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by Iwao Peter Sano
University of Nebraska Press  1999
214 pages
photos, illustrations, maps
ISBN: 0803292600
Cover Price: $16.00
Language: English

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1,000 Days in Siberia
The Odyssey of a Japanese-American POW

Iwao Peter Sano was born in Brawley, California in 1924 as a Nisei and growing up faced both opportunity and prejudices. At age fifteen in 1939, he was sent to Japan and became an adopted son to his aunt and uncle in Tokyo who were childless. As an outsider in Japan because he spoke little Japanese before starting high school. Meanwhile, the Pacific War began and his parents in California were sent to an internment camp. In wartime Tokyo, he experienced the "Doolittle Raid" on April 18, 1942, then wartime shortages and the bombing raids by B-29 Superfortresses during 1944–1945.

On March 1, 1945 he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and hastily trained, including practice serving as a "human bomb" to attach a pole charge to an enemy tank. Less than two weeks later, he and other trainees were transported via Korea to Manchuria and assigned to the Kwantung Army, 118th Heavy Artillery Regiment at Hailar, but the unit had severe shortages of fuel and equipment. In the last days of the war, they were attempting to dig caves by hand to conceal their guns.

During August 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and attacked Manchuria during Operation August Storm. Sano's first view of the enemy was seeing a lone tank performing reconnaissance in the distance. Taken aboard a train to Chichihaerh in central Manchuria, the Japanese were told to leave their rifles and bayonets, and begin marching to a Prisoner Of War (POW) camp. The next day, they saw Soviet troops who waved to them, driving American trucks loaded with war booty captured in Manchuria.

Arriving at the prison camp began Sano's life in Russian captivity. First, he was transported to Siberia aboard a train to Krasnoyarsk Camp 5. Prisoners were forced to unload coal cars and work in a factory. Laboring on long shifts and fed only basic rations, the Japanese maintained their Army ranks and hierarchy even as prisoners. Their lot was nearly identical to the Russians guarding them, who had little food themselves, and were mostly illiterate. Quickly, the Japanese learned how to trick their captors into avoiding heavy work or slow down tasks. Some resented prisoners collaborated with the Soviets or exploited the weaker prisoners for better rations or privileges.

Winter in Siberia was the worst, with temperatures plummeting, work continues. Many prisoners became sick, including Sano who was hospitalized for several months. Afterwards, he was assigned to a collective farm where the work for a summer and found food more plentiful and guards who were less strict.

Lastly, Sano was among a group of 200 prisoners assigned to work in the coal mines at Stalinsk (Novokuznets) in the Kuzbas mountains. Laboring in dangerous conditions mining coal moral plummeted. At the mines, they also met German prisoners who were despised by the Russians. Attempts were made to indoctrinate the Japanese into Communism with special classes and even a Japanese language newspaper that included propaganda about the American occupation of Japan.

After two years and nine months in captivity, Sano's group was schedule for repatriation and was taken by train eastward to Nakhodka near Vladivostok, before finally returning to occupied Japan. Arriving at his adopted parents home, they are surprised to see him back from the dead. Searching for work, he is employed by the occupation forces because of his English, and finally returns to the United States in 1952.

Highly recommended, Sano's memoir is a unique account of life as a Japanese prisoner in Siberia. Well written and frank, the book also includes illustrations by the author depicting life in captivity. The book begins with a moving forward by Patrick Sano, son of the author, who writes about his father's war experiences and search for self-identity.
Review by Justin Taylan  

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Last Updated
November 25, 2022

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