Lester Tenney, a survivor of the Bataan Death March whose harrowing oral-history account of his ordeal as a WWII prisoner of war is an unforgettable component of The National WWII Museum’s Digital Collections, died Friday, February 24, in Carlsbad, California. He was 96.
Tenney’s postwar life was dedicated to education—both as a university business professor and as a staunch advocate for his fellow POWs in the quest for official acknowledgment by Japan of the wartime atrocities they endured. He was a regular speaker at the Museum, most recently capping the 2016 International Conference on World War II with a stirring presentation titled “The Courage to Remember: PTSD—From Trauma to Triumph.”
“He gave the speech of his life,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, the Museum’s president and CEO, in a message to his staff following news of Tenney’s death. “Lester’s DNA resides in this Museum.”
Tenney was tank commander with the 192nd Tank Battalion when he, along with 9,000 American and 60,000 Filipino troops, surrendered to the Japanese at the Battle of Bataan in April 1942. The ensuing Bataan Death March killed thousands during a 90-mile forced march to POW Camp O’Donnell.
“Number one, we had no food or water,” said Tenney in his Museum oral history. “Number two, you just kept walking the best way you could. It wasn’t a march. It was a trudge. . . . Most of the men were sick, they had dysentery, they had malaria, they had a gunshot wound.”
Their Japanese captors showed no mercy for the ill or wounded, Tenney said. “A man would fall down and they would holler at him to get up,” he added. “I saw a case where they didn’t even holler at him. The man fell down, the Japanese took a bayonet and put it in him. I mean, two seconds.”
Tenney’s march lasted 10 days. Conditions at Camp O’Donnell killed thousands more prisoners. Tenney survived that camp and others, passage to Japan in a “hell ship,” torture, and three years of forced labor in a coal mine before he was liberated at the end of the war. His WWII experiences, which he documented in a memoir titled My Hitch in Hell, haunted him all of his life.
“I feel guilty many times, even today,” Tenney said in his oral history. “I feel guilty that I’m back. I feel guilty that I’m living such a wonderful life. I feel guilty that a lot of my friends didn’t come back. Nothing I can do about it, but I can feel guilty because I feel that they were better than I was. I’m sure that my buddies who came back all feel the same.”
After the publication of his memoir in 1995, Tenney “shifted into a role as a prominent thorn-in-the-side of Japanese authorities unwilling or unable to acknowledge what had happened during the war,” said his obituary in TheSan Diego Union-Tribune. “Stories he shared with reporters, civic leaders, schoolchildren in the United States and Japan,” along with his published memoir, “eventually wrung apologies from government leaders and from one of the corporate giants that benefited from POW slavery.”
Tenney is survived by his wife of nearly 57 years, Betty, a son, two stepsons, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Our deepest condolences go out to his family, friends, and fellow WWII veterans. Our gratitude for Lester Tenney’s service and sacrifice—and for his decades of dedication to ensuring that his wartime experiences and those of his fellow POWs would not be forgotten—lives on.
Lester Tenney’s oral history is part of The National WWII Museum’s Digital Collections.
Louis Zamperini at The National WWII Museum in 2011
This week marks the release of Angelina Jolie’s film about Louis Zamperini based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestseller, Unbroken. Mr. Zamperini shared his emotional story with the Museum in the form of an oral history in 2011. It can be viewed in our Digital Collection.
Zamperini, an Olympic track runner, served as a bombardier in the 307th Bombardment Group, 7th Air Force, flying B-24 Liberators in the Pacific. Zamperini’s aircraft went down in the Pacific and he and the two other survivors from his crew were adrift for 47 days. Captured and tortured by the Japanese, he survived the war, regaining freedom on August 20, 1945. Zamperini was one of the 34,648 Americans held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. Nearly 40% of those men died in captivity, a staggering 12,935 lives lost.
Read more about the Museum’s collection Pacific Theater POW artifacts and the story of the Ofuna Roster. Visit the Museum on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 for a Lunchbox Lecture on the Ofuna Roster and the ties to Unbroken and Zamperini’s story.
Seventy years ago, on 30 November 1944, the “Kriegies”– short for Kriegsgefangener, German for POW– in Stalag Luft IV celebrated Thanksgiving. They used the traditional date of the 30th of November (for more on this see the previous post on “Franksgiving”). Naturally, this issue of Kriegie Kronikle spotlighted the work of the “Chow Chuckers,” the men who “perform the tasks which are inevitable & necessary in unpacking, sorting, repacking & loading of the chow we all idolize (the word is a masterpiece of understatement!).”
Gift of the Family of Willard Charles Miller, 2012.388
On 27 May 1942, the first of seven films in the series Why We Fight was released. Entitled “Prelude to War,” the piece was directed by noted filmmaker Frank Capra who had by then already gained fame with his work on films It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and would go on to direct the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. For his contributions to the war effort, Capra earned the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.
An immigrant from Sicily, Capra served in the US Army during World War I and became naturalized shortly thereafter. He reenlisted after Pearl Harbor, offered a commission as a Major at the age of 44. Under normal circumstances, the Signal Corps would have likely been assigned the creation of these films, but with a talent like Capra available, Chief of Staff George Marshall bypassed the Signal Corps and assigned Major Capra the job of creating seven films that would be seen less as propaganda pieces, and more as the inspiring films Capra had proven himself more than capable of making.
The first of the series introduces itself as a film “to acquaint members of the Army with factual information as to the causes, the events leading up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting.” Prelude to War won the 1942 Academy Award for documentary feature. Many of the subsequent films in the series would use the enemy’s own propaganda films, namely Leni Reifenstahl’s infamous Triumph of the Will. What Germans saw in her film as inspiring and patriotic, Capra turned on its head to show as a frightening force against which America must fight.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.