Standing outside a shrine near the camp where he was imprisoned seven decades before, World War II veteran Robert Heer got an unexpected visit. A woman, presumably a native of Hokkaido — Japan’s second largest island, and home to two camps where Heer was imprisoned during the war — grabbed Heer’s hand and apologized for her country’s treatment of POWs.
But the American veteran had long since forgiven.
“No negative memories,” Heer said.
The Sequim resident returned recently from a visit to Japan through a tour founded by California native Lester Tenney, who organizes tours of Japan for prisoners of war (POWs).
The goal, Heer said, is to cement relations between the two countries.
Heer, 91, and his wife, Karen, joined three other ex-POWs and three widows of ex-POWs on a 10-day tour of Japan from Oct. 12-21.
The veterans were given a chance to visit camps in which they’d been imprisoned, though Robert Heer said most of the camps are no longer standing.
The Heers heard about the tour in 2012 but illnesses kept them from going. This year, they were both healthy enough to make the trek.
Midwest boy, a prisoner
Born in Dubuque, Iowa, on Nov. 30, 1921, Robert Heer was raised in the east Iowa town of Waterloo. On June 27, 1940, two weeks after graduating high school, he joined the Army Air Corps. During the next five years, he served as a private, air mechanic, staff sergeant and technical sergeant.
In May 1942, serving as a runner in a 65-man, 61st Field Artillery group at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, Heer saw his squad overrun by hundreds of Japanese soldiers.
“Some of us went into the hills, to fight guerrilla-style,” Heer recalled in a 2002 feature in the Sequim Gazette. “Our shoes were worn out and we were out of food. Most of us surrendered.”
On May 10, 1942, his squad capitulated. So began Heer’s odyssey into the heart of brutal Japanese war camps.
“We just kept trying to find ways to maintain existence, mentally and physically,” Heer said.
For 3 1/2 years, Heer was shipped from camp to camp, from three camps in Formosa (Taiwan) to two more camps in Japan, where he once worked in a mining camp.
Heer worked hard, because he was sure those who were slowed by injuries and fatigue received worse treatment.
“According to Japanese customs to prisoners,” wrote fellow prisoner Charles Forry, “if you don’t work, you don’t get anything to eat.”
He was liberated in early September 1945.
After the war
Heer was honorably discharged from military service April 20, 1946, but his pains didn’t go away.
Heer dealt with injuries to his left and right wrists, left and right shoulders and the third and fourth vertebrae in his spine, and also dealt with the residual effects of malnutrition, anemia, dysentery, malaria, migraines, arthritis, anxiety and heart disease.
He now receives full disability and treatment from a veteran’s hospital in Seattle.
Following his discharge, Heer returned to Iowa to register in photography school. He re-enlisted with the Air Force and served the next 15 years as a photojournalist.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1965, Heer worked at a post office for 18 years. He married Karen in 1989 and moved to Sequim in 1990.
“I learned one thing,” Heer said in the 2002 article, “(that) we are all humans, no matter what race we are.”
It took nearly 60 years for the government to recognize injuries Heer received as a prisoner of war worthy of the prestigious Purple Heart. With his Karen by his side, Heer accepted the award from Sen. Patty Murray in 2002.
“I am honored,” Heer then told Murray. “I was just telling my wife what a great day this is for me and my family.”
Murray thanked Heer and other veterans for their sacrifices during World War II.
“We all owe you so much for your sacrifices, allowing us to live in a country with all the freedoms we enjoy,” said Murray.
“It is an honor to give you this award,” she told Heer.
Returning to the camps
Heer keeps busy studying the World War II era — “It keeps me sharp,” he said — including working on a semi-autobiographical book and collecting items from his own war experience.
On his recent trip to Japan, he and other ex-POWs received the original prisoner-of-war identification documents the Japanese government used to track their prisoners.
While most of the structures of the camps are gone, the Heers said, many local Buddhists have gone to great lengths to preserve camp histories, including erecting shrines and plaques to honor those prisoners who died.
“I think my attitude toward the Japanese has changed greatly. We’re very friendly toward each other,” Heer said.
Heer chose to visit Hakodate-Kameda camp, in part because that’s where he spent the most time, and in part because the camp he was liberated from — Hakodate-Akabira — no longer exists.
The tour also included visits to landmarks and museums, and a visit to a university, where students asked, “How do you feel toward us?”
“No negative memories,” he said.