Not that many years ago, Roy Weaver walked out of the grocery story in Coeur d’Alene to find a nasty note under the windshield wiper of his Toyota, which carries bumper stickers and a license plate testifying to his status as a prisoner of Japan during World War II. The note read: “Shame on you! A former Japanese POW driving a Toyota!”
Weaver, now 87, keeps a copy of the note. It wasn’t signed so he couldn’t respond directly, but if he could have, he would have told the writer: “I wanted a quality automobile!”
All joking aside, Weaver said he’s perfectly content driving a pickup manufactured by the same country that kept him captive for three years, a country responsible for the deaths of scores of his friends, a land that produced a prison guard known as “The Bull” who delivered severe beatings with slight provocation.
Weaver, who now wears hearing aids in both ears and lives with his wife, Caroline, in a duplex in Coeur d’Alene, spent years trying to make sense of his time in a prison in Manchuria. He ended up there just a few months after Pearl Harbor was bombed and wasn’t freed until weeks after the Japanese emperor surrendered. The traumas Weaver experienced in Manchuria shaped his life, but he made a conscious decision after the war to focus on moving forward.
“Why should I waste my time hating these people? It’s not going to hurt any of them. The only person it’s going to injure is me,” Weaver said.
Weaver, an only child, was raised on the family farm in Ellensburg. He joined the Marines after finishing high school in 1938. Jobs were scarce, and he had no money for college. In 1940, he volunteered for duty in the Philippines.
It wasn’t until two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked that Weaver and his fellow Marines realized the nation was at war with Japan. Weaver heard President Roosevelt’s speech to Congress – the “Day of Infamy” speech – broadcast on base. Less than 48 hours later, Weaver felt the first shock from a Japanese bomb. The planes flew high enough to be out of range of the anti-aircraft guns. Weaver’s position atop an ammunition depot left him feeling more than a little scared and helpless. It was a feeling that would define the next four years of his life.
Inch by inch, the Japanese took control of the Philippines. All the while, Weaver kept hoping for backup, which had been promised by commanders. One morale-boosting flier read, “Hang on men, it won’t be long until you see hundreds of planes and thousands of men.”
Weaver remembers clearly hearing Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s patrol boat as it motored away from the Philippines in March 1942. Within weeks, hundreds of planes and thousands of men arrived. They were Japanese.
Although Weaver doesn’t hold bitterness toward his captors, he had some choice words for MacArthur. “I don’t think you better put those in the paper,” he said. “We felt abandoned.”
Vastly outnumbered, the remaining U.S. forces surrendered May 6. The flag was lowered at noon and replaced with a white sheet. Weaver recalls pulling the firing pin from his rifle and doing what he could to disable other armaments before the Japanese arrived.
After being captured, the next few weeks were a blur of prisons, transport ship rides and train travel. Weaver and about 1,500 other men ended up at a Japanese factory in the Manchurian city of Mukden, now known as the city of Shenyang in northeast China. Winters were terribly cold, averaging 35 degrees below zero, Weaver said. But Weaver caught a warm break by working in the factory’s forge.
The first winter was the worst. Food was little more than cornmeal and a thin, purple soup whose ingredients Weaver still can’t figure out. Weaver dropped to 118 pounds. More than 200 prisoners died.
Weaver was prisoner No. 610. Prisoner 609 traded away much of his food in those first months for cigarettes. “He died Christmas Eve,” Weaver said. “Some of them just gave up. Staying alive, you had to fight. Dying was easy.”
Daily life included 16 hours at the factory. Prisoners did what they could to monkey-wrench the system: making minor errors in machine work or skewing design plans. Escape wasn’t an option. Sabotage was. “You did what you could without getting caught,” he said.
Weaver’s parents didn’t know the fate of their only child. On Dec. 18, 1942, a telegram arrived at their farm, announcing their son’s name “has been mentioned in enemy broadcasts as a Japanese prisoner.” No other news would arrive until a month after the war’s end.
Although Weaver could easily dwell on the beatings, boredom, bad food or humiliations of prison life, more often than not, he likes to talk about the minor triumphs, like how a civilian factory foreman brought him a bottle of scotch at Christmas – being emaciated, it didn’t take much to catch a buzz, he joked – or how the prisoners were able to play the occasional game of softball.
The best memories start weeks after the war ended, when Russian troops liberated the camp. After the Japanese left, B-29s began dropping massive pallets of clothes and food. The prisoners also found a warehouse full of Red Cross food parcels collected over the course of the war. They gorged themselves on Spam, butter, cigarettes and candy. Weaver and his fellow prisoners left the camp a month after the war ended. During one leg of his long journey home, the Navy troop carrier hit a mine, then was caught in one of the worst typhoons on record. Weaver laughed when he told the story, including the part when the captain told the troops to prepare to abandon ship. “I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ ”
Weaver made it back home 61 years ago this week. He was given 60 days leave and three years of corporal’s back pay, but not an ounce of advice on how to adapt to life outside of prison. Weaver admits he had lots of trouble adjusting. He left the Marines for a while, then returned, not knowing what else to do. The Marines sent him to Japan in 1953. As his ship approached the country, bad memories flooded back. “Then I had to take inventory of my thinking,” he said.
Weaver doesn’t talk much about the problems he experienced after the war, or how he made peace with himself, but staying in the military helped, he said. He retired in 1964 as a gunnery sergeant. He drove buses for a while in Seattle, then taught motorcycle safety courses in Southern California. He moved to the Inland Northwest in 1983.
Last year, Weaver took a writing class and began working on a memoir. He also spends as much time as possible speaking to local students. He’s terrified young people will forget about the wars the United States has fought or the true cost of fighting.
“It’s a hard way to settle an argument,” he said, adding that he has great pride in the abilities of the U.S. military but not a lot of faith in the politicians who send people to war.
The situation in Iraq is a prime example, Weaver said. “Wars should be fought by the military, not the politicians. Politicians should go home and sit on their thumbs.”