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Victory And Beyond Separated Pow Brothers Slow To Learn Of Surrender

A few hundred people were right there on board the USS Missouri when American and Japanese officials signed the treaty ending the war 50 years ago.

Roy and Harry Forsberg, two American civilian prisoners of war, were somewhere else, looking for food, waiting for rumors of peace to turn real.

The Spokane brothers spent more than three years in Japanese labor camps, each losing at least 70 pounds from hard work and meager rations.

As Gen. Douglas MacArthur signed the treaty papers, the Forsbergs - about 50 miles apart in different camps - suspected that their version of hell was close to ending.

They knew that their camp guards had left. They saw almost daily fly-bys of American planes that dropped food, cigarettes and clothes for them.

Expecting rescue any day, they and thousands of other POWs on the Japanese mainland stayed where they were, waiting.

“We still didn’t dare hope that the war was over yet,” said 80-year-old Roy Forsberg.

The two men gathered recently to reminisce about their experiences.

Harry Forsberg, 83, is a resident at Spokane’s Veterans Affairs Nursing Care Center. His brother also lives in Spokane.

Roy Forsberg was 26 when the war ended, one of 300 POWs near the city of Fukuoka who were assigned to build an airport.

Harry Forsberg, 29, was working in a coal mine near Nagasaki.

It took nearly a week after the signing of the treaty before the Forsbergs got official word from replacement camp commanders that the war was really over.

Both men had been captured in late 1941 on Wake Island, an American military base west of the Hawaiian Islands. Both had gone there as civilian laborers, but ended up transported to the island of Kyushu.

Roy Forsberg was the first to leave Japan, waiting until Sept. 20 to board a U.S. cargo plane that took him to Manila.

Harry Forsberg, whose health had worsened more than his brother’s during the war, left about a week later, sailing to Okinawa and then flying to the Philippines.

By then, he had seen firsthand the effects of an atomic bomb.

A few days after the Aug. 9 bombing of Nagasaki, Harry Forsberg went into the city to survey the damage that he and other prisoners had heard about.

“I’d seen the cloud when it happened, but I did not hear the explosion,” he said.

He and others thought the explosion was from a large ammunition depot.

It was more than a month later, after reaching Okinawa, when he learned that he’d seen the aftermath of an atomic weapon.

Until the final few weeks of the war, their lives had been a series of trials and abuses, both men said.

“The Japanese had less respect for us civilians, because we weren’t soldiers,” Roy Forsberg said. “They treated us pretty mean, hitting us with rifle butts, and such.”

There was no moment of dramatic liberation. American prisoners began moving away from their camps, exploring nearby cities, trading some of the items U.S. pilots were dropping near them - or on them.

“I saw a couple guys get killed when the barrels and heavy boxes came down on them,” said Roy Forsberg.

Winter coats, dropped in summer, were bartered with civilians for vegetables, chickens and other food items.

The Forsbergs’ war memories are grim, but their experience included a few moments of shared humanity.

On rare days when they didn’t work, the Americans would break up into teams and play baseball.

“The Japanese loved to watch us play,” though they never chose to compete themselves, said Roy Forsberg.

Harry Forsberg discovered that Japanese doctors didn’t distinguish between American and native patients.

Shortly before the Nagasaki bombing, he’d been working in a camp workroom, sharpening metal tools.

A Japanese boy came by and placed a chisel against the grinding wheel. A thin metal shard from the chisel implanted itself in Harry’s eye.

The doctor sent to examine Forsberg realized the American POW could lose the eye.

“He made me sit down, and with a magnet, he slowly pulled that metal sliver out of my eye,” said Harry Forsberg.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo


 
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