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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Foodborne parasites and pathogens made diarrhea almost ubiquitous. Most feared was beriberi, a potentially deadly disease caused by a lack of thiamine. There were two forms of beriberi, and they could occur concurrently. “Wet” beriberi affected the heart and the circulatory system, causing marked edema—swelling—of the extremities; if untreated, it was often fatal. “Dry” beriberi affected the nervous system, causing numbness, confusion, unsteady gait, and paralysis. When wet beriberi victims pressed on their swollen limbs, deep indentations would remain long after the pressure was removed, giving the men the unnerving impression that their bones were softening. In some cases, wet beriberi caused extreme swelling of the scrotum. Some men’s testicles swelled to the size of bread loaves.
In Ofuna’s theater of cruelty, survival was an open question, and deaths were common. For Louie, Phil, and the other captives, the only hope lay in the Allies rescuing them, but this prospect also carried tremendous danger.
In the fall of 1942, when the Americans attacked Japanese ships off Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, the Japanese beheaded twenty-two POWs held on the island. A similar horror played out on Japanese-held Ballale, in the Shortland Islands, where British POWs were being used as slaves to build an airfield. According to a Japanese officer, in the spring of 1943, when it appeared that the Americans were soon to land on Ballale, Japanese authorities issued a directive that in the event of an invasion, the POWs were to be killed. No landing occurred, but in response to an Allied bombing, the Japanese executed all of the POWs anyway, some seventy to one hundred men.
A few weeks after Louie arrived at Ofuna, an American carrier force began bombing and shelling Wake Atoll, where the Americans captured during the Japanese invasion were still being held as slaves. Mistakenly believing that an invasion was imminent, the Japanese commander had the prisoners blindfolded, bound, shot, and dumped in a hole. One man escaped. When he was caught three weeks later, the commander himself beheaded him. The only trace of the men was found years afterward. In the atoll lagoon, on a hunk of coral, one of the POWs had scraped a message:
These murders were the first applications of what would come to be known as the “kill-all” rule. Japanese policy held that camp commanders could not, under any circumstances, allow Allied forces to recapture POWs. If Allied advances made this a possibility, POWs were to be executed. “If there is any fear that the POWs would be retaken due to the tide of battle turning against us,” read a May 1944 order issued to every POW branch camp commander, “decisive measures must be taken without returning a single POW.”
That August, the Japanese War Ministry would issue a clarification of this order, sending it to all POW camp commanders:
At such time as the situation becomes urgent and it be extremely important, the POWs will be concentrated and confined in their present location and under heavy guard the preparation for the final disposition will be made … Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of them as the situation dictates … In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.
As the Allies fought their way toward Japan, the captives in Ofuna and POWs everywhere else faced the very real threat that Allied successes would bring the kill-all policy to bear on them. While none of the captives knew of the incidents in which this order had already been followed, the guards at Ofuna enjoyed warning them about the policy. Like every other captive, Louie knew that most of the guards would be eager to carry it out.
* Probably Lieutenant Hiroetsu Narushima.
Farting for Hirohito
AT FIRST, THERE WAS ONLY SILENCE AND ISOLATION. AT night, all Louie could see were walls, stripes of ground through the gaps in the floorboards, and his own limbs, as slender as reeds. The guards would stomp down the aisles, occasionally dragging a man out to be beaten. There were men in cells around Louie, but no one spoke. Come daylight, Louie was suddenly among them, hustled outside and herded in crazy circles; with his eyes trained obediently on the ground and his mouth obediently closed, Louie was no less alone. The only break in the gloom came in the form of a smiling guard who liked to saunter down the barracks aisle, pause before each cell, raise one leg, and vent a surly fart at the captive within. He never quite succeeded in farting his way down the entire cell block.
In stolen glances, nods, and hushed words, Louie sorted out the constellations of Ofuna. His barracks was inhabited by new captives, mostly Americans, survivors of downed aircraft and sunken seacraft. Down the hall lived two emaciated American navy officers, the ranking Allied servicemen. First in rank was Commander Arthur Maher, who had survived the sinking of his ship, the Houston, in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. He had swum to Java and fled into the mountains, only to be hunted down. Second in rank was thirty-five-year-old Commander John Fitzgerald, who had fallen into Japanese hands after he’d scuttled his burning submarine, the Grenadier, which had been bombed. The Japanese had attempted, in vain, to torture information out of Fitzgerald, clubbing him, jamming penknives under his fingernails, tearing his fingernails off, and applying the “water cure”—tipping him backward, holding his mouth shut, and pouring water up his nose until he passed out. Both Maher and Fitzgerald spoke Japanese, and they served as the camp’s only resident interpreters. All captives, regardless of nationality, deferred to them.
