Hatch, Hunter work for WWII slave laborers' compensation

A new book on the plight of U.S. soldiers captured and enslaved by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II is fueling a renewed lobbying and legislative effort to compensate those veterans for their ordeal.

A new book on the plight of U.S. soldiers captured and enslaved by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II is fueling a renewed lobbying and legislative effort to compensate those veterans for their ordeal.

Soldier Slaves: Abandoned by the White House, Courts and Congress is written by James Parkinson, a California trial lawyer, and Lee Benson, a Utah journalist.

The book, which follows the personal history of one of the GIs, Harold Poole, has become a lobbying tool in Congress, where a couple high-profile lawmakers are working on legislation to make sure that the U.S. government compensates and acknowledges the soldiers’ ordeal.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) are working on legislation that they plan to introduce in both chambers. As of press time, the two offices were still working on the language and evaluating several options.

The veterans’ efforts to get compensation from Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Nippon Steel, have been dismissed by the Supreme Court and opposed by the U.S. government based on the interpretation of 1951 peace treaty with Japan.

The Japanese army forced more than 10,000 Americans on an 85-mile march in the spring of 1942, which became known as the Bataan Death March. Soldiers were beaten, bayoneted and, in some cases, buried alive.

Nearly 1,000 died on the march, and, among those remaining, soldiers died at the rate of one an hour for the next two months.

Those who survived spent months in prison camps. Many were made slave laborers in Japanese plants for three and a half years.

At the end of the war, they came home almost unnoticed, wrote Hatch and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a 2008 presidential hopeful, in a foreword to Soldier Slaves.

“But the late 1940s in postwar America had its priorities, and giving these remarkable men their rightful due was not among them,” the senators wrote.

Hatch and Biden fought in vain three years ago in the Senate to ensure that the GIs were compensated. Hatch’s legislation, with backstage support from Biden, failed around the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the veterans’ appeal of a suit filed in 1999 in California by thousands of the Bataan Death March survivors against Japanese corporations.

Parkinson, the author of the book, was one of the lawyers who took on the case. He also worked closely with Patton Boggs and Greenberg Traurig, two big lobbying firms that took on the case and raised awareness in Washington.

In 2002 the case was dismissed at the appellate level, and not long after that in 2003 the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s decision.

At the core was a paragraph of the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty between the United States and Japan that states that Japan and its nationals cannot be sued for reparations for actions taken “in the course of the prosecution of the war.”

Meanwhile, Hatch worked on legislation to ensure a compensation package for the veterans. It was scaled down from $400 million to $300 million. Patton Boggs and Greenberg Traurig lobbied the Hill to get support for the package.

The legislation was attached as an amendment to the defense appropriations bill and opposed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a World War II veteran who was worried that it would not be received well by the Japanese living in Hawaii.

But Hatch managed to keep the amendment by getting the compensation down to $10,000 per slave laborer.

That legislation, which initially had bipartisan support, failed at a time when the United States had gone to war in Iraq and defense money had become a huge concern. It also failed after intense lobbying by the State and Justice departments and the pro-Japan lobby, according to Parkinson’s book.

Even back in 2000, Hatch, together with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), introduced a concurrent resolution calling on the secretary of state to facilitate justice and fairness on behalf of the prisoners of war of the Japanese.

In March 2001, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a Japanese-American who spent time in a U.S. relocation camp in Colorado, introduced legislation urging the judicial branch to hear the cases. Nearly one-third of the House signed that bill.

Now Hatch is again at work on compensation legislation. This time he is working with Hunter, a Vietnam veteran, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of veteran causes. Their offices are trying to figure out the compensation level, according to Hatch spokesman Peter Carr. The legislation will be introduced as a free-standing bill, but the senator may choose any legislative vehicle to pass it, Carr said.

The full Senate still has to consider the 2007 defense appropriations bill, but no decision has been made where the compensation bill will be attached. Hatch could run into the same problems as before, as Congress is dealing with a budget crunch and a growing bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Parkinson is meeting with several offices and lawmakers this week, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He is also scheduled to meet today with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee, he said.

“I want Congress to vote on this before November,” Parkinson said, “and then let us vote on them.

“What is disheartening is the misunderstanding about what this is about. This is not about Japan-bashing, and somehow it got through to everybody that this is about Japan bashing.”

He said that the United States compensated the Japanese-Americans who were taken to internment camps. He is also working to make sure that no trial-lawyer fees would be included in the bill because he said that might have been a strong reason for the opposition of the previous bill.

“Great Britain, the Netherlands compensated their men for slave labor,” he said, adding that the U.S. government should do the same.

About 3,000 of the Philippines veterans would still qualify for compensation.