A POW Returns to Japan

By Kevin Brennan ’07
Notre Dame Alumni Association

Last month, William Howard Chittenden ’49 left his home in Wheaton, Illinois and traveled halfway around the world to Japan. For a week and a half, he visited historic sites and sampled the authentic local cuisine.


But Chittenden was not your average tourist. The 95-year-old was an invited guest of the Japanese government. And it was his first time back in the country since he spent 1,364 grueling days as a prisoner of war seven decades ago. 

Chittenden joined eight other former American POWs on the trip. They had been invited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry as part of a reconciliation program that launched five years ago. The group met with Japanese government officials, attended a reception at American Ambassador Caroline Kennedy's residence, and visited some of the places they had been held captive. 

“By the time it was over, I was worn out,” Chittenden says. “It was very exhausting but very entertaining and very interesting.”

The whirlwind tour served as a redemptive return to a place that had caused Chittenden so much suffering and left him with a lifetime of difficult memories.  

A Path to College

Chittenden grew up in the Midwest during the Great Depression. Like many, his family did not have much money, so college was not an option after high school graduation. He found a job as a drugstore clerk in Villa Park, Illinois but grew frustrated as he watched some of his friends from more well off families progress through college.

“I decided I’d join the Marine Corps, see the world, and save some money,” Chittenden remembers. “And then go to college later in life.”

He entered the Marines in Chicago in late October 1939. A month earlier, Germany had invaded Poland, plunging Europe into another world war. 

Chittenden attended boot camp in San Diego. He then was sent to Bremerton, Washington, where he worked guard duty at Puget Sound Navy Yard. After just a month, Chittenden answered a call seeking volunteers for assignments in Asia. He shipped out of Bremerton in March 1940 and arrived in Peking, China on May 5.

Chittenden was one of 450 Marines assigned to guard the American embassy in Peking. “It was some of the best duty in the Marine Corps,” he says. Chittenden loved the work, but by December of 1941, his stint in China was coming to an end. He had been ordered to return to the United States to attend officer training school.

Three days before his scheduled departure, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had already invaded in China in 1937. Now at war with the United States, Japanese forces held the American troops in Peking captive.

Just days away from his scheduled return to the United States, Chittenden was now a prisoner of war.  

Life as a POW


“At the time, we thought the war would be over in six months,” Chittenden remembers. “That was our attitude about it.”

That turned out to be wishful thinking. He spent the first year and a half in two separate prison camps outside Shanghai. The camps were run by the Chinese, and Chittenden remembers being treated relatively well. In August of 1943, he was transferred to Japan.

“It was a different thing entirely.” he remembers. He says the Japanese tended to view prisoners of war with contempt. “To them surrender was a humiliating thing. That was the way they looked at us.”

His new prison camp in Kawasaki, Japan was situated near a steel mill. Each day, Chittenden and his fellow POWs were marched to the mill, where they were forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. In June 1945, after the U.S. bombings of Kawasaki, Chittenden was moved to a camp in Niigata, where he was made to load and unload cargo for a transportation company. It added up to two years of intense slave labor. 

Meanwhile, the prisoners were fed barely enough to survive, and the food they did receive lacked essential nutrients. While Chittenden was never physically tortured, other prisoners were. The most painful element may have been the psychological effects of captivity. “You knew it was going to end one way or another. Either you’re going to die there, or you’re going to get home. You never knew which your fate would be.”  

"Either you’re going to die there, or you’re going to get home. You never knew which your fate would be.”  

Chittenden learned of his fate on August 15, 1945, a day he calls one of the happiest of his life. The Japanese surrendered, and within weeks he was on a plane back to the United States. He was brought to a Navy hospital in Oakland, California. Chittenden’s normal weight was 150 pounds, but he was down to 100 when he arrived at the hospital. “It was a tremendous relief to finally get back to where you weren’t constantly hungry.”

A Dream Realized

Once back to full health and honorably discharged from the Army, Chittenden set out to fulfill his original goal of attending college. With the help of the GI Bill, he knew which school he wanted to attend. “The sisters in grade school, they always preached Notre Dame,” Chittenden says. “And so I was brainwashed by the sisters.”

Chittenden enrolled in March 1946 as a 26-year-old freshman. He majored in marketing with a minor in philosophy and graduated in just three years. Most importanty, Chittenden met Patricia O’Connor, a student at Saint Mary’s. The couple got married in 1949 and went on to have three children together. After graduation, Chittenden accepted a job at Sears, Roebuck & Company in Chicago. He retired from the company in 1980 as the quality assurance manager in the men’s sportswear department

Through it all, Chittenden stayed connected to his wartime experiences. He and many of his fellow North China Marines would meet periodically for reunions. And after he left Sears, Chittenden felt compelled to share his memories. “No one had ever told anything about us,” he says. “I felt that somebody ought to write something and put our story in history.” His book, a detailed and fascinating account of his service career and the experience of being a prisoner of war,  was published in 1995.

