World War II Unhealed Wounds

President Roosevelt called it a "day that will live in infamy" and it has. Fifty-eight years ago, Japan launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into World War II.

On the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, some veterans from that war are still seeking justice from Japan. CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews looks at wounds that haven't healed.
The saying, "Forgive and forget," is nonsense to Bob O'Brien.

In World War II, O'Brien, a Navy gunner, was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese for three and a half years.

That was 54 years ago. Two months ago O'Brien filed suit for monetary damages. And his is just one of 17 similar lawsuits recently filed against the Japanese.

Even though it is 54 years after the fact, he says, "They are still my enemy."

"I want these guys recognized. I want an apology," says O'Brien's attorney, Eli Warach.

These lawsuits use a new theory, he says. He argues that since the Japanese military gave up their captives to do slave labor for private companies, including Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel, those companies now owe them damages.

"They were prisoners of war used as slave labor, and that was against every convention of war," Warach says.

O'Brien was one of those slaves. After his ship, the USS Houston, went down, he became one of 30,000 American POWs who did hard labor for corporate masters in Japan. He mined iron ore for Nippon Steel.

While these veterans have a new legal approach, they don't have an easy case. In the 1950s the U.S. government knew all about the prison atrocities, but the United States needed Japan as an ally, and so it signed a treaty that seems to sign away the rights of these men.

That peace treaty with Japan clearly waives all claims "of the allied powers and their nationals [for] any actions taken by Japan and its nationals."

Japanese diplomats, including Hideaki Kobayashi, Japan's deputy chief of the U.S. mission, say that's it. "It has been settled completely and finally in the San Francisco peace treaty," he says.

The companies being sued also argue that the treaty ends the legal issues. But Mitsubishi calls this a moral issue, deserving investigation.

"We will also look at it from the human aspectand whether there are things we have done that we should apologize for," says James Brumm of Mitsubishi.

And when it comes to apologies, 50 years after the surrender, in 1995, Japan expressed remorse for wartime suffering. But to this day, Japan does not specifically admit that enslavement of prisoners ever happened.

"The Japanese government simply has not made any judgment," says Kobayashi.

When asked if that means that in Japan this is not historic certainty, Kobayashi says he thinks it is a rather new issue.

And that's the crux of it to veterans like O'Brien. If Japan won't own up to the truth, he on't let go of his rage.

So scores of these men, now in their 70s and 80s have filed suit along with O'Brien. They see themselves as survivors with an untold story, veterans with an unhealed wound.

©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments

Follow Us