Sailors remember American WWII POWs during Soto Dam Memorial Ceremony
SASEBO - Soto Dam is a vital source of water for Sasebo, Japan but it’s a source that came at a high cost. On May 22, Members of both the U.S. Navy and Japanese community of Sasebo came together to commemorate those who died building it.
The construction of the dam was accomplished during World War II primarily by 265 American civilian construction workers along with Japanese laborers. As prisoners of war, or “guests of the Emperor,” the Americans worked at bayonet-point performing a task that cost 53 of them their lives.
Capt. Matthew Ovios, CFAS commanding officer, spoke at the memorial ceremony which marks the 60th anniversary of the Soto Dam memorial tower, which was built by Sasebo.
“The legacy of the Americans who lost their lives here and those who chose to remember them is peace and stability for this vital region. From the ashes of war a strong bond and commitment to peace was forged. We are now two nations allied in the pursuit of peace. That is what we should remember today.”
After Ovios spoke, members of CFAS CPO 365 read the names of everyone who died in the dam’s construction with a bell rung after each name. The ceremony was put on by CFAS CPO 365, which composed of members of the CFAS Chief Petty Officers Associations and First Class Petty Officer Associations. The Kyushu Military Veterans Association, Navy League and Sasebo community leaders were also in attendance and laid wreaths.
The story of the American POWs began in 1939, when the U.S. Navy began hiring contractors to build and improve a number of island bases across the Pacific. The Navy used 1,100 construction workers on Wake Island, one of the stopover islands, to build air and submarine facilities on the previously uninhabited atoll.
Wake Island was attacked by a Japanese invasion fleet on Dec. 8, 1941 (Dec. 7 on the other side of the International Dateline). Wake surrendered on Dec. 23, 1941 and the workers who had begun construction for the Americans now had to finish the base for the Japanese.
After their work was complete, the POWs were shipped to prison camps in Japan and China between January and September 1942. Approximately 265 civilian workers boarded Tachibana Maru on September 30, 1942 and began a two-week journey to Japan where they would be used as slave labor for construction projects. The remaining 98 POWs on Wake Island were executed on October 7, 1943.
Sasebo, home to one of Japan’s four naval arsenals, had a limited fresh water supply and the Soto Dam, which was initiated by Imperial Japanese Navy Sasebo facility engineers, was constructed to alleviate the problem. Finding a solution to the water problem meant they needed manpower, which was scarce due to the war and the military’s needs.
POWs were used to fill these critical manpower gaps and as “guests of the emperor” their treatment and even survival were irrelevant to completing the task.
"The civilians who were forced to build the dam lived and worked in deplorable conditions. The POW camp was assembled quickly to accommodate the sudden large number of workers and because of that, their quality of life suffered greatly,” said Phil Eakins, a local historian involved with the memorial. “Mass beatings by guards for the smallest infractions were common. Pneumonia and dysentery claimed the lives of many sick and older men. Because of the harsh working conditions, the Soto Dam POW camp became known among survivors as the “Death Camp.”
The POWs were divided into 20-22 man squads and worked in the rock quarry and in cement mixing. Within a month the first POW died.
The dead were buried by their fellow POWs on a hillside near the dam and usually were allowed to conduct a small funeral service. Their bodies were repatriated to the U.S. around 1949.
During his speech, Ovios pointed out that when the memorial tower was erected, just 11 years after World War II, it would have been easy to forget the memories of the dam’s origin instead of remembering them.
“By remembering, they fostered a spirit of reconciliation that spawned into the extremely close relationship that United States and Japan enjoy today,” he said.