Louie’s barracks at Ofuna. His cell window was the third from the right. Frank Tinker
During forced exercise one day, Louie fell into step with William Harris, a twenty-five-year-old marine officer, the son of marine general Field Harris. Tall and dignified, with a face cut in hard lines, Harris had been captured in the surrender of Corregidor in May 1942. With another American,* he had escaped and embarked on an eight-and-a-half-hour swim across Manila Bay, kicking through a downpour in darkness as fish bit him. Dragging himself ashore on the Japanese-occupied Bataan Peninsula, he had begun a run for China, hiking through jungles and over mountains, navigating the coast in boats donated by sympathetic Filipinos, hitching rides on burros, and surviving in part by eating ants. He had joined a Filipino guerrilla band, but when he had heard of the American landing at Guadalcanal, the marine in him had called. Making a dash by boat toward Australia in hopes of rejoining his unit, he had gotten as far as the Indonesian island of Morotai before his journey ended. Civilians had turned him in to the Japanese, who had discovered that he was a general’s son and sent him to Ofuna. Even here, he was itching to escape.
William Harris. Courtesy of Katherine H. Meares
Each day, Louie and Harris hung together, laboring through forced exercise, bearing blows from the guards, and whispering. The curious thing about Harris was that while he was certainly a tall man—six foot two or three, according to his daughter—virtually everyone, including Louie, would remember him as a giant, by one account six foot eight, by another six-ten. Figuratively, though, Harris was indeed a giant. He was probably a genius. Impeccably educated, conversant in several languages, including Japanese, he had a perfect photographic memory. With a single glance, he could memorize a huge volume of information and retain it for years. In Ofuna, this attribute would be a blessing and a terrible curse.
Jimmie Sasaki made frequent visits to Ofuna, and he liked to call Louie to his office. Among ragged captives and guards in drab uniforms, Sasaki was a spectacle, dressing like a movie star and wearing his hair slicked back and parted down the middle, like Howard Hughes. The captives dubbed him “Handsome Harry.” Louie expected interrogation, but it never came. Sasaki only wanted to reminisce about USC and boast of Japan’s coming victory. He knew that Louie had lied in his interrogation on Kwajalein, but he didn’t pursue the truth. Louie couldn’t understand it. Every other captive was grilled, at least at first, but no effort was made to interrogate him. He suspected that Sasaki was using his influence to protect him.
Ofuna had one other notable resident. Gaga was a duck who bobbed around in a fire trough, paddling with a broken leg that a captive had fitted with a little splint. The duck trailed the captives around like a puppy, limping in and out of the kitchen, where the workers apparently fed him. Every morning at tenko, Gaga peg-legged to the parade ground and stood with the men, and one captive would later swear that when the men bowed toward the emperor, Gaga bowed in imitation. In so dark a place, this cheerful bird became especially beloved. For the captives, wrote Ofuna survivor “Pappy” Boyington, Gaga became a creature on which “to rest their tortured brains a moment while they [were] praying and worrying if anyone [would] ever free them.”
Louie rarely crossed paths with Phil, who was housed far down the hall. The pilot seemed to be handling Ofuna well enough, but he remained shrunken and frail, a hollow distance in his eyes. During forced exercise, he wasn’t strong enough to run, so he and a few others were separated and harangued through calisthenics.
Once, when Louie and Phil shuffled up next to each other on the parade ground, Phil finally spoke of the crash. Filled with anguish, he said that he felt responsible for the deaths of all of those men. Louie reassured him that the crash hadn’t been his fault, but Phil was unswayed.
“I’ll never fly again,” he said.
In time, Louie discovered that both the forced silence of Ofuna and the bowing submission of its captives were illusions. Beneath the hush was a humming underground of defiance.
It began with sidelong whispers. The guards couldn’t be everywhere, and as soon as an area was left unattended, the captives became absorbed in stealthy muttering. Men scribbled notes on slips of toilet paper and hid them for each other in the benjo. Once, when given permission to speak aloud so he could translate orders, Commander Maher advised another captive on stealing techniques, right in front of the oblivious guards. The boldest captives would walk up to the guards, look straight at them, and speak in English, using a querying tone. The confused guards thought they were being asked questions, when in fact the men were speaking to each other.
