NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA – On April 9, a small number of aging American and Filipino men, now in their 90s, will pause for a moment to reflect on a turning point in their lives that took place 74 years ago this day on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.
Their descendants, and perhaps another handful of citizens who maintain an ongoing interest in significant historical events from World War II, will do the same.
On that tropical Wednesday morning in 1941, thousands of American and Filipino soldiers were surrendered by their commanders into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army following four months of intense fighting in defense of the Philippines from the overwhelming invasion of Japanese forces.
Once surrendered, these already weak, sick and starving men were forced to make the infamous and inhumane Bataan Death March over the next week under a blistering tropical sun with virtually no food, water or medical care. By the time they arrived at the makeshift prisoner of war camp some 100 km away, thousands from within their ranks lay dead from exhaustion, disease, starvation or outright execution at the hands of their captors.
My father, James T. Murphy, was among them. During that time and throughout the next 3½ years of his captivity, he encountered countless acts of cruelty and barbarism by his captors, contrasted with heroic acts of kindness and sacrifice among his compatriots.
Today, he is 96 years old, living comfortably with his wife Nancy in California. As for his three sons, he made sure they were raised to never resent nor harbor any antipathy toward the Japanese people.
In 2009, my father and I wrote and published his inspirational story of courage, hope and freedom about his POW experience in the book, “… when men must live” by Kenneth B. Murphy and James T. Murphy (MG2 Publications).
The lessons from my father’s long ordeal are not laden with bitterness, hatred and intolerance, as one might logically expect. In one of his many quotes from the book, he was clear on this point. “I had no thoughts of revenge, and did not want to relive any of my past POW experiences,” Murphy stated, further adding that “In our Christian spirit, we can and we must forgive those who transgress against us — but we must not forget.”
There are those in Japan who have not forgotten either.
Last year, on July 19, a small delegation of Japanese business leaders from Mitsubishi Materials Corp. gathered in a conference room in Los Angeles at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a historical meeting to deliver an apology that my father and other former POWs had been waiting to receive for 70 years.
Mitsubishi Materials Senior Executive Officer Hikaru Kimura and outside board member Yukio Okamoto, along with other representatives of the company, gathered around a conference table to extend a formal apology to James Murphy and other former prisoners of war who were held captive by Japanese military forces and forced to work under inhumane conditions and endure brutal treatment in the depths of a Mitsubishi-owned copper mine in the mountains near Sendai in northern Honshu.
My father’s POW experience was not unique. During the war, thousands of prisoners had been transferred from various POW camps to locations throughout Japan, forced to work in factories, mines and other parts of Japan’s military-industrial complex to support its war effort.
During his formal remarks at the ceremony in Los Angeles, Kimura stated: “I would like to express our deepest sense of ethical responsibility for the tragic experiences of all U.S. POWs, including Mr. James Murphy, who were forced to work under harsh conditions in the mines of the former Mitsubishi Mining. On behalf of Mitsubishi Materials, I offer our sincere apology. I also offer our deepest condolences to their fellow U.S. POWs who worked alongside them but have since passed away.”
Okamoto, who is also a former Foreign Ministry official, added his own heartfelt comments of remorse to Murphy and to the family members of other POWs who suffered alongside Murphy but were not present, saying: “We also have to apologize for not apologizing earlier. I entered the room with a heavy heart, seeking forgiveness, but instead of grievances, I was met with forgiveness and generosity.”
Murphy, the only surviving POW who worked under Mitsubishi’s control who was able to attend the ceremony, accepted the apology on behalf of all of his fellow POWs. “We have just heard Mitsubishi’s representative, Mr. Kimura, present a stirring, heartfelt, warm and sincere apology to former U.S. prisoners of war. Hopefully, the acceptance of this sincere apology will bring some closure and relief to the age-old problems confronting the surviving former prisoners of war and to their family members,” Murphy said.
“Furthermore, I join others in this group who foster the idea of encouraging the dozens of other Japanese companies who used forced labor by the Allied prisoners of war to offset their workforce shortage to follow Mitsubishi’s progressive leadership. Such actions would have positive results for both of our nations by strengthening our trust, confidence and friendship,” Murphy concluded.
After the hour-long apology meeting, a swarm of international news media gathered for a press conference with the Mitsubishi Materials officials, Murphy, Rabbi Abraham Cooper (associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who moderated the historic apology meeting), and Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society. The day’s events garnered widespread international media coverage on television, newspapers and across the Internet.
Today, it is fitting for me to acknowledge how important events in history have found their way into my own life — through my father’s life experience, through my association with those who have sought to keep the stories of these American POWs alive, and through those advocates who have worked diligently for years to bring to fruition opportunities for the type of selfless acts of apology, forgiveness and reconciliation that took place last year in Los Angeles.
Such actions will continue to foster greater understanding between individuals and, symbolically, between nations, ultimately serving as a broader reminder of our shared humanity. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who set this example for us, and we owe it to the generations that follow to pass on these stories and the lessons they reveal.
Kenneth B. Murphy is an author, management consultant and entrepreneur residing in Newport Beach, California.