Former POWs, heirs file slave-labor lawsuits against Japanese companies

LOS ANGELES - Eleven survivors of Japanese prison camps marked Pearl Harbor Day on Tuesday by filing two lawsuits accusing corporations of forcing them into slave labor during World War II.

A third suit, which seeks class-action status, was filed on behalf of the heirs of former prisoners of war.

The suits, which seek unspecified damages, are the latest of about a half-dozen filed in California accusing Japanese companies of forcing captured Americans to work under brutal conditions in mines and factories.

''I'd like to see justice. It's been a long time coming,'' said Johnny Johnson, 79, of Sandy, Utah, at a news conference outside downtown Superior Court where the suits were filed.

His suit against Nippon Steel claims that the former Army Air Corps airplane mechanic and five other servicemen were sent to a steel mill in Japan following their capture in the Philippines.

The class-action suit also names Nippon Steel.

Harold Poole, 80, of Salt Lake City, who served in Johnson's squadron, is among five people suing Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha Ltd., a chemical company. That suit claims they were forced to work in an acid manufacturing plant, fertilizer plant and copper-smelting factory.

Poole displayed a Silver Star medal he was awarded for heroism during a Dec. 8, 1941 air raid on Clark Field in the Philippines. He said he used a .30-caliber machine gun to shoot down a Japanese fighter.

''I had never fired a machine gun before,'' he said.

After U.S. and Filipino forces surrendered months later, Poole and Johnson took part in the Bataan Death March, a 60-mile trek in which an estimated 16,000 American and Filipino soldiers died.

They went to a prison camp and later were shipped to Japan to work, their complaints alleged.

The suits were filed under a recently passed California law that allows victims of slave labor to sue multinational corporations in state court. More suits are expected from the estimated 2,000 POWs still living, said James W. Parkinson, attorney for Poole and Johnson.

''These lawsuits send a powerful message to multinational corporations whose huge profits were directly related to the horrific exploitation of Allied prisoners,'' he said.

Nippon Steel spokesman Hiroshi Nakashima in Tokyo declined comment Wednesday because the company had yet to see the lawsuits. A message left at Ishihara Sangyo was not immediately returned.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who appeared at the news conference, said he has asked Secretary of State Madeline Albright to begin negotiations with the Japanese government to win compensation for former POWs.

Hatch, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he also may hold public hearings on the issue.

The Utah Republican contended that POW claims of slave labor were brushed aside following the war because the U.S. government wanted to focus its energies on rebuilding Japan.

''That was a decision they had to make, but that decision was very detrimental'' to the POWs, Hatch said.


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