When words couldn’t be used, Morse code could. At night, in the small intervals when the guards left the building, the whole barracks would start tapping. Outside, men would whisper in code, using “tit” for “dot” and “da” for “dash,” words that could be spoken without moving the lips. Louie used his hands for code, obscuring them from the guards. Most of the discussions were trivial—Louie would be remembered for descriptions of his mother’s cooking—but the content didn’t matter. The triumph was in the subversion.
Louie soon learned a critical rule of conversation: Never use a guard’s real name. Guards who discovered that they were being discussed often delivered savage beatings, so the men invented nicknames for them. The sluggish, quiet camp commander was called the Mummy. Guard nicknames included Turdbird, Flange Face, the Weasel, Liver Lip, Fatty, and Termite. A particularly repugnant guard was known as Shithead.
The defiance took on a life of its own. Men would smile and address the guards in friendly tones, cooing out insults filthy enough to curl a man’s hair. One captive convinced a particularly dim-witted guard that a sundial would work at night if he used a match. A fragrant favorite involved saving up intestinal gas, explosively voluminous thanks to chronic dysentery, prior to tenko. When the men were ordered to bow toward the emperor, the captives would pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly for Hirohito.
Louie had another, private act of rebellion. A fellow captive, a bookbinder in civilian life, gave him a tiny book that he’d made in camp with rice paste flattened into pages and sewn together. Louie either found or stole a pencil and began keeping a diary. In it, he recorded what had happened since his crash, then continued with life in the camp. On the book’s central pages, in bold print, he wrote hometown contact information for other captives, making it seem to be an innocuous address book. He wrote his diary entries in faint script upside down in the back of the book, where they might be overlooked. He pried up a board on his cell floor and hid the diary underneath. With daily room inspections, discovery was likely, and would probably bring a clubbing. But this small declaration of self mattered a great deal to Louie. He knew that he might well die here. He wanted to leave a testament to what he had endured, and who he had been.
After food, what every man wanted most was war news. The Japanese sealed their camps from outside information and went to some lengths to convince their captives of Allied annihilation, first by trumpeting Japanese victories, and later, when victories stopped coming, by inventing stories of Allied losses and ridiculously implausible Japanese feats. Once, they announced that their military had shot Abraham Lincoln and torpedoed Washington, D.C. “They couldn’t understand why we laughed,” said a prisoner. Ofuna officials had no idea that the captives had found ways to follow the war in spite of them.
New captives were fonts of information, and no sooner had they arrived than their minds were picked clean, the news tapping its way down the cell blocks in minutes. Newspapers rarely appeared, but when one did, stealing it became a campwide obsession. Rations were sometimes delivered to camp wrapped in newspapers, and the two kitchen laborers, Al Mead and Ernest Duva, would quietly pocket them. The boldest men even managed to pinch papers from the interrogation room as they were being questioned. Once stolen, the papers made elaborate secret journeys, passed hand to hand until they reached the translators, Harris, Fitzgerald, and Maher. As translations were done, lookouts stood by, pretending to tie their shoes or adjust their belts. When guards neared, warnings were issued, and the papers vanished, soon to be put to their final use. In a camp with a lot of dysentery and little toilet paper, newspapers were priceless.
In a secret place inside his cell, Harris stored the tools of his clandestine translating trade. Sometime during his stay at Ofuna, he had scavenged or stolen bits of wire and string, strips of cardboard, scraps of paper, and a pencil. The cardboard had been cut from a Canadian Red Cross POW relief package; because the Red Cross didn’t know of Ofuna’s existence, the package had probably been brought from another camp by the Japanese, who routinely purloined the contents of such parcels for their own consumption. Cutting or tearing the paper into small pages, Harris had used the wire and string to bind them into two books, sewing on the cardboard as covers.
In one book, Harris had recorded the addresses of his fellow captives, including Louie. In the other, he had begun creating an elaborate Japanese-English dictionary. Inside, he had written sentences in Japanese and English—“I feel like eating melon,” “Don’t you intend to buy a piano”—followed by notes on proper phrasing, verbs, and tenses. Other pages were devoted to a comprehensive list of translations of military terms, words like “torpedo plane,” “tank,” “bomber,” “antiaircraft gun,” and “captive.” In creating the dictionary, Harris may have had more in mind than translating stolen documents; if he ever escaped from Ofuna, the Japanese translations of words like “compass,” “seacoast,” and “ashore” might be critical to know. Along with the books, Harris kept a collection of hand-drawn war maps; he’d seen the original maps in stolen newspapers, memorized them, and recreated them. He stored all of these items, along with a newspaper clipping, in a small bag that he kept carefully hidden from the guards.
