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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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trees. It was a boat. It had been perpendicular to them, leaving only one mast visible, and then it had turned, bringing the rearward mast into view.
Louie and Phil ducked. They rowed as fast as they could, trying to get to shore before the sailors spotted them. They were too late. The boat made a sharp turn and sped toward them. The weakened men couldn’t row fast enough to escape. They gave up and stopped.
The boat drew alongside the raft, and Louie and Phil looked up. Above them was a machine gun, mounted on the boat’s bow. Along the deck stood a line of men, all Japanese. Each one held a weapon, pointed at the castaways.
One of the Japanese opened his shirt and pointed to his chest. He seemed to want the Americans to do the same. As Louie opened his shirt, he braced himself, expecting to be shot, but no shot came. The man had only wanted to see if they were armed.
One of the sailors threw a rope at the raft, and Louie caught it. Louie and Phil tried to climb onto the boat, but their legs were too weak. The sailors brought out a rope ladder, tied the castaways to it, and dragged them up, then pulled the raft aboard. On the deck, Louie and Phil attempted to rise, but their legs buckled. The Japanese were impatient for the men to move across the deck, so the Americans crawled on all fours. When they reached the mast, they were picked up and lashed to it. Their hands were bound behind their backs.
One of the sailors began speaking to them in Japanese. He seemed to be asking questions. Louie and Phil offered responses, trying to guess what the man wanted to know. A soldier waved a bayonet past Louie’s face, trying to hack off his beard. Another man cracked a pistol across Phil’s jaw, then moved to do the same to Louie. Louie tipped his head forward in hopes that the sailor would aim for the front of his face; when the sailor swung, Louie jerked his head back. The man missed, but Louie smacked his head against the mast.
The boat’s captain approached and chastised the crewmen. The mood changed, and Louie’s and Phil’s hands were untied. Someone gave the castaways cigarettes, but the ends kept lighting their beards on fire. Someone else brought them cups of water and one biscuit each. Louie took a bite of the biscuit and held it in his mouth, caressing it, feeling the flavor. He ate slowly, savoring each crumb. It was his first food in eight days.
A second boat pulled alongside the first. Louie and Phil were helped onto it, and it began moving. As it sailed, a crewman came to the castaways and fed them more biscuits and some coconut. Then a young sailor approached, Japanese-English dictionary in hand, and asked questions. Phil and Louie gave brief accounts of their journey.
In time, the boat drew up to a large island. A sailor approached with two blindfolds and tied them around Louie’s and Phil’s heads. Men got on either side of them, grabbed their arms, and half-dragged, half-carried them off the boat. After a few minutes, Louie felt himself being laid down on something soft. His blindfold was taken off.
He was inside an infirmary, lying on a soft mattress on an iron bed. Phil was on a bed beside his. There was a small window nearby, and through it, he could see Japanese soldiers thrusting bayonets into dummies. An officer spoke to the Japanese surrounding the castaways, then spoke in English, apparently repeating his statement so Louie and Phil would understand him.
“These are American fliers,” he said. “Treat them gently.”
A doctor came in, smiled warmly, and examined Phil and Louie, speaking English. He smoothed ointment on their salt sores and burned lips, palpated their abdomens, took their temperatures and pulses, and pronounced them healthy. Louie and Phil were helped to their feet and led to a scale. They took turns standing on it, each with a man ready to catch him if his legs failed.
Phil had weighed about 150 pounds when he had stepped aboard Green Hornet. Louie’s war diary, begun shortly after he arrived in Hawaii, noted that he weighed 155 pounds. He believed that weight training had added another 5 pounds by the time of the crash. Now Phil weighed about 80 pounds. According to different accounts, five-foot, ten-inch Louie weighed 67 pounds, 79.5 pounds, or 87 pounds. Whatever the exact number, each man had lost about half of his body weight, or more.
On the doctor’s orders, in came a bottle of Russian cognac and two glasses, which Louie and Phil quickly emptied. Then came a platter of eggs, ham, milk, fresh bread, fruit salad, and cigarettes. The castaways dug in. When they were done, they were helped into another room and seated before a group of Japanese officers, who gaped at the shrunken, canary yellow men. An officer, speaking English, asked how they had ended up there. Louie told the story as the Japanese listened in silent fascination, tracing the journey on a map.
