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.
They are the living connection to the war experience. For the National WWII Museum and its visitors, the WWII veterans who volunteer their time, sharing memories and insights, are golden.
But those who can still donate their time are dwindling in number as their celebrated generation gradually fades from the scene. Only one of every 16 Americans who served is still living.
“These people bring it to life,” said William Detweiler, the Museum’s consultant for military affairs. “They don’t brag about what they did. They’re the connection – their stories.”
The Museum still has 31 WWII veteran volunteers on its rolls, down from a high of roughly 100 soon after the institution opened in 2000. A good representation – 16 from the beloved 31 – came to the American Sector on Wednesday, December 4, to enjoy a tribute lunch with President & CEO Nick Mueller and others. (Two of our most well known veteran volunteers, Bert Stolier and Tom Blakey, were away at a Rotary Club speaking engagement.)
The luncheon crowd had a rousing good time. Then the elderly volunteers proudly lined up for a picture – and nearly brought the restaurant to a standstill, as onlookers grabbed cameras. One of them so moved, American Sector bartender Billy Vincent, said later, “The time to honor them is short.”
Standing in front of a George Rodrigue painting of two World War II icons, Dwight D. Eisenhower and New Orleans boat-builder Andrew Higgins, were, back row, left to right: Andrew Konnerth, Jimmy Dubuisson, Dutch Prager, Gene Geisert, Ross Gamble, Bob Wolf, Tommy Godchaux, Dan Cantor and Jimmy Fried. Those seated, left to right, were: C. Johnny Difatta, Lloyd Campo, Bill Cassady, John Rogers, Bowdre Mc Dowell, John Capretto and Jerry Gervais.
The Museum salutes these special volunteers and all they represent!
As part of the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, students from every state and the District of Columbia joined a group of World War II veterans in a special procession at the Dedication Ceremony. These 51 students earned their spots by first advancing to the 2012 National History Day Contest and then winning an essay contest asking them to describe their states’ contributions to World War II. Their essays are all available with archival photos at salutetofreedom.org.
While in New Orleans, the students were able to visit the Museum’s exhibits, tour the French Quarter and Garden District and attend the Grand Opening Gala. Every student mentioned that it was meeting their WWII veteran that was the highlight of the trip. Students and veterans exchanged contact information, and the students have been keeping their veterans up to date on college plans, scholarship applications and school projects.
Sixteen of these students advanced to the 2013 National History Day Contest to be held from June 9-13 in College Park, MD. Many of them used their interest in WWII to create projects that emphasized local contributions to the war effort.
Seth Husney carries the Idaho state flag while escorting Colonel Jimmie Kanaya at the Dedication Ceremony for the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
Seth Husney from Boise, Idaho was one of 51 students to take part in the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. Seth earned his trip to New Orleans by writing an essay describing how Idaho contributed to World War II. Seth was paired with Colonel Jimmie Kanaya, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Seth also met Tuskegee Airman Captain Roscoe Brown during the event.
During last year’s National History Day, I was given the chance to enter the Salute to Freedom essay project. This competition involved writing an essay detailing my state’s role in World War II. Being from Idaho, I wrote about Minidoka, an internment camp in southern Idaho and Mountain Home Air force Base. After learning about both, I was proud of Mountain Home’s history. I was sad about how my state and our country treated loyal Japanese American citizens in internment camps during World War II.
As part of the opening of the new US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, there was a procession with World War II veterans, and students, like me, who had been part of the essay contest. I was fortunate to be paired with Colonel Jimmie Kanaya, a veteran from Portland, Oregon. During the war, Jimmie had enlisted, and while he was serving, his parents were interned in the camp in Minidoka. His wife Lynn Kanaya was born in that same camp in Minidoka. It amazed me that while Jimmie was fighting loyally for his country, that same country was exhibiting the kind of racism he was fighting against. Would you fight for a country that put your parents in an internment camp? (more…)
Elizabeth Collier of Nashville, Indiana won the right to represent her state at the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. As part of her honor, she contributed a photo essay on the Rosies of Indiana and her work appeared in an exhibition that was on display during the month of January. In her post below, Elizabeth describes the steps that she took to create an award-winning documentary on female workers during World War II and the thrill of winning an award at the National History Day Contest.
Elizabeth Collier with Mary Louise (center) and Fran Carter (right)
June 14, 2012. The day that I made that coveted run to the awards stage for the first time. I was overjoyed that my documentary was taking me back to the museum where I had first started all of my research to share the story of the WWII Rosie the Riveter.