Back in Japan


The trip to Japan in October was filled with poignant moments. On the first day, the group visited Yokohama War Cemetery, where there is a memorial to the prisoners of war who died. The nine POWs were invited to enter the crypt, which contained a mass urn holding the ashes of over 300 falled troops. Confined to a wheelchair, Chittenden wasn’t able to enter, but he sat outside and saluted the deceased.

They also made a stop in Kawasaki at the steel mill where Chittenden worked for two years. Inside the mill, he came across a sketch of the prison camp. Chittenden noticed something amiss. In the sketch, the camp was set up for 160 prisoners, but there were actually 250 men there at the time. Chittenden brought a copy of the sketch back to Wheaton, where he plans to correct it and mail it back.

The experience offered Chittenden some closure on the most difficult chapter of his life. Still, some things continue to nag at him. Perhaps the biggest is the regret he carries that he never had the opportunity to defend his country in battle.

“When I think of what fellows did that could contribute to the war effort, we were never able to do that. And that has always bothered me,” he explains. “I say this for myself and I think for every other man that was with me. We would all have rather taken our chances of coming through the war in combat than as prisoners of the Japanese.”

Catching Up With Rocky Bleier ’68

The former football standout discusses the injuries he suffered while serving in Vietnam, his road to recovery, the success he achieved as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his passion for supporting service men and women and veterans:

A Match Made in the Military

By Kevin Brennan ’07
Notre Dame Alumni Association

Helicopters brought them together.

Neither one set out to be a pilot. Converging factors pushed them in that direction, and through a stroke of good fortune, they ended up at Fort Campbell at the same time.


Heather ’09 M.B.A. and Michael Burns ’09 M.B.A. are perfect for each other. They fell in love, got married, and built a family together. They have supported each other’s careers, cheering each other on as they have ascended to prestigious posts in the corporate world.

But their love story never would have been written if not for a shared commitment to serving others. This desire drew both of them to the Army. It inspired them to attend flight school and learn to fly helicopters. And it brought them both to Fort Campbell and each other.

Following a Mother’s Example

Growing up in Maryland, Heather didn’t need to look far to find someone committed to serving others. Her mother was a nurse in the Army Reserves. That example took hold early and inspired Heather from a very early age. As a high school student, she served as a volunteer firefighter.

When Heather chose to attend Penn State, she opted to enroll in the Army ROTC program. The experience offered structure and discipline at a time when many young people lack both.

“It definitely kept you in line because you had to wake up early practically every morning,” she remembers. “You weren’t likely to miss out on 8 a.m. classes.”

As her college career drew to a close, Heather didn’t know which direction her service requirement would take her. Flying helicopters was not something she initially considered. “It was kind of a strange thing,” she says. “I just happened to take the flight aptitude test when I was in ROTC, and I scored well.”

Her next step was flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. There, she trained as a Black Hawk pilot, learning to fly the complex utility helicopters. Once she finished her training, Heather was supposed to be stationed in Honduras. A last-minute change of plans—something you’re always prepared for in the military—landed her at Fort Campbell instead. She filled a number of different roles during her stint there. The most unusual was as a member of the Soldier Show, a company of performers who travel around the world to entertain troops at different bases. Heather built sets, played the trumpet, sang, and danced at stops around the U.S., in Japan, and in Korea.

Heather never deployed overseas, but her time at Fort Campbell altered the direction of her life. It’s where she met another helicopter pilot named Michael.

Changing Plans

While Michael participated in Junior ROTC as a high school student in Texas, he wasn’t necessarily planning to follow that path in college. But when he set up a trip to visit New York University, one of his JROTC commanding officers convinced him to add another stop. So after touring a school in the heart of Manhattan, Michael traveled 50 miles north to the United States Military Academy in West Point. By the time he left the well manicured campus, he was determined to return as a student.

When he did enroll, Michael was in for a surprise. “I got hit with a ton of bricks. In high school, I was a superstar,” he says. “I get to West Point, and everybody is the homecoming king. Everyone is the team captain. Everyone is the superstar.”

Michael, who had never received below a B+ in his life up to that point, failed his first semester of chemistry. Discouraged, he considered leaving the academy. Thanks to the encouragement of his family, he decided to stay and ended up excelling.