Louie and Phil knew where their journey had begun, but did not yet know where it had ended. The officers told them. They were on an atoll in the Marshall Islands. They had drifted two thousand miles.
As Japanese servicemen crowded around, the raft was spread out and the bullet holes counted. There were forty-eight. The curious servicemen pressed toward the Americans, but the officers kept them back. An officer asked Louie where the bullet holes had come from. Louie replied that a Japanese plane had strafed them. The officer said that this was impossible, a violation of their military code of honor. Louie described the bomber and the attack. The officers looked at one another and said nothing.
Two beds were made up, and Louie and Phil were invited to get as much rest as they wished. Slipping between cool, clean sheets, their stomachs full, their sores soothed, they were deeply grateful to have been received with such compassion. Phil had a relieved thought: They are our friends.
Louie and Phil stayed in the infirmary for two days, attended by Japanese who cared for them with genuine concern for their comfort and health. On the third day, the deputy commanding officer came to them. He brought beef, chocolate, and coconuts—a gift from his commander—as well as news. A freighter was coming to transport them to another atoll. The name he gave sent a tremor through Louie: Kwajalein. It was the place known as Execution Island.
“After you leave here,” Louie would long remember the officer saying, “we cannot guarantee your life.”
The freighter arrived on July 15. Louie and Phil were taken into the hold and housed separately. The captain had bountiful portions of food sent to them. The prisoners ate all they could.
One of the cruelties of starvation is that a body dying of hunger often rejects the first food it is given. The food on the atoll had apparently agreed with the castaways, but not the food on the freighter. Louie spent much of that day hunched over the ship railing, vomiting into the sea, while a guard held him. Phil’s meal left him almost as quickly, but by a different route; that evening, he had to be taken on at least six runs to the head.
As the freighter drew up to Kwajalein on July 16, the Japanese became harsh. On came the blindfolds, and Louie and Phil were taken onto what seemed to be a barge. When the barge stopped, they were picked up, heaved over men’s shoulders, and carried. Louie felt himself bobbing through the air, then slapped down on a hard surface. Phil was dropped beside him. Louie said something to Phil, and immediately felt a boot kick into him as a voice shouted, “No!”
An engine started, and they were moving. They were on the flatbed of a truck. In a few minutes, the truck stopped, and Louie was tugged out and flung over a shoulder again. There was walking, two steps up, a darkening, the sense that Phil was no longer near him, and the disorienting feeling of being thrown backward. Louie’s back struck a wall, and he fell to a floor. Someone yanked off his blindfold. A door slammed, a lock turned.
At first, Louie could barely see. His eyes darted about uncontrollably. His mind raced, flitting incoherently from thought to thought. After weeks of endless openness, he was disoriented by the compression of the space around him. Every nerve and muscle seemed in a panic.
Slowly, his thoughts quieted and his eyes settled. He was in a wooden cell, about the length of a man and not much wider than his shoulders. Over his head was a thatched roof, about seven feet up. The only window was a hole, about a foot square, in the door. The floor was strewn with gravel, dirt, and wiggling maggots, and the room hummed with flies and mosquitoes, already beginning to swarm onto him. There was a hole in the floor with a latrine bucket below it. The air hung hot and still, oppressive with the stench of human waste.
Louie looked up. In the dim light, he saw words carved into the wall: NINE MARINES MAROONED ON MAKIN ISLAND, AUGUST 18, 1942. Below that were names: Robert Allard, Dallas Cook, Richard Davis, Joseph Gifford, John Kerns, Alden Mattison, Richard Olbert, William Pallesen, and Donald Roberton.
In August 1942, after a botched American raid on a Japanese base at Makin in the Marshall Islands, nine marines had been mistakenly left behind. Captured by the Japanese, they had disappeared. Louie was almost certainly the first American to learn that they had been taken to Kwajalein. But other than Phil and Louie, there were no prisoners here now. Louie felt a wave of foreboding.