Thanks to the work of thieves and translators, most captives were well enough informed on the war’s progress that they had wagers riding on when it would end. Knowing that the Allies were winning was immensely inspiring, enabling men to go on a little longer. Though the captives’ resistance was dangerous, through such acts, dignity was preserved, and through dignity, life itself. Everyone knew what the consequences would be if anyone were caught stealing newspapers or hiding items as incriminating as Harris’s maps and dictionary. At the time, it seemed worth the risk.
In the fall, the snow came, gliding through the gaps in the barracks walls. During the morning mopping, the water in the aisle froze. Nearly every captive fell ill. Louie, still wearing only the clothes he’d crashed in, developed an ominous cough. Shut outside all day, he and the others stood in large huddles, mixing slowly to give each man time in the middle, where it was warmest.
The rations dwindled. The central authorities were allotting scant food to Ofuna, but this wasn’t the half of it. Unloading the ration trucks, captives saw beans, vegetables, and other nutritious fare, yet at mealtime, these items were almost never in their bowls. Camp officials, including the commander, were stealing them. The most flagrant thief was the cook, a ringlet-haired civilian known as Curley. Curley would stand in full view of the captives as he hoisted their food over the fence to civilians, or packed it onto his bicycle and pedaled off to sell it on the black market, where it would bring astronomical prices. Sometimes he’d call Louie over, give him a package of the captives’ food, and order him to walk it over to the fence, where a woman would take it in exchange for barter payment. According to one captive, it was widely known that Curley had bought and furnished a house with his profits.
The stealing left Ofuna in a state of famine. “To give you an idea of how hungry we were,” wrote Commander Fitzgerald, “it can best be explained by the fact that it took an awful lot of will power to take the last part of starch from my rice bowl in order to stick a snapshot of my wife to a piece of plywood.” Commander Maher pleaded for more food. Officials punished his impertinence by slashing the prisoners’ rations and intensifying their exercise.
In search of something to occupy their hungry mouths, the captives were seized by a mania for smoking. Small allotments of foul tobacco were handed out, and Louie, like almost all captives, resumed the habit. Men became fiercely addicted. The few who didn’t smoke still received the tobacco ration; they were richer than kings. One of Louie’s friends, an aging Norwegian sailor named Anton Minsaas, became so hooked that he began trading his food for smokes. Louie urged him to eat, but Minsaas couldn’t be persuaded. He grew ever thinner.
Every man in camp was thin, many emaciated, but Louie and Phil were thinner than anyone else. The rations weren’t nearly enough, and Louie was plagued by dysentery. He couldn’t get warm, and he was racked by a cough. He teetered through the exercise sessions, trying to keep his legs from buckling. At night, he folded his paper blankets to create loft, but it barely helped; the unheated, drafty rooms were only a few degrees warmer than the frigid outside air. When camp officials staged a baseball game, Louie was sent to bat. He hit the ball, took one step, and collapsed. Sprawled on the ground, he heard laughing.
One day that fall, a Japanese newspaper editor came to camp. He had learned that a Louis Zamperini was being held there. In Japan, track was wildly popular, and international running stars were well known. The editor carried a file full of information on Louie, and showed it to the guards.
The guards were fascinated to learn that the sick, emaciated man in the first barracks had once been an Olympic runner. They quickly found a Japanese runner and brought him in for a match race against the American. Hauled out and forced to run, Louie was trounced, and the guards made tittering mockery of him. Louie was angry and shaken, and his growing weakness scared him. POWs were dying by the thousands in camps all over Japan and its captured territories, and winter was coming.
Louie went to Sasaki to ask for help. Since Sasaki was, by his own account, a bigwig, it seemed that it would be easy for him to intervene. But after talking about what “we” would do, Sasaki never followed through. The most he did for Louie was to give him an egg and a tangerine, which Louie shared with other captives. Louie began to believe that Sasaki wasn’t his ally, and wasn’t protecting him from interrogation. It now seemed that the Japanese simply weren’t interested in what he knew. They had brought him to Ofuna to soften him up for something else, but he had no idea what it was.
Where Sasaki failed Louie, the kitchen workers, Mead and Duva, came through, at considerable risk to themselves. Each day as they walked the barracks hall to deliver rations, they balled up an extra portion of rice and sometimes a bit of fish, waited for a moment when the guards glanced away, and tossed it to Louie. Mead whispered his only request: Give half to Phil. Louie would hide half the rice, inch up to Phil on the parade ground, and slip it into his hand.