Initially, Michael planned to pursue a career as a lawyer, but attending law school added an extra two years onto the required post-graduation service. Unsure he wanted to make that commitment at the time, Michael opted instead to give flying a try. Like his future wife, he was sent to Fort Rucker for flight school, where Michael learned to pilot Apache helicopters. One morning, near the end of his time there, he came home to his apartment, turned on the television, and learned a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

“I think everybody in uniform can remember where they were and what they were doing,” Michael says, thinking back to Sept. 11, 2001. “And knew that their experience in the service was going to be very different than the people before them.”

Weeks later, Michael was deployed to Afghanistan. He was in charge of four of the first eight Apache helicopters in the country during the United States’ initial invasion. They supported Special Ops and Delta Force missions throughout the country. He returned home after six months. But when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Michael was one of the first Apache pilots to deploy. He was there for more than a year, leading a group of helicopter pilots and later organizing efforts to rebuild war-torn towns in Northern Iraq.

When he returned from his second tour in 2004, Michael was stationed at Fort Campbell, where he met another helicopter pilot named Heather.

Escaping the Friend Zone

One of Michael’s closest friends was Heather’s first commanding officer at Fort Campbell. The two began traveling in the same social circles and were initially, as Michael puts it now, “in the friend zone.” Soon, their shared values and mutual admiration made them something more.

Michael loved that Heather accepted him for who he was. Heather was attracted to the genuine happiness Michael felt for others. “If you you accomplish something, the joy that he has for your accomplishment would be the same than if he had the accomplishment himself.”

After they had been dating for only a few months, Michael was transferred to Fort Lee in Virginia, 700 miles away from Heather. “Being in the military, you have to learn to adapt,” Heather says. “You’re used to having long distance relationships.” Their love continued to grow, and in December 2005, they got married.

A year later, Michael was preparing to leave the military and weighing potential career paths. Then, the Army approached him with an enticing offer. They would pay for Michael to attend business school full-time if after earning his degree he would return to West Point to serve as the director of diversity recruitment and enrollment at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy. Michael knew exactly which graduate school he hoped to attend.

Beginning in Business

A diehard football fan, Michael has cheered for Notre Dame ever since his father bought him a discounted Fighting Irish jersey when he was 4 years old. Michael and Heather visited campus, and an admissions counselor encouraged Heather to apply too. They were both accepted, and in the fall of 2007, the couple relocated to South Bend.

They loved their time at Notre Dame, and each had promising career options in front of them with their M.B.A. degrees in hand. After three years in admissions at West Point, Michael left the Army and opened his own operational consulting company. He then spent 18 months at the chief operating officers of AnesthesiaOS, a company that builds software for electronic medical records for anesthesia. Earlier this year, hoping to find another position in the diversity field, Michael accepted an offer to become the head of Institutional Clients Group Diversity at Citibank in New York City.

“We’ve probably spent more time apart than we have together, but it hasn’t affected us,” Heather says. “We’re still together even if we’re not physically together.”

Meanwhile, while at Notre Dame, Heather became interested in the fast-paced world of trading. She took a position with Morgan Stanley in their electronic training group. She spent her first two years in the firm’s New York office but became interested when Morgan Stanley started expanding its equities business in Brazil. Heather studied Portuguese, learned it fluently, and relocated to Brazil in 2011 to lead their electronic trading practice in the country.  

Michael had to stay in the U.S. due to his own professional obligations, but he supported Heather’s move and visited her in Brazil as frequently as possible. “Heather and I always agreed that we would never let someone else’s career trump the other person’s career,” he says. Their son, now two years old, was born in Brazil and is a dual citizen.

“We’ve probably spent more time apart than we have together, but it hasn’t affected us,” Heather says. “We’re still together even if we’re not physically together.”

Embracing the Future

When Michael started his new job at Citibank this year, the entire family permanently relocated to New York, where Heather is now a vice president at Morgan Stanley. Heather and Michael both say that, along with their training at Notre Dame, their military backgrounds have served them well in the corporate world. “You are accustomed to speaking to people of many different ranks and different levels of responsibility and working across teams,” Heather explains. Michael agrees, stressing that the military teaches you how to “take people from very different backgrounds and have them all rowing the ship and all the oars going in the same direction at the same tempo to get to the same destination.”

The couple knows that the future will present many unknown opportunities. They don’t know what their next jobs or moves will be, but they are prepared, as always, to adapt and thrive.