He called to Phil. Phil’s voice answered, distant and small, somewhere to the left. He was down the hall in a squalid hole like Louie’s. Each man asked the other if he was okay. Both knew that this was likely the last time they would talk, but if they wished to say good-bye, neither had the chance. There was shuffling in the corridor as a guard took up his station. Louie and Phil said nothing else.
Louie looked down at his body. Legs that had sprung through a 4:12 mile over bright sand on that last morning on Kualoa were now useless. The vibrant, generous body that he had trained with such vigilance had shrunken until only the bones remained, draped in yellow skin, crawling with parasites.
All I see, he thought, is a dead body breathing.
Louie dissolved into hard, racking weeping. He muffled his sobs so the guard wouldn’t hear him.
* Several days later, a catastrophic typhoon, almost certainly the same storm, plowed into the coast of China, collapsing homes, uprooting telephone poles, and causing extensive flooding.
A Dead Body Breathing
SOMETHING FLEW THROUGH THE WINDOW IN THE DOOR of Louie’s cell and struck the floor, breaking into white bits. It was two pieces of hardtack, the dry biscuit that was the standard fare of sailors. A tiny cup of tea—so weak that it was little more than hot water, so small that it constituted a single swallow—was set on the sill. Phil received food also, but no water. He and Louie crawled about their cells, picking up slivers of biscuit and putting them into their mouths. A guard stood outside.
There was a rustle outside Louie’s cell, and a face appeared. The man greeted Louie cheerfully, in English, by name. Louie stared up at him.
The man was a Kwajalein native, and he explained that the American castaways were the talk of the island. A sports fanatic, he had recognized Louie’s name, which Louie had given to his captors. Prattling about track, football, and the Olympics, he paused only rarely to ask Louie questions. Once Louie got one or two words off, the native bounded back into his narrative.
After a few minutes, the native glanced at his watch and said he had to leave. Louie asked him what had happened to the marines whose names were carved into the wall. In the same chipper tone, the native replied that the marines were dead. All of the POWs held on that island, he said, were executed.
As the native walked out, the guard looked challengingly at Louie, lifted a flattened hand to his throat, and made a slashing gesture. He pointed to the names on the wall, then to Louie.
That night, Louie rested his head next to the door, trying to get as far as possible from the waste hole. He had only just settled there when the door swung open and the guard grabbed him and spun him around, pushing his head against the hole. Louie resisted, but the guard became angry. Louie gave up and lay as the guard ordered. He could see that the guard wanted him to lie in this position so he could see him through the window in the door. Every few minutes, all night long, the guard peered in, making sure that Louie didn’t move.
The morning of the second day began. Phil and Louie lay in sweltering silence, thinking that at any moment they’d be dragged out and beheaded. The guards stalked back and forth, snarling at the captives and drawing the sides of their hands across their necks with sadistic smiles.
For Louie, the digestive miseries continued. His diarrhea became explosive, and cramps doubled him over. He lay under a blanket of flies and mosquitoes, keeping his buttocks over the waste hole for as long as he could, until the guard snapped at him to move his face back to the hole.
The day passed. Three times, a single wad of rice, a little bigger than a golf ball, sailed through the door window and broke against the floor. Once or twice, a swallow of tea in a cup was left on the sill, and Louie sucked it down. Night came.
Another day came and went, then another. The heat was smothering. Lice hopped over the captives’ skin. Mosquitoes preyed on them in swarms so thick that when Louie snapped his fingers into a fist, then opened his hand, his entire palm was crimson. His diarrhea worsened, becoming bloody. Each day, Louie cried out for a doctor. One day, a doctor came. He leaned into the cell, looked at Louie, chuckled, and walked away.
Curled up on the gravelly floor, both men felt as if their bones were wearing through their skin. Louie begged for a blanket to sit on, but was ignored. He passed the time trying to strengthen his legs, pulling himself upright and standing for a minute or two while holding the wall, then sinking down. He missed the raft.