I created an Individual Senior documentary about the incredible works of the WWII Rosie the Riveters entitled, “The Will Behind The Drill: The Revolution and Reforms of the WWII Rosie the Riveter.” My research had taken me to The National WWII Museum’s website, and I had found that they were more than willing to help students from around the country. As my parents and I made the trip to New Orleans, I met and researched with Museum curator, Kimberly Guise. As I learned about the women workers at the Higgins Plant in New Orleans, I also was blessed with the chance to interview the ladies of the National Rosie the Riveter Association in Birmingham, AL. Fran Carter, founder of the Association, told me so many stories of her days as a Riveter and how she continues to work with others like me to heed and remember their lessons. I was also able to interview several Riveters in my home state. Mary Harris from Nashville, In. greatly influenced me and my research, and shared stories of her past that she hadn’t thought of in years that brought a smile to her face. Dr. Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize laureate of Economics, also added insight to my documentary and shared her love of the work done by the WWII era women workers. (more…)
Roy McKenzie from Prairie Grove, Arkansas won an essay contest that earned him the right to represent Arkansas at the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. In preparation for this trip, each student contributed a photo essay detailing how their state helped win WWII. These photo essays also formed a physical exhibition that was on display throughout January. At the Dedication Ceremony on January 13, 2013, each student escorted a World War II veteran during the opening procession. Roy describes this experience below.
The Grand Opening. The crowning jewel to my weekend in New Orleans. As you can imagine, it was an exciting time, seeing the city, visiting the museum and other attractions, and the opening ceremony was certainly a great end to the excitement.
Getting to meet the veterans was, of course, an amazing part of the experience. Just mingling and listening to a lifetime of stories being recounted by these members of the Greatest Generation was a magical experience. There were those from all different areas and fields from the war, and yet they all were tied together by this event, this war, which truly defined much of their lives, as well as much of the United States today. Just meeting them in person hammered home to me how important these people, this generation, this war, was, to the United States and the rest of the world. I feel people don’t get to experience these kinds of intense, powerful moments of history often enough. (more…)
There’s a photo of me after receiving the Salute to Freedom Award at National History Day 2012. I had the biggest smile on my face. Because of this award, I got to attend the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion at the National WWII Museum. This is one of the greatest honors I have received and it created some of the best memories of my life.
We arrived on Thursday and went right to the museum. When we got to the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, everyone was so happy to see us. The staff was incredibly hospitable and helpful. I felt almost like a rock star. The best part of that day was getting to meet two WWII veterans, Captain Don Summers and Bob Bannon. It’s one thing to read about the war, but when I talked to them, they made it seem real. Later on my visit, I also had the honor of meeting Bert Stolier, a Pearl Harbor survivor, and Tom Blakey, a D-Day paratrooper.
On Friday, I set about my great mission, reading every exhibit in the museum. Ah well, I came close, but no cigar. I later realized that this was a herculean task to perform in just three days. Throughout Friday, I noticed other Salute to Freedom students, who I would later know as Becka from North Carolina and Ruby from New Mexico. That night, I met them face to face, and also met Laura from Connecticut, Thomas from Colorado and Christian from Oregon. It was so cool to meet other kids who loved history. Later, we made an appearance at the Black Tie Gala. When we walked into the Freedom Pavilion, despite the beautiful gowns and dashing tuxedos of the attendees, none of us could keep our eyes off of the planes hanging from the ceiling. (more…)
Luke Jackson from Milford, Vermont won the right to represent his state at the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center with an essay on Vermont’s contribution to World War II. It was after Luke won this honor that we became aware of a close connection he had with the aftermath of WWII.
Luke advanced to the National History Day Contest in 2012 with a web site he created on the Berlin Airlift. During the research process, Luke reached out to veterans of the Airlift to find out their first-hand accounts of the action. He made contact with Lewis “Dale” Whipple, a veteran of the Berlin Airlift living in Benton, LA, a town just north of Shreveport. Mr. Whipple proved invaluable to Luke’s research and the two formed a close bond as Luke advanced through the rounds of the Vermont History Day competition and on to the National Competition.
At the National History Day Awards Ceremony last June 14, Luke found out that he won a trip to New Orleans for the Grand Opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. After finding out about the award and the trip, Mr. Whipple began making plans to meet Luke in New Orleans during the events. It is just over 350 miles from Benton to New Orleans, making Grand Opening weekend the opportune time for a face to face meeting. (more…)
In 2011, the Museum launched a national effort to gather a million thank yous to the men and women who have served in our military. More than 100,000 people stepped up to say “thank you for my freedom.” This Veterans Day, add your voice to that number.
Visit myveteransday.org to show your gratitude to those who have given us so much. And don’t forget to let your friends and family know how they too can say “thank you for my freedom” this Veterans Day.
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.