal system provide justice for these long-forgotten victims of wartime atrocities by private companies?   And so he began a battle in California and federal courts that eventually made its way to Congress.

Tenney contacted Cardiff attorney Michael Goldstein to locate lawyers who would be willing to help. Goldstein put Tenney in touch with a law firm with national reach, Casey, Gerry, Schenk, Francavilla, Blatt & Penfield, LLP. CaseyGerry put together and coordinated a network of law firms across the country willing to help the surviving old soldiers. Eleven cases were filed and litigated in the state and federal courts.

To everyone’s dismay, the U.S. State Dept. intervened on behalf of the Japanese companies, arguing that the American government had given away the property rights of Tenney and his fellow citizens in a 1954 treaty signed with Japan. Yielding to the wishes of the government, the judges held that the old soldiers’ claims were barred by the treaty and dismissed the cases. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a hearing.

Once more, Tenney and his fellow survivors felt abandoned by their government.

But Tenney wasn’t through. His lawyers petitioned the United States Congress for redress. Constitutionally, the government cannot take a citizen’s property without compensation. Every school child knows it. Yet, the government had released Tenney’s property right to settle a claim with Japan.  The old soldiers had not been compensated.

In June 2000, Senator Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) responded to the plea and ordered hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chaired.

Tenney was one of the lead witnesses, the old soldier, dressed once more in his ancient uniform, still limping from the beatings he received during the death march.  <I>Parade<I>magazine featured a story on Tenney, describing the fight of the survivors of the Bataan Death March. <I>People Magazine<I> picked up the story as well A state department representative testified in opposition to the proposed bill, the U.S. government once again turning its back on its own soldiers. Senator Hatch openly expressed his dismay with the state department’s position, but ultimately could not muster the necessary votes in support of a bill to reimburse the men for their sacrifice.

Tenney and his fellow soldiers had been abandoned again.

The remarkable legal battle is recounted through the eyes of fellow survivor Harold Poole in Soldier Slaves, Abandoned by the White House, Courts and Congress, authored by James Parkinson, one of the attorneys who joined the legal team that worked for thousands of hours without pay to represent the Japanese prisoners of war, as they became known. Parkinson has produced a movie based upon his book titled, The Inheritance of War, which is currently making the rounds of film festivals. Today, Tenney quietly soldiers on in his Carlsbad home, which he shares with his wife he married a few years after his return. He speaks of his experiences without exaggeration or self-aggrandizement. The number of remaining survivors dwindles at each reunion of his unit as old age overcomes them. Remarkably free from bitterness and harboring no ill will to the Japanese who enslaved him, Tenney collects and coordinates his gift packages for our men and women overseas.

But Tenney is still determined. He prepares his Care Packages from Home. for the servicemen overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. To date, he has raised more than $210,000 – sending 4,560 care packages to the troops. The goal is to send 500 more by Christmas.

Lester Tenney is determined that no other U.S. service men or women will ever be abandoned again.

Thomas D. Penfield is a partner at Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield, LLP.

Nick Perry