WASHINGTON -- Sixty years ago, Melvin Routt fell into the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.
What happened next, as a prisoner of war and slave laborer on Japan's home islands, is tattooed in Routt's memory.
But the broader historical memory of what happened to other American, Chinese and Korean prisoners remains in some cases locked away in secret archives. Now, a new law could help pry open the World War II files.
"They kept records on everything that happened pretty much, you know," said Routt, now 79. "There certainly should be information in (the files) that can prove our point."
Routt's point is, in part, a legal one. He and other former prisoners of war are suing Japanese companies, in the hope of gaining financial compensation for their treatment.
The yellowing war files maintained by the CIA and other agencies could establish links between the prisoners' treatment, Japanese government policy and Japanese corporations.
"I'm sure there are records," said 79-year-old Fresno resident Harry Dunlavy, a retired Marine sergeant major who spent three winters in a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria, "but I suppose they would have to be in Japan."
Dunlavy, like Routt, is part of the lawsuit against Japanese companies. He was forced to work at a tool-and-die company. In the first Manchurian winter, nearly one-third of the men Dunlavy arrived with died.
So far, he said, "the damn Defense Department has just sat on" the legal efforts.
But the new law, modified from legislation introduced by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is meant to serve more than the needs of veteran. Proponents believe it also will help keep history honest.
"Without historical accuracy, you're never going to get justice," said Ivy Lee, a Sacramento resident and retired sociology professor.
"Justice could be in the legal sense, but it could also mean that Japan does not go around whitewashing history."
Now president of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, Lee was among the grass-roots lobbyists pushing for the archives-opening law.
A native of Macao, Lee is particularly keen on uncovering what the Japanese Imperial Army did in China starting in 1931.
"That was way before what we usually think of as the start of World War II," said Lee, who formerly taught at California State University, Sacramento.
Prompted by Lee, Routt and groups, Feinstein at first wrote legislation setting up a task force to examine Japanese Imperial Army records going back to the 1931 incursion into Manchuria.
Congress previously established the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group, which recently declassified more than 2.5 million pages of World War II records.
Eventually, Congress approved a modified form of Feinstein's effort. It expands the roster of the Nazi war criminal records group, adding a specialist on Asia, and extends the task force's life by a year.
It is not all sunshine, though; shadows can remain. The law establishing the original Nazi records group exempted the task force from a part of the 1947 National Security Act, which gives U.S. intelligence agencies tremendous leeway in withholding information. That exemption disappeared by the time lawmakers finished their latest work.
The task force has not named its Pacific War specialist. It has, though, added a historical adviser, Linda Goetz Holmes, author of books including one called "Unjust Enrichment" about American POWs in Asia.
"There are still probably a significant number of records that have not yet been declassified," said Holmes, who added her hopes that the uncovered files might help identify "people who are war criminals, and where are they now."
No one knows how many relevant files exist in U.S. custody.
"Anybody in the Army would be interested in finding out what happened," said Modesto resident Eugene Brush, who was interned by the Japanese as a civilian. "They should all be interested in it."
Now 82, the former Pan American Airways mechanic was imprisoned for three years in Manila. He worked as a cook in the Santo Tomas camp for "enemy aliens," and though he harbors no love for his captors, he said "there weren't any atrocities unless you went over the wall."
Brush said he feels no burning need to peruse the files that may be uncovered on the Santo Tomas camp.
Japan, so far, has kept closed many of its World War II records.
The United States returned to Japan in the 1950s the files that had been scooped up by U.S. forces at the end of the war. American officials copied only about 5 percent of the records before returning them in February 1958.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached (202)383-0006 or email@example.com. For more coverage from The Modesto Bee, or to start home delivery, go to http://www.modbee.com. ©2001 The Modesto Bee. All Rights Reserved.