then did it a third time. The guard rushed back in, and the captive pretended that the pan had accidentally slipped.

Louie hurried to his friends and announced that Saipan had fallen. At the time of their capture, the American bomber with the longest range was the B-24. Because the Liberator didn’t have the range to make the three-thousand-mile round-trip between Saipan and Japan’s home islands, the captives must have believed that winning Saipan was only a preliminary step to establishing an island base within bomber range of mainland Japan. They didn’t know that the AAF had introduced a new bomber, one with tremendous range. From Saipan, the Japanese mainland was already within reach.

The guards and officials were increasingly agitated. Sasaki had long crowed about the inevitability of Japan’s victory, but now he buddied up to the captives, telling Louie of his hatred of former prime minister and war architect Hideki Tojo. He began to sound like he was rooting for the Allies.

As they considered the news on Saipan, Louie and the others had no idea what horrors were attending the Allied advance. That same month, American forces turned on Saipan’s neighboring isle, Tinian, where the Japanese held five thousand Koreans, conscripted as laborers. Apparently afraid that the Koreans would join the enemy if the Americans invaded, the Japanese employed the kill-all policy. They murdered all five thousand Koreans.

At night, as they lay in their cells, the captives began hearing an unsettling sound, far in the distance. It was the scream of air-raid sirens. They listened for bombers, but none came.


As summer stretched on, conditions in Ofuna declined. The air was clouded with flies, lice hopped over scalps, and wiggling lines of fleas ran the length of the seams in Louie’s shirt. Louie spent his days and nights scratching and slapping, and his skin, like that of everyone else, was speckled with angry bite marks. The Japanese offered a rice ball to the man who killed the most flies, inspiring a cutthroat swatting competition and hoarding of flattened corpses. Then, in July, the men were marched outside and into a canal to bail water into rice paddies. When they emerged at the day’s end, they were covered in leeches. Louie had six on his chest alone. The men became frantic, begging the guards for their cigarettes. As they squirmed around, jabbing at the leeches with cigarettes, one of the guards looked down at them.

“You should be happy in your work,” he said.

On August 5, a truck bearing the month’s rations arrived. As Fitzgerald watched, camp officials stripped it nearly clean. Curley announced that the rations were again being cut, blaming it on rats. Fitzgerald noted in his diary that after officials were done “brown bagging” their way through the seventy pounds of sugar allotted to the captives, one teacup of sugar remained. On August 22, a truck backed up to the kitchen door, and the captive kitchen workers were told to leave. Fitzgerald went to the benjo, from which he could see the kitchen. He saw sacks of food being piled into the truck, which then left camp. “Someone must be opening up a store and really getting set up in business,” he wrote.

The beatings went on. The Quack was especially feral. One day, Louie saw some Japanese dumping fish into the trough in which the captives washed their hands and feet. Told to wash the fish, Louie walked up and peered into the trough. The fish were putrid and undulating with maggots. As he recoiled, the Quack saw him, pounded over, and punched him a dozen times. That night, the same fish was ladled into Louie’s bowl. Louie wouldn’t touch it. A guard jabbed him behind the ear with a bayonet and forced him to eat it.

And then there was Gaga. Something about this affectionate little duck, perhaps the fact that he was beloved to the captives, provoked the guards. They tortured him mercilessly, kicking him and hurling him around. Then one day, in full view of the captives, Shithead opened his pants and violated the bird. Gaga died. Of all the things he witnessed in war, Louie would say, this was the worst.

Louie’s mind fled Ofuna and carried him home. He hadn’t seen his family in two years. He thought of the little white house, Virginia and Sylvia, his father and dear, devoted Pete. Most poignant were his memories of his mother. Fred Garrett had told Louie that he’d been given up for dead. Louie couldn’t bear the thought of what this news must have done to his mother.

It was the accumulation of so much suffering, the tug of memory, and the conviction that the Japanese wouldn’t let them leave Ofuna alive that led Louie to listen to the nearby planes and wonder if they could be a way out. Examining the fence, he, Tinker, and Harris concluded that it might be possible to get around the guards and over the barbed wire. The thought hooked all three of them. They decided to make a run for it, commandeer a plane, and get out of Japan.


