WELLSBURG, W.Va. — After more than 70 years, Ed Jackfert still recalls the stench of ammonia stinging his nostrils as he labored at a Japanese prison camp during World War II – and with it, the bitter shame of knowing it was an ingredient in explosives that soon would be used against his fellow American soldiers.
But the 93-year-old former prisoner of war from Wellsburg is proud of how far the two nations have come from those terrible events that remain so close in his mind. On Tuesday, he saw a decades-long desire fulfilled as a delegation from Mitsubishi Materials visited the National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum, Education and Research Center at the Brooke County Public Library.
They came to report on the company’s historic apology made Sunday in Los Angeles for its use of American POWs for forced labor during World War II, and announced a $50,000 donation in support of educational programs at the museum.
Through an interpreter, Mitsubishi Senior Executive Officer Hikaru Kimura said the Wellsburg museum – said to contain the largest collection of materials related to American POWs in the Philippines and Japan – is a testament to the courage, loyalty and sacrifice of the soldiers who endured such hardships.
“Seventy years ago, during a tragic war, situations and events occurred that should never be allowed to happen again,” Kimura said. “I have great respect for all those who have helped establish and operate this museum.”
Kimura received a standing ovation from the 50 or so people gathered, including local officials and a number of descendants of POWs.
Jackfert, who was captured in the Philippines in 1942 and imprisoned at a Showa Denko factory in Kawasaki, Japan, for more than three years until the war ended, was among six former POWs who traveled to Japan in 2010 to accept an apology from the Japanese foreign minister. But never, until this past weekend, had any of the dozens of private corporations that benefited from the soldiers’ labor – many of which remain in operation today – expressed regret for their actions.
“Japan and its constituents have come a long way since that distasteful era,” Jackfert said. “My view is it was time to bring that era to an appropriate end.”
More than 11,000 of the approximately 27,500 Americans imprisoned in Japan during the war perished during their captivity, and for Jackfert, Mitsubishi’s apology was an important milestone in the healing process. But for him and many others who endured malnourishment and abuse alongside him, the forgiveness began long ago.
Jackfert recalled after the war ended, American planes dropped large barrels full of supplies to the troops who were waiting to be taken home. Japanese citizens, many in scarcely better shape than the POWs, gathered nearby – and the soldiers responded by passing excess food to them through the fence that surrounded the factory.
“It was compassion toward these individuals that governed our hearts that day, not retribution,” Jackfert said.
During their visit, Mitsubishi officials toured the museum. As they viewed the photographs, old uniforms, medals and other artifacts preserved there, Jackfert – whose donation of materials to the Brooke County Public Library in 2002 started the museum – stressed the repository’s educational mission.
“We’re trying to teach young people that war is nothing but death and destruction,” he said.
Peggy Fisher traveled to Wellsburg from Grove City, Pa., to attend Tuesday’s event. She never experienced what it was like to survive 14 days packed into a coal bunker on a ship with 50 other men, only to endure another three and a half years of starvation, beatings and forced labor – but her life has been shaped by those events just the same.
Fisher’s father, Earl Loughner, died at age 40, when she was just 7 years old – of a massive heart attack related to the atrocities he endured as a POW in Japan.
“My whole life, I have looked at my dad as being my hero,” she said.
She called Tuesday’s event “powerful.”
“These people are extending an olive branch,” Fisher said of Mitsubishi officials. “It’s not that I’m forgetting, but you’ve got to be willing to listen.”
Tuesday was also an emotional day for retired library director Mary Kay Wallace and her husband, George, who both serve on the museum’s board. It was under Mary Kay Wallace’s stewardship that the collection continued to expand, its items now numbering in the hundreds of thousands – far more than the library has space to display.
“We can move forward in friendship and peace, and that is our goal,” she said.