Nagasaki: A film remembers the American prisoners of war sacrificed for the dam

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The Yomiuri Shimbun
Moto Nozawa, left, interviews a U.S. soldier after a memorial ceremony held near Soto Dam in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture on May 26.

SASEBO, Nagasaki — A high school student has made a documentary about the history of a local dam, hoping to help people learn about the tragic deaths of American POWs engaged in its construction.

Fifty-three American POWs died under harsh labor conditions during the construction of the Soto Dam in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture during World War II.

The dam continues to operate 78 years after its completion as a drinking water reservoir for local residents.

Eager to learn more about the tragedy, Moto Nozawa, a 17-year-old student from Sasebo Nishi High School, collected relevant documents and conducted interviews to create a film highlighting the misery of war.

Japan also an author

The Yomiuri Shimbun

“I don’t want to talk about war just from a victim’s point of view. I want people to know the story, that Japan also did terrible things,” Nozawa said at a peace education conference held at a high school in the city on July 19.

As a guest speaker, Nozawa introduced his work and explained why he produced the film in front of the students at the school near the dam.

According to city records and other documents, the dam is 34 meters high, 150 meters wide and has a water storage capacity of 400,000 tons.

Its construction was started in February 1941 by the Imperial Japanese Navy to use water from the Muta River for naval facilities and ships.

When the Pacific War broke out in December, concrete and other materials, as well as labor, quickly ran out. A total of 250 American prisoners of war were mobilized from Wake Island, an American island in the Pacific Ocean occupied by Japan, to build the tank. They were given identification numbers, records show.

Although the dam was completed in July 1944, 53 people died as a result of hard labor and an unsafe work environment due to rushed work.

The bodies of POWs who died during construction were buried north of the water source. After the war ended, American soldiers dug up the remains and brought them back to their home country. In 1956, a cenotaph bearing their names was also erected on the bank of the dam.

Nozawa, who belongs to the school’s broadcast club, first became interested in the dam’s story around November last year when he came across a picture of the Cenotaph in a store promoting of local specialties. He felt the need to “research not only on the damage caused by the atomic bombings, but also on the fact that Japan was the author of the war” and began to go to a library to trace the history to through local archives and other sources.

With the help of an American living in the area, Nozawa also obtained documents from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He also covered a memorial ceremony held at the dam in May.

The eight-minute film was completed in June. It contains NARA documents, including photos of the dam when it was under construction and the burial pits of deceased POWs. It also features an interview with someone working at the US Navy base in the city. This person called for more people to be aware of the countless important stories that exist locally and to learn from the past.

Nozawa decided to call the film “Beside You” to reflect the message that “an important story can be hidden behind the things we use in daily life”.

The documentary won a prefectural contest for broadcast works created by high school students for its extensive coverage of the U.S. military. Nozawa also received requests from the Nagasaki Prefectural Library and other entities to provide them with his film.

“Through the story of the dam, I want to convey to a wide audience the reality of war, which drags many people into tragedy,” Nozawa said.

Wake Island

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Pacific Island, a US territory since 1899, lies about 4,000 kilometers southeast of Sasebo. It had a base for the US Navy and was occupied by Japan during the Pacific War.

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