At first, their plans hit a dead end. They’d been brought in blindfolded and had ventured out of camp only briefly, to irrigate the rice paddies, so they knew little about the area. They didn’t know where the airport was, or how they’d steal a plane. Then a kind guard inadvertently helped them. Thinking that they might enjoy looking at a book, he gave them a Japanese almanac. Harris cracked it open and was immediately rapt. The book was full of detailed information on Japan’s ports, the ships in its harbors and the fuels they used, and the distances between cities and landmarks. It was everything they needed to craft an escape.

In hours spent poring over the book, they shaped a plan. They discarded the plane idea in favor of escape by boat. Just a few miles to the east was the port of Yokohama, only there was nowhere to go from there. But if they crossed Japan to the western shore, they could get to a port that would offer a good route to safety.

They’d go on foot. Harris plotted a path across the island, a walk of about 150 miles. It would be dangerous, but Harris’s earlier experience of hiking all over the Bataan Peninsula gave them confidence. Once at a port, they’d steal a powerboat and fuel, cross the Sea of Japan, and flee into China. Given that Louie had drifted two thousand miles on a hole-riddled raft with virtually no provisions, a few hundred miles on the Sea of Japan in a sturdy powered boat seemed manageable. Tinker, who’d been captured more recently than Harris and Louie, had the most current knowledge of which areas of China were occupied by the enemy. He worked out a route that they hoped would steer them clear of the Japanese.

They counted on finding safe harbor in China. In 1942, America had launched its first and, until recently, only bombing raid on Japan’s home islands. The raid had used B-25s flown, perilously, off an aircraft carrier, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. After bombing Japan, some of the Doolittle crews had run out of gas and crashed or bailed out over China. Civilians had hidden the airmen from the Japanese, who’d ransacked the country in search of them. Harris, Tinker, and Louie had heard rumors that the Japanese had retaliated against Chinese civilians for sheltering the Doolittle men, but didn’t know the true extent of it. The Japanese had murdered an estimated quarter of a million civilians.

There was one problem that the men didn’t know how to overcome. When they stood near the guards, it was impossible not to notice how much the Americans differed from typical Japanese people, and not simply in facial features. The average Japanese soldier was five foot three. Louie was five foot ten, Tinker six feet, Harris even taller. Hiking across Japan, they’d be extremely conspicuous. China might be welcoming, but in Japan, it would be foolish to assume that they’d find friendly civilians. After the war, some POWs would tell of heroic Japanese civilians who snuck them food and medicine, incurring ferocious beatings from guards when they were caught. But this behavior was not the rule. POWs led through cities were often swarmed by civilians, who beat them, struck them with rocks, and spat on them. If Louie, Harris, and Tinker were caught, they would almost certainly be killed, either by civilians or by the authorities. Unable to remedy the height difference, they decided to move only at night and hope for the best. If they were going to die in Japan, at least they could take a path that they and not their captors chose, declaring, in this last act of life, that they remained sovereign over their own souls.

As the plan took shape, the prospective escapees walked as much as possible, strengthening their legs. They studied the guards’ shifts, noting that there was a patch of time at night when only one guard watched the fence. Louie stole supplies for the journey. His barber job gave him access to tools, and he was able to make off with a knife. He stole miso paste and rice. He gathered bits of loose paper that flitted across the compound, to be used for toilet paper, and every strand of loose string he could find. He stashed all of it under a floorboard in his cell.

For two months, the men prepared. As the date of escape neared, Louie was filled with what he called “a fearful joy.”

Just before the getaway date, an event occurred that changed everything. At one of the POW camps, a prisoner escaped. Ofuna officials assembled the men and issued a new decree: Anyone caught escaping would be executed, and for every escapee, several captive officers would be shot. Louie, Tinker, and Harris suspended their plan.


With the escape off, Louie and Harris channeled their energy into the captive information network. At the beginning of September, a captive saw a newspaper lying on the Quack’s desk. There was a war map printed in it. Few things were more dangerous than stealing from the Quack, but given the threat of mass executions upon an Allied invasion, the captives were willing to do almost anything to get news. Only one man had the thieving experience for a job this risky.

For several days, Louie staked out the Quack’s office, peeking in windows to watch him and the guards. At a certain time each day, they’d go into the office for tea, walk out together to smoke, then return. The length of their cigarette break never varied: three minutes. This was Louie’s only window of opportunity, and it was going to be a very, very close call.

