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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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In Their Father's Shoes

May 20, 2015

World War Two is making headlines this year as people commemorate 70 years since the end of the deadliest conflict in history. For many, the war is a distant event that belongs to history books. But others are still struggling to make sense of what happened, including a brother and sister who recently came to Japan to learn about their father’s past.

Karen Caston and William Johnston traveled from the United States to Tokyo. Their father Melvin Lee Johnston, was a crew member of a B29 bomber during World War Two. His plane was shot down by the Japanese army, and he spent six months in Japan as a prisoner of war.

After his liberation, Melvin tried to build a normal life. He didn’t speak much about his experience as a POW. He died in 1984 at the age of 65. His son says “as the second generation, I don’t feel the hardship, but I do feel and see that it affected my father. That is something that I think we are missing.”

Karen and William contacted a Japanese citizens’ group that researches prisoners of war. The group helped them find the area in central Tokyo where their father’s plane crashed.

The siblings were most affected by their visit to the prison camp where their father was one of about 600 captives. He kept a secret journal during his time there, and counted the days in its pages. “He was hungry at the camp, so he drew what he wanted to eat,” his son explains. “He missed home so much."

Melvin Johnston’s mission was to target military facilities. The US later changed tactics and started dropping bombs on cities. Karen and William visited a museum in Tokyo, where a large-scale air raid killed an estimated one hundred thousand people.

One survivor, Haruyo Nihei, shared her experience at the exhibition. “There were many dead bodies lying on their stomachs with their children in their arms,” she recalled.

William and Karen say the trip gave them a sense of closure. William believes his father’s time in the camp changed his perspective on war. “I think up to the time, it was glorious like you were hero, but he never saw that way,” William says. “He would have seen death and destruction and experienced them in the camps.” He also believes his father didn’t harbor animosity toward Japanese people. “He understood that it was war and people had to do what they were told,” he says.

70 years after Melvin Johnston’s war, many young people are still being sent to battlefields. Melvin’s daughter and son know firsthand the impact conflict can have long after the fighting ends. They plan to share stories with those who have never experienced war in an effort to minimize suffering in the future.


Reporter Masami Ukon joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: It’s not so well known, at least in Japan, that there were camps in this country too. How many POWs were there here?

Ukon: Historians say Japan took about 300,000 prisoners during World War Two. About 10% of them ended up in Japan, where they were kept in 130 camps. They were put to work in mines, ports and factories. Japan’s treatment of POWs was one of the issues raised in post-War trials. Aiko Utsumi, a professor at the Osaka University of Economics and Law says people at the time had different ideas about how to treat prisoners of war. This is what she had to say.

Utsumi: Japanese people were told it was better to die than be held as a prisoner. Being a prisoner was a shameful thing at that time. And the food that was given to the POWs was quite different from what POWs ate at home. They were used to meat, milk, and cheese, but many Japanese had never even seen those things. Eating camp food must have been really harsh on the POWs. Meanwhile, the Japanese people were starving. When food supplies arrived at prison camps, civilians would come to protest, saying “we don’t even have enough food. Why are you feeding prisoners?” That was the atmosphere near the end of the War.

Shibuya: It’s heartbreaking to see the children of prisoners of war feeling pain from a conflict that ended seventy years ago. What was it like for you, watching William and Karen on this trip?

Ukon: It was an emotional experience. The sister, Karen, told me she was overwhelmed to learn what her father went through. She told me she wasn’t ready to be interviewed. She needed time to deal with it all. That told me how deep and painful her wounds were. As I got to know William and Karen, and saw the world through their eyes, I realized how these things that happened 70 years ago are still so raw for some people. And seeing events from different perspectives really gave me a broader picture of the war. We often talk about passing down stories of the war. But this experience taught me that there are many things we don’t know about, and should look into.