Lester Irwin (Tenney) Tennenberg

Pvt. Lester I. Tennenberg was the son of Mr. & Mrs. Gus Tennenberg.  He lived on the north side of Chicago at 1200 West Sherwin Avenue.  As a student, he attended Lane Technical High School in Chicago.  In September, 1940, Les knew that it was only a matter of time before he would be drafted into the army.  To prevent this from happening, and to have a say with whom he served with, Les joined the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Tank Company in Maywood, Illinois.

    In November, 1940, the men of the 33rd Tank Company were federalized and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky as Company B, 192 Tank Battalion.  Here Les had the privilege of serving the company as its first cook.  When other members of the company completed baking school, he then trained as a tank crew member. 

    After Fort Knox, Les and the other members of the company were sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana.  The 192nd Tank Battalion took part in the Maneuvers of 1941.  To Les, these "maneuvers" were somewhat of a joke because the 192nd had few tanks.  Without knowing it, the 192nd had already been selected for overseas duty in the Philippine Islands.  On the side of a hill, the members of the battalion were informed that they would be in the Philippines from six months to six years.  The192nd was sent west to Angel Island where it awaited transit to the Philippines. 

    Upon arrival in Manila, the company was rushed to Clark Field.  Thanksgiving dinner consisted of leftovers from the 194th Tank Battalion.  For the next few weeks, the men spent the majority of their time loading ammunition and attempting to make their equipment combat ready.  

    War came to the Philippine Islands just ten hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when planes appeared over Clark Field and bombed the American planes sitting on the runways.  For the next four months, Les and the other members of his company fought to hold the Japanese as long as they could.  On April 9, 1942, the men of Company B were ordered to destroy their tanks and other equipment that could be used by the Japanese.  With this order, Les and the other men of the company became Prisoners of War.

    Les took part in the death march.  On the march he was accompanied by Bob Martin also of B Company.  Les would first be held as a POW at Camp O'Donnell and then Cabanatuan.  He would then be selected for shipment to Japan.

    In Japan, he was held at Fukuoka Camp 17, which was located near the town of Omuta.  Here, Les and the other prisoners would be used as slave labor to work in a coal mine that had been abandoned by the Japanese because it had been determined to dangerous to mine.  It was also at this camp that Les witnessed POWs willingly give up their food for cigarettes.  The men had given up all hope and wanted to die. 

    It was at Camp #17 that his friend, Bob Martin, would save Les' life.  Bob had been injured and assigned to work in the camp kitchen.  Bob would sneak food to the prisoners being held in the camp's internal guardhouse.  One of these prisoners was Les.  Bob did this knowing that he was risking his own life.  The two men would stay friends for the rest of their lives.

    In September of 1945, Les was liberated from captivity by the occupational forces of the American military.  In 1947, Les would change his last name to "Tenney," which is what many of the other POWs had called him in the camps.  Les would go to college and become a professor of finance and insurance at Arizona State University. 

    After he retired from Arizona State University, Lester Tenney wrote the book  My Hitch in Hell, about his experiences as a POW under the Japanese.  Today, Les travels the country talking about his life as a POW.

Credit: Jim Opolony: 192nd & 194th Tank Battalion 

Lester Tenney's Obituary

Lester Tenney, an Army private who survived one of World War II’s signature horrors, the Bataan Death March, and spent his later years pushing Japanese authorities to apologize for their country’s war atrocities, died Friday. He was 96.

“I’ve learned to forgive,” the Carlsbad resident said in 2012, on the 70th anniversary of the march, “but I’ll never forget.” His memories of that eight-day, 73-plus mile trek and of his subsequent three years in a forced-labor coal mine — stories he shared with reporters, civic leaders, schoolchildren in the United States and Japan, and in a memoir called “My Hitch in Hell” — eventually wrung apologies from government leaders and from one of the corporate giants that benefited from POW slavery.

Tenney had been in “quite good health” until about a week ago, said David Levi, his grandson. He was hospitalized with internal bleeding, which was resolved, and then came home to the nursing facility at La Costa Glen, where he died. “He went the way he would have wanted to — very, very quickly,” his grandson said.