With Harris in place, Louie loitered by the Quack’s office, waiting for his moment. The Quack and the guards stepped out, cigarettes in hand. Louie crept around the side of the building, dropped onto all fours so that he wouldn’t be seen through the windows, and crawled into the office. The newspaper was still there, sitting on the desk. Louie snatched the paper, stuck it under his shirt, then crawled back out, rose to his feet, and walked to Harris’s cell, striding as quickly as he could without attracting attention. He opened the paper and showed it to Harris, who stared at it for several seconds. Then Louie crammed it under his shirt again and sped back to the Quack’s office. His luck had held; the Quack and the guards were still outside. He went back down on all fours, hurried in, threw the paper on the desk, and fled. No one had seen him.

At the barracks, Harris pulled out a strip of toilet paper and a pencil and drew the map. The men all looked at it. Memories later differed as to the subject of the map, but everyone recalled that it showed Allied progress. Harris hid the map among his belongings.

In the late afternoon of September 9, Harris was sitting in a cell with another captive, discussing the war, when the Quack swept into the doorway. Harris hadn’t heard him coming. The Quack noticed something in Harris’s hand, stepped in, and snatched it. It was the map.

The Quack studied the map; on it, he saw the words “Philippine” and “Taiwan.” He demanded that Harris tell him what it was; Harris replied that it was idle scribbling. The Quack wasn’t fooled. He went to Harris’s cell, ransacked it, and found, by his account, a trove of hand-drawn maps—some showing air defenses of mainland Japan—as well as the stolen newspaper clipping and the dictionary of military terms. The Quack called in an officer, who spoke to Harris, then left. Everyone thought that the issue was resolved.

That night, the Quack abruptly called all captives into the compound. He looked strange, his face crimson. He ordered the men to do push-ups for about twenty minutes, then adopt the Ofuna crouch. Then he told Harris to step forward. Louie heard the marine whisper, “Oh my God. My map.”

The men who witnessed what followed would never blot it from memory. Screeching and shrieking, the Quack attacked Harris, kicking him, punching him, and clubbing him with a wooden crutch that he took from an injured captive. When Harris collapsed, his nose and shins streaming blood, the Quack ordered other captives to hold him up, and the beating resumed. For forty-five minutes, perhaps an hour, the beating went on, long past when Harris fell unconscious. Two captives fainted.

Harris’s handmade Japanese-English dictionary, discovered by Sueharu Kitamura, “the Quack.” Courtesy of Katherine H. Meares

The Quack. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

William Harris. Courtesy of Katherine H. Meares

At last, raindrops began to patter over the dirt, the Quack, and the body beneath him. The Quack paused. He dropped the crutch, walked to a nearby building, leaned against its wall, and slid languidly to the ground, panting.

As the guards dragged Harris to his cell, Louie followed. The guards jammed Harris in a seated position against a wall, then left. There Harris sat, eyes wide open but blank as stones. It was two hours before he moved.

Slowly, in the coming days, he began to revive. He was unable to feed himself, so Louie sat with him, helping him eat and trying to speak with him, but Harris was so dazed that he could barely communicate. When he finally emerged from his cell, he wandered through camp, his face grotesquely disfigured, his eyes glassy. When his friends greeted him, he didn’t know who they were.


Three weeks later, on the morning of September 30, 1944, the guards called the names of Zamperini, Tinker, Duva, and several other men. The men were told that they were going to a POW camp called Omori, just outside of Tokyo. They had ten minutes to gather their things.

Louie hurried to his cell and lifted the floorboard. He pulled out his diary and tucked it into the folds of his clothing. At a new camp, a body search would be inevitable, so he left his other treasures for the next captive to find. He said good-bye to his friends, among them Harris, still floating in concussed misery. Sasaki bid Louie a friendly farewell, offering some advice: If interrogated, stick to the story he’d told on Kwajalein. A few minutes later, after a year and fifteen days in Ofuna, Louie was driven from camp. As the truck rattled out of the hills, he was euphoric. Ahead of him lay a POW camp, a promised land.



