By Sharon Ugolini
A group of former American World War II veterans want justice. They are suing a multi-million-dollar Japanese based corporation for wages they say should have been paid while being held as prisoners of war.
Harold Poole, 82, of Salt Lake City, is one of the plaintiffs. He was one of more than 10,000 American and Filipino soldiers captured in the Philippines and dragged through the 65-mile Bataan Death March in January 1942. Later they were shipped to Japan in what the prisoners called “hell ships.”
He and the other men say they worked as slaves for the Nippon Steel Corporation in Japan for more than three years. They want recompense for the profit they helped the company generate.
Poole said the suit is not about punishing the Japanese soldiers. He said while he forgives Japan of “all the atrocities” committed by Nippon, he wants to hold the company accountable for using U.S. soldiers for free slave labor.
“I”d like to see justice. Justice isn”t served by someone saying, ”I beg your pardon.” That”s not justice,” he said.
The companies were independent from the war. They took prisoners and used them for free labor, said Poole”s attorney, James W. Parkinson, of council to Casey, Gerry, Reed and Schenk Firm in San Diego, California.
The case is being tried in California because the steel company has offices there. Nippon Steel also has branches across America which means the company falls within United States” jurisdiction.
In a lower court, a San Francisco judge ruled against the veterans” plea.
The judge recognized Nippon”s defense team”s argument that the Peace Treaty of 1951 dissolves any disputes between the countries involved in the war.
In cases where treaties contradict federal laws, treaties are supreme, said BYU constitutional law professor Frederick Mark Gedicks.
“If a state law or state action is inconstant with the treaty, then the treaty controls and the state law is of no effect,” he said.
Parkinson said Poole has a case. Two years ago the California Legislature passed a statute that Parkinson said makes Poole”s suit viable.
The legislation permits former prisoners of war to file suit against companies that benefited from their labor, Parkinson said.
Now, 55 years after their imprisonment, the veterans have the opportunity to present their case, Parkinson said.
“They took something from these men. It”s time they give it back,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson would not say how much he thinks Poole and the other veterans deserve.
The case will soon be reviewed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Parkinson said.
“We want the appellate court to reverse what the lower court did – and we want to be able to go to a trial,” Parkinson said.
The law firm representing Nippon Steel refused to make a statement, because of ongoing litigation.
Parkinson said the lawsuit opens an avenue for Poole and others to be heard.
“They want to tell their story,” he said.
He said they are willing to take the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Poole said it is his duty to help educate others about what happened between the bombing at Pearl Harbor and the Japanese surrender.
“I think this is why the Lord has preserved me. So that I can be a mouthpiece for all those guys who didn”t make it,” Poole said.
This is not the first suit of its kind. Another group of World War II veterans is suing another Japanese company, Mitsui and Co. Ltd.
Mitsui is contesting its relevancy in the case, because it was formed after World War II, said Mitsui”s spokeswoman.
“Both Mitsui and Co., Ltd. and its subsidiary Mitsui and Co., Inc. located in the U.S. were formed after World War II, and neither has ever had any involvement in the activities alleged by the plaintiffs,” she said.