Two sips of water a day weren’t nearly enough to replace Louie’s torrential fluid loss. His thirst became worse than anything he’d known on the raft. He crawled to the door and pleaded for water. The guard left, then returned with a cup. Louie, grateful, drew close to the door to take a drink. The guard threw scalding water in his face. Louie was so dehydrated that he couldn’t help but keep begging. At least four more times, the response was the same, leaving Louie’s face speckled with blisters. Louie knew that dehydration might kill him, and part of him hoped it would.
One day, as he lay in misery, Louie heard singing. The voices he had heard over the raft had come to him again. He looked around his cell, but the singers weren’t there. Only their music was with him. He let it wash over him, finding in it a reason to hope. Eventually, the song faded away, but silently, in his mind, Louie sang it over and over to himself. He prayed intensely, ardently, hour after hour.
Down the hall, Phil languished. Rats were everywhere, climbing up his waste bucket and wallowing in his urine pail, waking him at night by skittering over his face. Periodically, he was prodded outside, halted before a pan of water, and ordered to wash his face and hands. Phil dropped his face into the pan and slurped up the water.
Louie often stared at the names of the marines, wondering who they were, if they’d had wives and children, how the end had come for them. He began to think of them as his friends. One day he pulled off his belt and bent the buckle upward. In tall, block letters, he carved his name into the wall beside theirs.
Louie couldn’t speak to Phil, nor Phil to him, but occasionally one of them would cough or scuff the floor to let the other know that he was there. Once, the guards left the cells unattended, and for the first time, Phil and Louie were alone. Louie heard Phil’s voice.
“What’s going to happen?”
Louie had no answer. There was a beating of boots in the hall and the Americans fell silent.
The guards maintained a fixed state of fury at the captives, glaring at them wrathfully, making threatening gestures, shouting at them. Virtually every day, they flew into rages that usually ended in Phil and Louie being bombarded with stones and lit cigarettes, spat upon, and poked with sticks. Louie always knew that he was in for it when he heard a guard arriving in a stomping fit—a consequence, he hoped, of an American victory. The situation worsened when the guard had company; the guards used the captives to impress each other with their cruelty.
The pretext for many of the outbursts was miscommunication. The captives and their guards came from cultures with virtually no overlap in language or custom. Louie and Phil found it almost impossible to understand what was being asked of them. Sign language was of little help, because even the cultures’ gestures were different. The guards, like nearly all citizens of their historically isolated nation, had probably never seen a foreigner before, and probably had no experience in communicating with a non-Japanese. When misunderstood, they often became so exasperated that they screamed at and beat the captives.
For self-preservation, Louie and Phil studied everything they heard, developing small Japanese vocabularies. Kocchi koi meant “come here.” Ohio was a greeting, used by the occasional civil guard. Though Louie soon knew what it meant, his stock reply was “No, California.” Phil learned that mizu meant water, but the knowledge got him nowhere; his cries for mizu were ignored.
When the guards weren’t venting their fury at the captives, they entertained themselves by humiliating them. Every day, at gunpoint, Louie was forced to stand up and dance, staggering through the Charleston while his guards roared with laughter. The guards made Louie whistle and sing, pelted him with fistfuls of gravel, taunted him as he crawled around his cell to pick up bits of rice, and slid long sticks through the door window so they could stab and swat him, finding his helpless contortions hilarious. Down the hall, the guards did the same to Phil. Sometimes Louie could hear Phil’s voice, tiny and thin, groaning. Once, driven to his breaking point by a guard jabbing him, Louie yanked the stick from the guard’s hands. He knew he might get killed for it, but under this unceasing degradation, something was happening to him. His will to live, resilient through all of the trials on the raft, was beginning to fray.
The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter. But on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live. One American airman, shot down and relentlessly debased by his Japanese captors, described the state of mind that his captivity created: “I was literally becoming a lesser human being.”
Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.
Louie had been on Kwajalein for about a week when his cell door was thrown open and two guards pulled him out. He flushed with fear, thinking that he was being taken to the sword. As he was hustled toward what seemed to be an officers’ quarters, he passed two girls with Asian features, walking with heads down, eyes averted, as they retreated from the building. Louie was pulled into a room and stopped before a table covered with a white tablecloth, on which was arranged a selection of foods. Around it sat Japanese officers in dress uniforms, smoking cigarettes. Louie wasn’t here to be executed. He was here to be interrogated.
