Who’s clean among potential bullet train bidders?

With China's high-speed rail system and the companies that supply it in financial and technological trouble, it now appears the bids for major components of California's projected high-speed rail system will come from big companies based in three countries: France (Alstom Group), Germany (Siemens AG) and Japan (East Japan Railway Co., better known as JR East).

The problem: All of them have histories or are associated with war crimes, genocide or other atrocities. Of this group, only Siemens has actually apologized and made significant reparations for its past wrongdoing.

Criticizing any one of them for their history leads not merely to defensiveness and corporate counterattacks, but also to complaints from victims of the others that their grievances have been ignored.

So it was when this column described how the Alstom Group's corporate sister company SNCF, the French national railway, has never specifically apologized or paid reparations to survivors or heirs of the tens of thousands of Jews it was paid to haul to the gas chambers of the Holocaust run by Germany in Poland and other Eastern European countries.

One agent of the SNCF wrote to a newspaper that it would be false to say the railroad carried victims to be murdered in Germany. That's technically correct, if not morally so. The Jews who made up 90 percent of those deported from France were taken to places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor, in Poland.

But the loudest complaints about that column came from those who thought the crimes of Japanese companies involved in the upcoming JR East bid have been ignored.

And those crimes are substantial. Aspects of JR East's bid will be done by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Sumitomo Corp. and Nippon Sharyo Ltd., the maker of most engines and cars for Japan's famed bullet trains.

The Washington, D.C.-based Asia Policy Point nonprofit analysis group reports that five World War II prisoner-of-war camps near Sumitomo facilities in Japan's home islands provided slave labor by American POWs to Sumitomo, two did the same for Kawasaki and two for Nippon Sharyo. Prisoners were forced to work in mines, factories and on docks. Asia Policy Point reports, "The suffering the POWs endured at the hands of the employees of these companies was comparable to, and sometimes worse than, that inflicted upon them by the Japanese military."

None of these companies — or other big Japanese companies like Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Hitachi — has apologized or paid any reparations to anyone it enslaved. Altogether, 30,000 Allied POWs, 40,000 Chinese and 670,000 Koreans were involved in slave labor in Japan under conditions including torture, abuse and starvation.

Japan's government issued one formal, tepid apology in 1995, 50 years after the fact. Also, Japan's ambassador to the United States in May 2009 went to a convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a national veterans group, and apologized for "suffering there and in other places." But his embassy never posted that weak apology on its website, and Japan has never paid a yen to any victim or heir.

Bataan Death March survivor and former POW Lester Tenney of Carlsbad in San Diego County wrote in a January letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, "I ask that you insist that (the Japanese companies) acknowledge their role in violating the human rights of American citizens. ... Without this, accepting Japanese bids and financing on high-speed rail components is tantamount to accepting blood money."

Meanwhile, Siemens may have gotten rid of all vestiges of its wartime use of slave labor from concentration camps and it may have apologized profusely and paid reparations, as has the German government, and Siemens is now largely owned by American pension and mutual funds.

Even so, the notion of a German firm that often worked its deliberately undernourished slave laborers to death building all or part of a major American institution makes many understandably uncomfortable.

Of course, the same companies bidding here will also be competing for other high-speed rail projects in other parts of the U.S., from Texas to the Midwest to the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Which means that if either Brown or President Barack Obama wants Californians and Americans in general to be completely comfortable with the planned high-speed rail system, it would help a great deal to somehow enable an American company to join the bidding. If General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and defunct companies like American Motors and Studebaker could gear up quickly to build tanks and jeeps and artillery during World War II and other wars of the 20th Century, why can't one of them now be enabled to build high-speed rail engines and coaches?

Nothing could be better for the U.S. and California, both morally and financially.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

View all comments
User Response
1 UserComments
Get Real!! 3:52pm July 19, 2011

What about Boeing? Did they apologize for carpet bombing cities, killing thousands of civilians with their planes? NO. Did GE and Ford apologize for helping manufacture parts for Germany's Japan's war machine? NO. How about IBM? NO. So you see, people need to get over the "who is clean". It has been 60 years and companies have changed, along with their employees, many times since world war two. Give it a rest!!