In October, Anton Minsaas, still trading his food for cigarettes, sank to the ground during an exercise session. The guards dropped on him, clubs flying. Not long after, beriberi set in, and Minsaas became too weak to walk, then could no longer speak. Camp officials brought in a doctor, who injected Minsaas with a green fluid. Minsaas died immediately. Of the green fluid, captive Johan Arthur Johansen wrote, “We … believed that it was an attempt to end his life.”*
Louie sat in his cell, shivering and praying. A Norwegian sailor, Thorbjørn Christiansen, felt for him, and gave him a gift that may well have saved his life. Digging through his possessions, he pulled out a coat and passed it to Louie. Louie bundled up, hung on, and hoped he wouldn’t end up like Minsaas.
As 1943 drew to its end, the men in Ofuna had a taste of liberation. The veteran captives, Louie included, were allowed to speak to one another when they were outside. When new captives arrived, they were whisked into solitary confinement and banned from speaking until they were done with the initial interrogation. Veterans began loitering outside the new men’s windows, pretending to speak to each other when in fact they were grilling the neophytes.
In the early weeks of 1944, Louie got word that a new captive, just out of solitary, was looking for him. When he tracked the man down, he found a wavy-haired blond from Burbank, not far from Torrance. One of the man’s legs was gone, his pant leg tied above the knee. He introduced himself as Fred Garrett, a B-24 pilot. He seemed amazed to see Louie. As Louie listened, Garrett told a remarkable story.
Before Christmas, the Americans had gone after the Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands, sending waves of bombers. Flying on one such mission, Garrett was shot down over the ocean, incurring a compound ankle fracture. After floating for ten hours on a raft, he was picked up by a Japanese tugboat crew. They took him to an island, where Japanese soldiers took turns kicking his dangling ankle. Then Garrett was flown to another island and thrown into a cell block where nineteen other downed American airmen were being held. His ankle festered, maggots hatched in it, and Garrett began to run a high fever. He was told that he’d be given medical care only if he divulged military secrets. If not, he’d be killed. Garrett lied in interrogation, and the Japanese knew it.
Two days after Christmas, Garrett was tied down, given a spinal anesthetic, and forced to watch as a Japanese corpsman sawed at his leg, then snapped it off. Though the infection was limited to the ankle, the corpsman cut the entire leg off, because, he told Garrett, this would make it impossible for him to fly a plane again. Garrett, delirious, was dumped back in his cell. The next morning, he was thrown onto a truck and taken toward mainland Japan with two other captives. Their journey brought them to Ofuna. The seventeen Americans who were left behind were never seen again.
Garrett then told Louie why he had sought him out. As he had lain in fevered agony in his cell on the second island, he had looked up to see ten names scratched into the wall. He had asked about them and had been told that the first nine men had been executed. No one had told him what had happened to the tenth man. Garrett had spent much of his time mulling over that last name on the wall, perhaps thinking that if this man had survived, so might he. When he had arrived at Ofuna, he had asked if anyone had heard of that man, Louis Zamperini. Garrett and Zamperini, both Los Angeles–area natives, had been held in the same tiny Kwajalein cell almost five thousand miles from home.
Plodding around the parade ground that winter, Louie and Harris befriended Frank Tinker, a dive-bomber pilot and opera singer who had been brought from Kwajalein with Garrett. The three spent most of their outdoor time together, sitting on benches or tracing the edges of the compound, distracting one another from the tooth-chattering cold with mind exercises. Harris and Tinker were experiencing the sparkling mental clarity, prompted by starvation, that Louie had first known on the raft. Tinker became conversant in Norwegian in a single week, taking lessons from his cell neighbors. He saw Harris arguing with another captive about medieval history and the Magna Carta, and he once found the marine sitting with his hands parted as if holding a book, staring at them and mumbling to himself. When Tinker asked what he was doing, Harris said he was reading a text that he had studied at Annapolis many years earlier. Harris could see the book in front of him, as if its words were written across his outspread fingers.
With the help of Christiansen’s coat, Duva and Mead’s rice, and Harris, Tinker, and Garrett’s friendship, Louie survived the winter. Buoyed by the extra calories, he strengthened his legs, lifting his knees up and down as he walked the compound. The guards began goading him into running around the compound alone.
When spring arrived, Ofuna officials brought in a Japanese civilian and ordered Louie to race him. Louie didn’t want to do it, but he was told that if he refused, all captives would be punished. The race was about a mile and a half, in laps around the compound. Louie had no intention of winning, and lagged behind