FLORISSANT — Nearly seven decades after Japanese troops captured Earl Szwabo during World War II, the suburban St. Louis man has received an apology.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Wednesday that Szwabo, 89, was a 17-year-old GI in 1942 when Japanese troops had surrounded him and his unit on a Philippine island.
"We had heard that the Japanese took no prisoners, so yes, I was scared, but what could I do?" he said.
Szwabo spent the next 42 months as a prisoner of war at Bilibid Prison in Manila and then in a labor camp in Nagoya, Japan. He was beaten and forced to watch the execution of fellow prisoners who had tried to escape. He lost 70 pounds — half his body weight — subsisting on a daily diet of one rice ball and a cup of fish head soup.
Earlier this month, nearly 65 years after he was rescued, Szwabo along with six other former American POWs returned to Japan on the country's first "peace visit," an official apology from the Japanese government. Szwabo, who is active in a POW group, was picked for the trip by lottery.
Szwabo will never forget what he saw and how he was treated, but said it is time to forgive. He said the Japanese were "interested in hearing our side of the story, and I think it opened some eyes."
The former POW visited a copper factory in Nagoya, a port city near Tokyo, where he worked 12-hour shifts as a slave laborer. He said soldiers were regularly beaten for stealing food from the plates of local residents that also worked at the plant.
Much of the work involved melting down bells seized from churches. Szwabo recalled that during one air raid he took cover inside a large bell. A local woman was already in there with her baby. The baby was holding a baked sweet potato, and Szwabo grabbed it.
"I felt like two cents for doing it," he said. "But at the time all I could think was, 'That'll be another day that I live.'"
When he wasn't working, Szwabo said he had little energy to keep his spirits up.
"You just wanted to sleep," he said. "That and pray — I made a deal with God that if he would get me back, I'd go to church."
After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, all of the Japanese soldiers fled, and the plant shut down. American planes dropped 55-gallon drums filled with food. The POWs eventually took a train to Tokyo, where they boarded Red Cross ships and received medical care.
Szwabo stayed in the Army and retired after a 20-year career, most of it as a chief warrant officer. He then spent 41 years as director of personnel and purchasing for the city of Florissant. He volunteers at the USO at Lambert Airport.
Szwabo said his trip to Japan gave him peace.
"I figure I was lucky," he said. "A lot of POWs didn't make it back."