Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Commander of Bataan Death March Survivors Has Bar Mitzvah At 88

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2008

Lester Tenney, commander of a dwindling group of Bataan Death March and Japanese prison camp survivors celebrated Veterans Day on Nov. 11 at Arlington National Cemetery for the last time, closing a 62-year tradition. The organization, American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, voted to officially disband next June for lack of able-bodied members.  
The Washington Post (Nov. 11, 2008) reports that, “Tenney believes as few as 100 or so survivors of the World War II death march are still with us, and none has the energy or inclination to lead the group he has headed since May. The ceremony that Tenney flew here from San Diego to participate in becomes both a homage to war dead and a grace note in the passing of an organization that has never gotten the official apology from Japan that the group wanted for more than six decades, or compensation from Japanese companies that enslaved prisoners of war.”  
Just as Tenney came to Washington to declare an end to the Bataan and Corregidor survivors’ group — and to make one last pitch to Japanese diplomats and U.S. officials, the Post notes that, “Tenney also came to reclaim his Jewish identity. Four months after his 88th birthday, Tenney ... draped a prayer shawl on his shoulders and was bar mitzvahed before a small, delighted crowd at Ohev Sholom synagogue in North¬west Washington. The idea formed two months ago while he was visiting Washington for a memorial service and met Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom. The rabbi casually asked when he’d been bar mitzvahed. The answer: never.”  
Tenney, a retired finance professor at Arizona State and San Diego State univer¬sities, memorized his Hebrew lines. The Post reports that, “Being bar mitzvahed circled the old sergeant back to the heritage he concealed from his Japanese captors more than six decades ago after seeing other Jews beaten by guards who sympathized with the Nazis ... Tenney was 21 in April 1942 when approximately 12,000 U.S. soldiers and 63,000 Filipino soldiers surrendered on the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula. ... Guards forcibly marched the prisoners through tropical heat with little water in one of the most brutal episodes in the annals of war. Tenney said his march lasted 12 days and covered 68 miles, while other survivors have testified at war crime trials about marches of four days to two weeks ... Survivors have recounted witnessing disembowelments and rapes, guards cutting the throats of rows of marchers ... Thousands died along the way ... Tenney barely escaped death when a guard on horseback slashed his back with a sword ... Surviving the death march meant that Tenney was alive to suffer for more than 30 days on the fetid ‘hell ships’ that transported prisoners to camps in Japan, where he was enslaved for nearly three years in a coal mine owned by the Japanese company Mitsui (Japanese companies have argued that they were exempted from survivor lawsuits by peace accords that ended the war.) When Tenney was, liberated at the end of the war, be was 98 pounds, half his normal weight.”  
While Tenney was raised Jewish, he was never particularly observant. When Rabbi Herzfeld said he would perform the bar mitzvah ceremony, Tenney recalled, “How could I say no?” According to the Post, “Jewish traditions are still taking a little getting used to. ‘You think they do this every Saturday?’ Tenney wondered aloud in the hall as candles were being lighted to mark the end of the Sabbath. “Once every 88 years for me.’’

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.