One of these days, they might even pick up an old hobby. “We do talk about one day renting a helicopter, but we’ve been married ten years and we haven’t done it yet,” Heather says. Neither of them has flown since leaving the military. “I think my nerves were a lot tougher back then, and now I’m a parent.”

There is one thing Heather and Michael know for sure. Whatever challenges and adventures lie ahead, they will embrace them as a committed, supportive, and loving team.



A Long Walk for Veterans

By Josh Stowe ’01
Notre Dame Alumni Association

Whatever it takes, David Roth ’91 will be ready to walk across the country to help raise money for veterans and their families. It doesn’t matter if it means training in the ring with a former heavyweight boxing champion, dropping almost 50 pounds so far, or striding long past the time his legs grow sore, Roth will be prepared, come April, to walk more than 3,000 miles.


It’s all part of Route for the Brave, a fundraising walk Roth’s undertaking in his role as the board chair of Helping Hands for Freedom, an organization that serves wounded veterans and their families as well as the families of fallen military personnel.  The walk will help raise money to build a retreat home aimed at helping veterans to recuperate from PTSD and reacclimate to civilian life alongside their families.

“How do we get that message out? I came up with the idea of using U.S. Route 40, which is basically the route that built America,” Roth says. “I’m a regular guy who wasn’t in the best shape last November, but I’m doing this to get out and meet people and share our story.”

Inspired to End Suffering

Although not a veteran himself, Roth was a natural fit when he joined Helping Hands for Freedom as board chair in 2013. He knows plenty of veterans — family, members, friends, and members of the Indianapolis Metro Police Department, where he works as a detective.  He also has extensive fundraising experience, having worked for 16 years as a representative of the Police and Firemen's Insurance Association, which assists families of officers and firefighters who’ve died, been injured, or fallen ill.

Stories of veterans’ and military families’ suffering moved Roth to organize and undertake this grueling cross-country hike. Some are close to home. After a stepson returned from deployment, Roth helped him readjust to life as a family man.

Others are close to his old police beat, where he met a war widow and her children, one of whom has Down syndrome, living in a dilapidated van. Although help was available, the woman had trouble filling out forms to get assistance. Roth and his colleagues helped her with paperwork and got her children enrolled in school. They collected donations and helped set the family up in an apartment.

“When you experience that, how long would you walk?” Roth asks. “Those stories inspire me so much.”

Building a Retreat For Veterans, Families

Stories like that have Roth and his colleagues eager to do something big for veterans and their families. That’s where the retreat house comes in. The idea, Roth says, is to create a safe space for PTSD-stricken veterans to readjust to civilian life with their families.

“We want them to be in a place where they can get away, get counseling, and where they know they can get help,” he says.

“We want them to be in a place where they can get away, get counseling, and where they know they can get help,”

The upcoming walk will raise money for the house, and Helping Hands for Freedom hopes to attract a big donor to help fund the project. The group hasn’t chosen a location but is considering potential sites in Indiana, Kentucky, and Arizona, Roth says. The property may include space for horseback riding and other animal therapy as well as provide families with access to trained counselors.

“I’m just looking to create one retreat home where we have relationships with psychologists, with businesspeople,” Roth says. “We have the specialists that can come in there and give their time. It’s a getaway where people can sit down and talk. How about the family sitting down with the soldier? And having dad or mom explain what they went through and why they do what they do. We want that place to be a retreat where people can come together. Until you feel you’re part of a healing process, it’s hard to let go of those events that have happened to you.”

Training to Walk Across the Country


The walk will raise money and awareness for the house. The undertaking has required a great deal of preparation from Roth, who weighed 287 pounds just a year ago. Since then, he’s dropped 47 pounds, thanks partly to workouts with former heavyweight boxing champion Lamon Brewster. A mix of sparring, circuit training, eating better, and plenty of walking has helped him get in shape for the long hike.

The walk, from Atlantic City to San Francisco between April 28 and August 26, will require Roth, who’s 47, to walk 28 miles a day, six days a week, starting at about 5:30 a.m. and ending around 2:30 p.m. That leaves time to meet with families and veterans’ organizations and engage local media for publicity.

Roth is taking a leave of absence from his job for the walk. He considers it an opportunity to fulfill the aspirations for public service he gained as a student at Notre Dame, where he majored in sociology and did service work for the Center for Social Concerns. Earlier this year, he walked across Indiana to help raise money for Helping Hands for Freedom, a warmup for the cross-country hike.

“The interest snowballed,” he says. “Grants started coming in. People were watching. And along that walk, I was able to help some families. I was so inspired that it didn’t matter what was going to happen or how sore I was. I had such a sense of fulfillment.”