IT WAS LATE MORNING ON THE LAST DAY OF SEPTEMBER 1944. Louie, Frank Tinker, and a handful of other Ofuna veterans stood by the front gate of the Omori POW camp, which sat on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. The island was nothing more than a sandy spit, connected to shore by a tenuous thread of bamboo slats. Across the water was the bright bustle of Tokyo, still virtually untouched by the war. Other than the patches of early snow scattered over the ground like hopscotch squares, every inch of the camp was an ashen, otherworldly gray, reminding one POW of the moon. There were no birds anywhere.

They were standing before a small office, where they’d been told to wait. In front of them, standing beside the building, was a Japanese corporal. He was leering at them.

He was a beautifully crafted man, a few years short of thirty. His face was handsome, with full lips that turned up slightly at the edges, giving his mouth a faintly cruel expression. Beneath his smartly tailored uniform, his body was perfectly balanced, his torso radiating power, his form trim. A sword angled elegantly off of his hip, and circling his waist was a broad webbed belt embellished with an enormous metal buckle. The only incongruities on this striking corporal were his hands—huge, brutish, animal things that one man would liken to paws.

Mutsuhiro Watanabe, “the Bird.” National Archives

Louie and the other prisoners stood at attention, arms stiff, hands flat to their sides. The corporal continued to stare, but said nothing. Near him stood another man who wore a second lieutenant’s insignia, yet hovered about the lower-ranking corporal with eager servility. Five, perhaps ten minutes passed, and the corporal never moved. Then, abruptly, he swept toward the prisoners, the second lieutenant scurrying behind. He walked with his chin high and his chest puffed, his gestures exaggerated and imperious. He began to inspect the men with an air of possession—looking them over, Louie thought, as if he were God himself.

Down the line the corporal strode, pausing before each man, raking his eyes over him, and barking, “Name!” When he reached Louie, he stopped. Louie gave his name. The corporal’s eyes narrowed. Decades after the war, men who had looked into those eyes would be unable to shake the memory of what they saw in them, a wrongness that elicited a twist in the gut, a prickle up the back of the neck. Louie dropped his eyes. There was a rush in the air, the corporal’s arm swinging, then a fist thudding into Louie’s head. Louie staggered.

“Why you no look in my eye?” the corporal shouted. The other men in the line went rigid.

Louie steadied himself. He held his face taut as he raised his eyes to the corporal’s face. Again came the whirling arm, the jarring blow into his skull, his stumbling legs trying to hold him upright.

“You no look at me!”

This man, thought Tinker, is a psychopath.


The corporal marched the men to a quarantine area, where there stood a rickety canopy. He ordered the men to stand beneath it, then left.

Hours passed. The men stood, the cold working its way up their sleeves and pant legs. Eventually they sat down. The morning gave way to a long, cold afternoon. The corporal didn’t come back.

Louie saw a wooden apple box lying nearby. Remembering his Boy Scout friction-fire training, he grabbed the box and broke it up. He asked one of the other men to unthread the lace from his boot. He fashioned a spindle out of a bamboo stick, fit it into a hole in a slat from the apple box, wound the bootlace around the spindle, and began alternately pulling the ends, turning the spindle. After a good bit of work, smoke rose from the spindle. Louie picked up bits of a discarded tatami mat, laid them on the smoking area, and blew on them. The mat remnants whooshed into flames. The men gathered close to the fire, and cigarettes emerged from pockets. Everyone got warmer.

The corporal suddenly reappeared. “Nanda, nanda!” he said, a word that roughly translates to “What the hell is going on?” He demanded to know where they’d gotten matches. Louie explained how he had built the fire. The corporal’s face clouded over. Without warning, the corporal slugged Louie in the head, then swung his arm back for another blow. Louie wanted to duck, but he fought the instinct, knowing from Ofuna that this would only provoke more blows. So he stood still, holding his expression neutral, as the second swing connected with his head. The corporal ordered them to put the fire out, then walked away.

Louie had met the man who would dedicate himself to shattering him.


The corporal’s name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe.* He was born during World War I, the fourth of six children of Shizuka Watanabe, a lovely and exceptionally wealthy woman. The Watanabes enjoyed a privileged life, having amassed riches through ownership of Tokyo’s Takamatsu Hotel and other real estate and mines in Nagano and Manchuria. Mutsuhiro, whose father, a pilot, seems to have died or left the family when Mutsuhiro was relatively young, grew up on luxury’s lap, living in beautiful homes all over Japan, reportedly waited on by servants and swimming in his family’s private pool. His siblings knew him affectionately as Mu-cchan.

