Father was taken as POW by Japan
Caroline Tyner, 74, wanted to get a clearer picture of the experiences she remembers hearing as a child from her father, Charles Williams, who was interned as a POW in Japan. He passed away about 30 years ago.
Williams was a 23-year-old British government official stationed on Makin Island, a colony in the Pacific Ocean. When Japan took the island, he was captured in 1941 and brought to Zentsuji as a prisoner the following year. He was among the more than 480 people taken to the camp as its first prisoners.
Retracing her father's footsteps
In September, Tyner set foot on the site of the camp, about 80 years after her father did.
No traces of the camp remain, and a junior high school now stands there. But a camphor tree in the school's courtyard is said to have been there since the days of the POW camp.
"It is moving..." said Tyner. "He saw the tree. I touched the tree!"
Memories of the Zentsuji camp
"I remember my father saying that, at the beginning when he first came here, they thought they were going to be seconded into the army barracks," Tyner recalls. "They were worried that they would be asked to fight with the Japanese. But it didn't happen."
Tyner remembers her father telling her that life at the camp was hard. The POWs, including Tyner's father, were not given enough food and were forced to work.
A city official told her that since he was an officer, her father would have been assigned to work cultivating the mountains. The official showed her a picture and said, "This is the mountain he was cultivating. He was cutting down trees."
Williams spent about two years in the camp before being transferred to another one in Nagano Prefecture.
A man trusted by the POWs
Tyner also went to Nagano Prefecture to visit Tenryu Village, the location of the camp to which her father was transferred.
It was there that Williams met Harada Gentou, a local Japanese resident who supervised dam construction at the site. Gentou treated the POWs with courtesy, and earned their trust.
Williams forged a connection with Gentou, and Tyner wanted to meet the family of the man about whom her father had spoken. After arriving in Tenryu, she met with his grandson, Harada Kaoru, who told her that his grandfather also spoke of his time working with POWs, revealing his friendly relations with those interned there.
"My grandfather used to say he played sumo with the POWs. And when he came home, he said, 'They are so strong!'" Kaoru recalled.
Tyner said, "We heard the story often when we were children."
When the war ended, and the liberated POWs were about to leave, Gentou came to say goodbye.
"My grandfather came to see them off," Kaoru said. "Maybe he thought he would never see them again, I think it was a way of saying, 'Don't forget about me.'"
Gentou and the POWs exchanged belongings with each other. In a video taken in 1992, Williams said, "Harada Gentou gave me this when I was leaving. And he gave me his name and address, but that was a long time ago so I lost it, but I have always kept this in memory of Harada Gentou because he was very kind."
It was a hanten — a traditional Japanese short coat. Williams had carefully preserved it.
"My father never forgot him, never..." Tyner said.
Mission to return the hanten
Tyner wanted to return the hanten, and also rekindle the heartfelt connection between the POWs and the local community. Seventy-eight years after it was given to Williams, Tyner returned the hanten to Gentou's grandson. The people of the village gathered to witness the expression of friendship.
Many of those detained at the camp in Tenryu suffered from starvation, and 56 of them died. But Tyner said her father did not harbor any resentment from his experiences.
"He did not hate Japan and Japanese people. He understood that this was a moment of war and conflict between the two countries and across the world. And his part in that was to be a POW," said Tyner. "I've come to understand a little more about his time here."
Tyner retraced her father's footsteps as a POW. In addition to deepening her connection with his life, she returned the hanten, building a bridge between people that had once only known each other from war.