July 14, 2007 in Opinion

Guest opinion: Vet’s story spotlights suffering, compassion

Steve Becker Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

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999 W. Riverside Ave.

Spokane, WA 99201.

You would never really know Wes Tate by the business he and his son Jerry ran near Millwood on the north bank of the Spokane River. Tate’s Honey Farm is a landmark on Maringo Drive and has been a favorite stop for seekers of natural sweeteners for more than two decades. He was also a World War II prisoner of war who experienced brutality at the hands of the Imperial Army of Japan but never forgot the day the Japanese people saved his life.

He survived the early days of the war on the island of Corregidor eating rats and snakes and later the Bataan Death March where stragglers and the weak were dispatched with the thrust of a bayonet. The starving, severely dehydrated American soldiers were then packed into “Hell Ships” where a caldron of tropical disease and seasickness led men who were unable to stand up to lose control of their bowels and their stomachs on each other.

In Japan, Wes and the other survivors became slave labor in factories, mines and warehouses. He ended up in a steel mill in northern Japan, where the climate was more hospitable than the tropics but did nothing to calm the sometimes debilitating shivering experienced as the result of the untreated malaria he was forced to live with. The disease was a normal part of his life until one day at the steel mill he was shivering so badly he could not function. It was then that Tate’s life changed. The civilian manager of the steel mill noticed he was ill and disappeared briefly before returning with a futon that he placed near a large boiler that radiated a steady stream of warm, comforting heat. “Lay down,” the plant manager suggested with elaborate hand motions. “Rest,” was what he seemed to be saying while patting the cotton mattress.

It was the first time in a long, long time another human being, a Japanese human being, offered Wes Tate a simple act of kindness in the midst of a very angry war. He accepted the kindness, lay down and quickly fell asleep only to be abruptly awakened by the thud of a soldier’s boot in his bony side. Peeling his eyes open, Wes looked up and saw the soldier assigned to guard him motioning to get up, get back to work. “I was so sick, so tired,” Tate told me, “that I didn’t care. I closed my eyes and laid there waiting for whatever was going to happen.”

The soldier was not happy and began yelling angrily in a language he could not understand, but he knew the soldier wanted him up on his feet and back to work. Again, Wes was too sick to respond. “There was nothing they could do to me that was worse than I had already experienced,” Tate told me, and he lay motionless on the futon.

As he opened his eyes again from a prone position, the soldier was pulling a bayonet from his utility belt and affixing it to the end of his rifle, all the while screaming at the top of his lungs sentences that Tate knew to mean, “get up or I will kill you.”

As the soldier pulled the rifle-mounted blade back in preparation to thrust it deep into Tate’s chest, the prisoner simply closed his eyes and hoped the end would come quickly.

Suddenly, there was another screaming voice off in the distance, closing in quickly on the two men. When the soldier of the Imperial Army of Japan heard the other screaming voice, he abandoned his attack and stood bolt upright at attention, his rifle and bayonet at his side. It was the factory manager, the same one who offered the sick American POW comfort. He caught a glimpse of the pending execution, raced to Wes Tate’s aid and prevented it from happening.

“I don’t know what he said,” Tate told me. “But that soldier went away and never bothered me again. I have no love for the Imperial Army of Japan. But that day, the Japanese people saved my life.”

Wes Tate was a man who expected his own death but discovered humanity in a time of horror – and that the best lives are those blessed by gratitude.

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