Veterans Ray Heimbuch and James T. Murphy endured beatings, near-starvation and forced labor as prisoners of war of Imperial Japan during World War II. After they were released, they say, the only money they ever received was what they were told was ration money owed them at a rate of $1 for each day of imprisonment.
Now the men -- and other former POWs nationwide -- say they are stunned and disappointed that their own government has officially backed Japan's contention that it fully compensated them for wartime misdeeds. They have launched a national protest against the government position, prompting a hearing Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
''It's ridiculous,'' said Heimbuch, a retired Air Force major from Sacramento County who still tears up when he recalls the two years he spent in captivity in the Philippines and Japan. ''It's beyond explanation.''
The U.S. government's position is likely to have a significant impact on the more than 25 lawsuits seeking compensation for alleged slave labor from Japanese companies now pending in California state and federal courts, lawyers for both sides say.
In legal papers filed in San Francisco federal district court last month, the U.S. government says it seized $90 million in Japanese assets in this country after the war and used about $20 million of the proceeds to settle war claims of POWs and civilian internees. The sum, along with Japan's payments to other nations under the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty, represented a reparations program ''never before even remotely approached in modern times,'' according to papers submitted by the U.S. Justice Department.
''With the seizure of Japanese assets, the United States resolved its claims and the claims of its nationals against Japan and Japanese nationals,'' the court papers say. Challenging the treaty's finality in an attempt to win more reparations ''presents an obvious danger to the federal government's conduct of its foreign policy,'' the papers say.
U.S. officials say they are not thrilled taking a position that appears contrary to that of American veterans -- but argue that critical issues of national interest are at stake.
''Nobody's defending Imperial Japan,'' said a U.S. government official. ''What's being defended is the integrity of the treaties of the United States.''
Attorneys for the POWs, however, argue that the treaty is not the open-and-shut case alleged by the government. In a little-known provision, they argue, the treaty held that any ''greater advantages'' negotiated by Japan with other nations automatically are extended to Americans as well. At least five subsequent treaties signed between Japan and such nations as Burma (now Myanmar) allow private citizens to sue Japanese private entities for war claims -- thereby giving the same right to Americans, says San Diego attorney David Casey, who is representing several POWs.
The government dismisses their claim as invalid.
In any case, Heimbuch, Murphy and others say they have never received any compensation for the slave labor and other inhumane treatment they endured. And they are especially upset that the U.S. government has taken sides in the Japan litigation after declining to similarly intervene in the slave labor cases involving Holocaust survivors.
Government officials say they deferred an opinion in the Holocaust cases to avoid upsetting delicate negotiations with Germany over a settlement; no such negotiations are under way with Japan. But the seemingly different stands have perplexed and upset veterans and their survivors, who have sent hundreds of letters to the office of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The letters detail anguish over the perceived discrimination, the horrors of the Bataan Death March and the lingering effects of captivity: nightmares, emotional instability and a battery of physical problems.
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