Americans Enslaved in Japan During WWII

Les Tenney and Mo Mazer were tortured and starved while working as slaves in Japanese mines during World War II.

The men are just two of some 20,000 American GIs taken prisoner in the Pacific and put to work as slave laborers for Japanese companies. Their plight, though a well-established historical fact, has been largely forgotten.

"This issue is about companies that put us into servitude, took advantage of us, didn't feed us, didn't give us medical care, didn't pay us, and now they're trying to deny all responsibility," says Tenney, now 80 and living in Phoenix.

Tenney and Mazer contend the companies that forced them into hard labor are connected to the giant Mitsubishi and Mitsui corporations, both of which have been named in lawsuits brought by the veterans.

Adding to the veterans' frustration, they say the U.S. government has taken the side of the Japanese companies, arguing that the peace treaty with Japan pre-emptively settled all such suits.

Death March

Tenney was stationed in the Philippines when he found himself outnumbered and was ordered to surrender to the Japanese. He and thousands of American and Filipino prisoners were herded together for what became known as the Bataan Death March. A third of the American prisoners died during the march, and Tenney says he personally witnessed the beheading of a fellow soldier.

He and the other survivors were shipped to Japan. He says they were turned over to the Mitsui Mining Co. as slaves, to work in a crumbling coal mine.

"The Japanese soldiers would take us from our camp and walk us from our camp to the coal mine and then they would … turn us over to the civilians — to the Mitsui people," says Tenney.

He says the Mitsui employees treated the Americans even worse than the Japanese soldiers did, forcing them to work on meager rations and constantly beating them. On one occasion, Tenney says, a Mitsui worker struck him with a heavy steel chain, ripping through his cheek and knocking out his teeth.

Now Tenney and others are trying to sue Mitsui. It is, the sixth largest company, in terms of sales, in the world, and does business with such American companies as Coca-Cola, 7-11 and Philip Morris.

For its part, Mitsui says it has never owned or controlled the separate Mitsui Mining Co.

Injured for Life

Mitsubishi, a family of manufacturing companies well known around the world for a full range of consumer products and automobiles, is named in a separate lawsuit.

Mazer, who is now 88, was a slave laborer in a copper mine run by Mitsubishi Mining, where he says he was crippled for life when nonmilitary overseers ran a full cart of ore into him because he had complained about conditions in the mine.

"They were standing there, laughing," Mazer remembers. His crime, he says, was not bowing low enough.

Mazer says he was one of the lucky ones; many other American GIs died while working as slaves in the same mines.

Neither Mitsubishi nor the company that now controls the mining operation agreed to an interview with 20/20 to discuss the lawsuit, but in a written statement, the Mitsubishi Corp. said, "We doubt that these suits have any relation to our company or its activities."

'Sold Down the River'

Tenney first wrote to the U.S. government about bringing legal action just after the war ended in l946.

He says he was told the peace treaty to be signed with Japan would spell out how he could proceed in a lawsuit against the Japanese companies. But in what the veterans see as a double cross, the final treaty specifically prohibited any such lawsuits against private industry, apparently out of concern that they would hurt Japan's efforts to rebuild after the war.

"If I may be very blunt, then we were sold down the river," says Tenney.

Tenney says he knows what it's like to be outnumbered and forgotten and though a federal judge has dismissed his lawsuit, he plans to appeal.

Though he was recently diagnosed with cancer, Tenney says he plans to keep fighting, even if only for an apology.

Mazer agrees. "I'll fight as long as I can because I know what we went through."