The officers took long draws on their cigarettes and sighed the smoke toward Louie. Periodically, one of them would open a bottle of cola, pour it into a cup, and drink it slowly, making a show of his enjoyment.
The ranking officer stared coolly at his captive. How do American soldiers satisfy their sexual appetites? he asked. Louie replied that they don’t—they rely on willpower. The officer was amused. The Japanese military, he said, provides women for its soldiers, an allusion to the thousands of Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Filipino women whom the Japanese military had kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. Louie thought of the girls outside.
The interrogators asked about Louie’s plane. They knew, probably from Louie’s conversation with the officers on the first atoll, that it was a B-24. What model was it? On Oahu, Louie had heard that during a battle, a B-24D had crashed on a reef and had been retrieved by the Japanese. Green Hornet had been a D model. Knowing that the Japanese already knew about this model, he decided not to lie, and told them that he had been in a D. They handed him a pencil and paper and asked him to draw the plane. When he was done, his interrogators held up a photograph of a D model. They had been testing him.
What did he know about the E-model B-24? Nothing, he told them. It was a lie; Super Man, while always officially a D model, had undergone upgrades that had effectively made it an E. Where was the radar system? The location of the radar had no bearing on how it worked, so Louie told the truth. How do you operate it? Louie knew the answer, but he replied that as a bombardier, he wouldn’t know. The interrogators asked him to draw the radar system. Louie invented an imaginary system, making a drawing so elaborate that, it was later written, the system looked like “a ruptured octopus.” The interrogators nodded.
They moved on to the Norden bombsight. How do you work it? You just twist two knobs, Louie said. The officers were annoyed. Louie was sent back to his cell.
Suspecting that he’d be brought back, Louie brainstormed, trying to anticipate questions. He thought about which things he could divulge and which things he couldn’t. For the latter, he came up with lies and practiced until he could utter them smoothly. Because he’d been partially truthful in the first session, he was now in a better position to lie.
Phil was pulled in for interrogation. He, too, knew about the captured B-24D, so he spoke freely about the plane’s components. The interrogators asked him to describe American war strategy. He replied that he thought they would attack the outlying captured territories, then work their way in until they defeated Japan. The interrogators responded with whoops of laughter. Phil sensed something forced. These men, he suspected, thought that Japan was going to lose.
Louie was sitting in his cell when a new guard appeared at the door. Louie looked up, saw a face he didn’t recognize, and felt an upswell of dread, knowing that a new guard would likely assert his authority.
“You Christian?” the guard asked.
Louie, whose parents had tried to raise him Catholic, hadn’t gone near church since one Sunday in his boyhood, when a priest had punished him for tardiness by grabbing him by the ear and dragging him out. But though Louie emerged with a sore ear, a little religion had stuck with him. He said yes. The guard smiled.
The guard gave his name, which Louie would later recall, with some uncertainty, as Kawamura. He began babbling in English so poor that all Louie could pick out was something about Canadian missionaries and conversion. The guard slipped two pieces of hard candy into Louie’s hand, then moved down the hall and gave two pieces to Phil. A friendship was born.
Kawamura brought a pencil and paper and began making drawings to illustrate things he wished to talk about. Walking back and forth between the cells, he’d draw a picture of something—a car, a plane, an ice cream cone—and say and write its Japanese name. Louie and Phil would then write and say the English name. The prisoners understood almost nothing of what Kawamura said, but his goodwill needed no translation. Kawamura could do nothing to improve the physical conditions in which the captives lived, but his kindness was lifesaving.
When Kawamura was off guard duty, a new guard came. He launched himself at Louie, ramming a stick through the door window and into Louie’s face, as if trying to put out his eyes. The next day, Kawamura saw Louie’s bloody face and asked who had done it. Upon hearing the guard’s name, Kawamura hardened, lifting his arm and flexing his biceps at Louie. When his shift was up, he sped away with an expression of furious determination.