A man who deserves the respect and gratitude of every American died Saturday evening.

William Milne, 89, of Streator, Ill., was a World War II veteran who spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war. His POW experience included the grueling Bataan Death March. His death notice in The Times doesn’t mention this, but I hope his obituary in tomorrow’s newspaper does.

I met Milne in November 2001, when I interviewed him for a Veterans Day article. It was one of the more memorable experiences I had during my newspaper career. What follows is the story I wrote about Milne, which serves to remind us that war isn’t pretty and the soldiers who risk their lives for our country should not be taken for granted.

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World War II veteran William Milne has 3 1/2 years of captivity at the hands of the Japanese forever etched into his psyche.

The wave of “realistic” war films produced by Hollywood in recent years has avoided the plight of prisoners of war, as if that aspect of war time has been forgotten during the glossing over of history on celluloid.

But for Milne, an Air Force veteran and Streator resident, forgetting the POW experience is not possible. And there is no glossing over the harsh realities of slave labor and the Bataan Death March.

Captured overseas

Milne joined the Air Force in August 1941, expecting to go to mechanics school. Instead, to his dismay, he was assigned to the Air Force base in Savannah, Ga., and remained there for three months before being assigned to the Philippines.

Milne arrived in Manila on Nov. 20, 1941, and had the misfortune of still being stationed there when Japanese fighters attacked Pearl Harbor.

“First they hit Pearl Harbor. Then, the day after Pearl Harbor, they hit us and knocked out most of the airplanes,” Milne said. “They were bombing us and we were living in tents. We didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

In January 1942, U.S. and Filipino military troops in Manila withdrew to Bataan, where they entrenched and fought off the Japanese for several months. But the troops were cut off from naval and air support, and they eventually were crippled by starvation and disease.

“We battled until we ran out of food,” Milne said. “General King surrendered us on the 9th of April.”

That day marked the beginning of the infamous Bataan Death March – a six-day, 90-mile journey the Japanese forced the POWs to walk by foot without much food or water. Milne’s company joined the march about 30 miles in.

“We walked 50 miles, then they put us on a train for another 10 miles,” he said. “Out of that time, we got something to eat maybe three times. We had no water. If you saw water in a ditch, you tried to get it when they weren’t looking.”

They eventually were taken to an area in Japanese territory that was heavily damaged during the fighting. The POWs were put to work rebuilding bridges that they and their comrades had blown up during the preceding months.

Water was scarce there, too. “There was only one spigot, and you waited forever and a day for water,” Milne said.

After about a month of rebuilding bridges, Milne was put on a ship headed for a slave labor camp in Japan – a turn of events he believes was a blessing.

“We had old equipment and not much food,” Milne said. But “I feel we were lucky to get out of there because they (his fellow soldiers) were dying like flies.”

The scars of slavery

Milne and about 80 other POWs were taken to the Hirohota Steel Mill, which was designated as Osaka POW Camp No. 12.

“There we became slave laborers for the steel company, and we were underfed, overworked and not paid anything,” Milne said.

The POWs were given a teacup of rice each day, along with a small cup filled with greens and water.

“Probably our biggest problem was (lack of) food,” Milne said. “Normally I weighed 145. I weighed 90 when I left there.”

Sometimes a handful of POWs would work together to get food behind their captors’ backs, he said.

“They would work awhile, then one would say he had to use the toilet,” Milne said. “When they’d let him go, he’d try to find the galley. He didn’t care about the toilet. He wanted to steal something to eat. And when he came back, he’d tell the others where the galley was so they could get some food, too.”

Medical care wasn’t very good for the POWs, either.

“An American doctor, a pediatrician (and POW), pulled out our teeth and lanced our infections – everything that was necessary. Of course, if you had appendicitis or broke a leg, they took you to the hospital,” Milne said. “Of course, they had a (Japanese) doctor over him (the American doctor), and if he didn’t agree, you were out of luck.”

During his time at the steel mill, Milne had a tooth extracted and several infections on his chest and thumb lanced by the American doctor. But there was one time when the doctor couldn’t help Milne because the guards intentionally inflicted pain on him.

One day after getting hurt while working, Milne was sent to sick bay to get looked at by the doctor. He was treated for his injury, but apparently did not hurry back to work fast enough for the guards’ liking. As a result, a guard took six pieces of punk – molded sticks used to ignite fuses – and pushed them directly into the flesh of Milne’s back.

“They put some punk there and let it burn out,” he said. “I suspect they wanted to scare me back to work.”

Sixty years later, the 83-year-old man still has a six-pronged scar in the center of his back.

“That’s my souvenir from the war,” Milne said.

Final mission

The POW camp was liberated by American air forces in late 1945, approximately 3 1/2 years after the fall of Bataan. After several months of extensive medical care and rehabilitation, Milne left the military.

“I was discharged at Fort Sheridan (on) March 27, 1946, and we have been fighting with the government for compensation from the Japanese ever since,” he said.

Milne and thousands of other POWs enslaved by the Japanese during World War II have been seeking restitution from the Japanese government for what they endured during the war years.

“They’ve tried the United Nations and every which way to do something about this,” Milne said.

In July, the House of Representatives passed an amendment (H.R. 1198) seeking to ensure that POWs enslaved by Japanese companies during World War II can pursue recognition and justice in state and federal courts. The measure passed by a vote of 395-33.

But Milne isn’t holding his breath in anticipation of quick restitution.

“After the bills passed and after the events on Sept. 11, it’s been a little quiet,” he said. “They’ve got some other things on their minds.”

Milne also is hesitant to believe the Senate will pass a similar measure because in the past, the U.S. Justice Department has intervened on behalf of Japanese corporate defendants in these cases, on the basis of a treaty signed with Japan in 1951. That treaty contains a clause that purports to waive all future restitution claims against the Japanese government.

However, Milne noted, the treaty also contains another clause stating that restitution is fair game if other nations got the Japanese to agree to more favorable terms than those outlined in the 1951 treaty. Vietnam, the Philippines and the former Soviet Union are among 11 countries that reportedly received those better terms.

So hope remains for Milne and his fellow ex-POWs to receive their day in court for restitution. But because of the slow nature of lawsuits – and the fact that 55 years have passed since the fight for restitution began – Milne does not expect to reap any benefits from any rulings in favor of the former POWs.

“I think something will happen, but it will be too late for me,” Milne said. “I’m 83 years old. What do you think?”