Born in Chicago on July 1, 1920, Lester Irwin Tenney joined the Army National Guard’s 33rd Tank Company out of Maywood, Ill., in 1940, and was sent to the Philippines. In December 1941, in the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces overran other islands in the Pacific, including the Philippines, and Allied forces — about 15,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipinos — retreated to the Bataan peninsula.

They fought for more than three months before they ran out of food, ammunition and room to maneuver. Major Gen. Edward King ordered them to surrender. On the march that followed, they went the first four days without food or water. Temperatures soared past 110 degrees. Stragglers and complainers were stabbed with bayonets, shot or beheaded. “If you fell down, you died,” Tenney recalled later. “If you stopped walking, you died.” About halfway through the march, a Japanese officer on horseback slashed Tenney in the left shoulder with a sword. Two other marchers kept him upright while a medic stitched the wound. Tenney said he survived by setting small goals for himself as he walked. Make it to that stand of trees. Make it to that herd of water buffalo. By the time he and the other survivors staggered into Japanese prison camps, thousands had died.

“It was awful,” Tenney said. “It was inhumane. It was barbaric.” He briefly escaped from the camp into the jungle, was recaptured, and then put on a ship to Omuta, Japan, where work in a coal mine awaited. He was in the prison camp there, across the bay from Nagasaki, when the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb in August      1945 and Japan surrendered.

Tenney came home with just eight of his teeth — the rest had been knocked out by his captors. His wife, believing him dead, had remarried. Tenney was haunted by nightmares in his sleep, and shame when he was awake. “I wasn’t so proud of being a prisoner of war,” he said.

But he rebuilt his life. In 1959, he met Betty Levi, and they married a year later. Tenney earned business degrees from San Diego State University and the University of Southern California and became a college professor. In 1966, he and his wife moved to Tempe, where he taught at Arizona State and started a company, University Research Associates, which provided financial and retirement planning for dozens of U.S. companies. He retired in 1993.

Two years later, his memoir was published, and Tenney shifted into a role as a prominent thorn-in-the-side of Japanese authorities unwilling or unable to acknowledge what had happened during the war. In 1999, he and other POWs sued five mining companies for reparations. A federal judge dismissed the suit, citing a 1951 peace treaty between Japan and the U.S. Still, Tenney persisted.

He traveled to Japan and spoke to schoolchildren whose history books never mentioned the Bataan march. He gave interviews and wrote opinion pieces for major newspapers in the U.S. and Japan, and was on network TV news segments in both countries.

In 2009, as national commander of the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, he welcomed Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki to the group’s annual convention. From the podium, Fujisaki apologized on behalf of his country, a gesture met with applause from only half the survivors. Tenney was among them. “If you hate the Japanese, have hatred in your heart, you are still a prisoner of the Japanese,” he said.

A year later, Tenney went to Tokyo as part of the first-ever American delegation to Japan’s “Peace, Friendship, and Exchange Initiative,” a gesture of reconciliation from the Japanese government to its World War II prisoners.

In 2005, Tenney was invited to Washington, D.C., to watch Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, give a speech to Congress. Tenney and other veterans told reporters they were unimpressed by Abe’s attempt in his remarks to move beyond the atrocities. But later that day, at a gala outside the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery, which specializes in Asian art, Abe apologized to Tenney in person. Tenney said he had one final mission: Getting an apology from the mining companies. One arrived last month, in a letter from the Mitsubishi Materials Corp. Mitsubishi isn’t the company that imprisoned him, but Tenney was grateful. And optimistic that the other companies, including Mitsui, which owned his mine, will eventually apologize, too. That, he said after he received the letter, is all he ever wanted.

Tenney is survived by his wife, Betty (their 57th anniversary would have been Tuesday); a son, Glenn Tenney (Susan) of San Mateo; two stepsons, Don Levi (Eileen) of Doylestown, Pa., and Ed Levi (Jan) of Mountain View, Ark; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

 NOTE:  Lester Tenney is noted as being a tank commander and staff sergeant; neither is accurate.
              Tenney was captured as a private and was never a commander of any kind.

 
Back to Biography Page          Main Page