'Building Friendship': Japan Apologizes to Bataan Death March Survivor
The Empire of Japan tried its best to kill John Mims in World War II but failed.
Last month, Japan apologized.
After the fall of Manila, 12,000 U.S. and 66,000 Filipino soldiers surrendered and were forced to march 65 miles up the peninsula of Bataan. Thousands were executed or starved along the way during what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
Half of those who surrendered from his regiment would die, but some survived. Mims, who lives on the edge of Aberdeen, is one.
During his years as a prisoner of war, Japanese soldiers broke his back, broke his neck and both of his legs, shattered bones in his face, and smashed all his teeth.
He was moved from camp to camp, tortured and frequently beaten. His last days as a prisoner were spent at forced labor in a coal mine.
Last month, the Japanese nation formally apologized to Mims, flying him and his wife, Nena Sabal, first-class to Tokyo for the ceremony, speaking engagements and a return visit to that mine. They left on Sept 12 and returned Sept. 21.
“They paid for everything,” Mims said. “We were in the finest hotel, the finest of anything they have in Japan. First class. They had a nurse in case anything happened.”
Activities in Japan included meeting with students and other groups, answering questions, and formal bows of apology. At the first meeting, they apologized, his wife said.
“We also realize that not only Americans lost lives,” she said. “They also lost lives. That is the purpose of this program, to build friendship for peace.”
Memory does not have to keep resentment alive; it can build a bridge to peace, she said.
“He said it helps them to remember different things that they did wrong,” Mims said. “This is — I think — the third time that they’ve taken (former) prisoners over there. They treated us like angels. U.S. Ambassador John Roos met us all at the American embassy, then we went to different places.
“There were several other POWs, but only one from the place where I was a coal miner. Where we had to go was a long ways away. It took quite a while to get to where I was. Even when we got released in ’45 it took us almost a day to get out to Tokyo.”
When Mims and his wife reached that coal mine at Mini, they found its entrance has been preserved and a monument erected with plaques in English and Japanese that remembers 184 British and 288 American POWs forced to labor there.
“Many died,” the plaques say. “We record the fact here, wishing eternal peace never to repeat such a tragedy as this.”
Ken Arimitsu, now coordinator of the Citizens Fund for Redress in Tokyo, was there to greet Mims. They recognized each other at once.
Mims had saved Arimitsu from starvation at the end of the war after word came of the surrender and guards fled. Mims and other POWs shared food from an air drop with starving Japanese women and children in the area.
Arimitsu, then a boy, was one of them.
“He was one of the boys that was 9 years old when I gave him food that the plane dropped for us,” Mims said, with a twinkle in his eye. “He is one of those who got this thing together over there.
“I told him once my kin-people find out about it, that parking place won’t be big enough. It won’t be big enough to hold the people who’ll come to see it.”
Sabal is Mims’ second wife, introduced to him by a pastor friend. Like his late wife of 59 years, Juanita, she is also a Filipina. During the war, Mims was able to smuggle notes to Juanita in Manila, who — using a hidden radio — secretly passed information to Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the Japanese occupation of the islands. The two were married after the war and together raised 25 children.
In Mini, he and Arimitsu stood by the iron gates that still stand before the dark hole of the mine’s entrance. Mims laid a wreath before the monument, thinking of his many buddies who didn’t make it, who died in that long terrible march, or in the camps, or in that looming mine.
Today’s owners of that long-closed mine were also there to greet him.
Mims had actually enlisted twice, the first time as a teen. When the Army found out he had been underage, they discharged him. He signed up again, and this time his enlistment was legal.
Mims was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion of the 31st — sometimes referred to as the “American Foreign Legion” — and in April 1941, sailed for Manila aboard the USAT Republic.
After the fall of Corregidor and surrender of the battalion, Mims got his prisoner number: 429. During years of captivity, he lost 120 pounds, dropping from 190 pounds to 67 pounds. In September 1944 he and other POWs were shipped from the Philippines to Japan to do slave labor in the mines.
Mims’ wife says her husband was able to survive because his early life had not been easy.
“He grew up hard,” she said.
Mims is a Coushatta Indian from Alabama who grew up on a reservation.
“Times I went to church barefooted — hiding my feet — so people in church couldn’t see I had no shoes,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t feel I had clothes, ’cause I didn’t have a suit to wear to church. I had no education at all. I got a lot of my education from reading. In Japan I went to Tokyo University two years with this buddy of mine. I was teaching him English, and he was teaching me Japanese.”
They were not registered students but audited classes. Mims would later earn his GED at Sandhills Community College.
After the war, Mims stayed in the Army, returning to Japan from 1952 to 1954 as sergeant in charge of the Tokyo Quartermaster Depot. He retired in 1963, raising with Juanita three biological and 22 adopted children until her death in 2004. He and Nena Sabal married in 2009.
Today Mims devotes his time to telling others about the Bataan Death March, the “most terrible thing” in his life. He recently spoke to a veterans recognition prayer luncheon organized by Maj. Dennis Villarreal, chaplain to the 528th Sustainment Brigade at Fort Bragg.
“I tell them I had a lot of buddies that I cried for,” Mims said. “At that luncheon they wanted me to talk like I am a chaplain to the troops. I know how to talk to troops, but I am not a chaplain.”
When people ask what made him survive that march, Mims has a simple answer.
“God,” he says. “He likes me.”
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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