After a childhood in Kobe, Mutsuhiro attended Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, where he studied French literature and cultivated an infatuation with nihilism. In 1942, he graduated, settled in Tokyo, and took a job at a news agency. He worked there for only one month; Japan was at war, and Mutsuhiro was deeply patriotic. He enlisted in the army.

Watanabe had lofty expectations for himself as a soldier. One of his older brothers was an officer, and his older sister’s husband was commander of Changi, a giant POW camp in Singapore. Attaining an officer’s rank was of supreme importance to Watanabe, and when he applied to become an officer, he probably thought that acceptance was his due, given his education and pedigree. But he was rejected; he would be only a corporal. By all accounts, this was the moment that derailed him, leaving him feeling disgraced, infuriated, and bitterly jealous of officers. Those who knew him would say that every part of his mind gathered around this blazing humiliation, and every subsequent action was informed by it. This defining event would have tragic consequences for hundreds of men.

Corporal Watanabe was sent to a regiment of the Imperial Guards in Tokyo, stationed near Hirohito’s palace. As the war hadn’t yet come to Japan’s home islands, he saw no combat. In the fall of 1943, for unknown reasons, Watanabe was transferred to the military’s most ignominious station for NCOs, a POW camp. Perhaps his superiors wanted to rid the Imperial Guards of an unstable and venomous soldier, or perhaps they wanted to put his volatility to use. Watanabe was assigned to Omori and designated the “disciplinary officer.” On the last day of November 1943, Watanabe arrived.


Even prior to Watanabe’s appearance, Omori had been a trying place. The 1929 Geneva Convention, which Japan had signed but never ratified, permitted detaining powers to use POWs for labor, with restrictions. The laborers had to be physically fit, and the labor couldn’t be dangerous, unhealthy, or of unreasonable difficulty. The work had to be unconnected to the operations of war, and POWs were to be given pay commensurate with their labor. Finally, to ensure that POW officers had control over their men, they could not be forced to work.

Virtually nothing about Japan’s use of POWs was in keeping with the Geneva Convention. To be an enlisted prisoner of war under the Japanese was to be a slave. The Japanese government made contracts with private companies to send enlisted POWs to factories, mines, docks, and railways, where the men were forced into exceptionally arduous war-production or war-transport labor. The labor, performed under club-wielding foremen, was so dangerous and exhausting that thousands of POWs died on the job. In the extremely rare instances in which the Japanese compensated the POWs for their work, payment amounted to almost nothing, equivalent to a few pennies a week. The only aspect of the Geneva Convention that the Japanese sometimes respected was the prohibition on forcing officers to work.

Like almost every other camp, Omori was a slave camp. For ten to eleven hours a day, seven days a week, Omori’s enlisted POWs did backbreaking labor at shipyards, railyards, truck-loading stations, a sandpit, and a coalyard. Men had to be on the verge of death to be spared; minimum fever levels for exemption were 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The labor was extremely grueling; according to POW Tom Wade, each man at the Tokyo railyards lifted a total of twenty to thirty tons of material a day. Probably because Omori was used as a show camp where prisoners were displayed for the Red Cross, the men were “paid” ten yen per month—less than the price of a pack of cigarettes—but they were permitted to spend it only on a tiny selection of worthless goods at a camp canteen, so the money came right back to the Japanese.

Compounding the hardship of Omori was the food situation. The rations were of better quality than those at Ofuna but were doled out in only slightly larger quantities. Because officers weren’t enslaved, they were allowed only half the ration given to slaves, on the justification that they needed fewer calories. Along with rice, the men received some vegetables, but protein was almost nonexistent. About once a week, someone would push a wheelbarrow into the camp, bearing “meat.” Because a wheelbarrow’s worth was spread over hundreds of men, a serving amounted to about a thimble-sized portion; it consisted of things like lungs and intestines, assorted dog parts, something the POWs called “elephant semen,” and, once, a mystery lump that, after considerable speculation, the men decided was a horse’s vagina.

Just as at Ofuna, beriberi and other preventable diseases were epidemic at Omori. Because rations were halved for sick men who were unable to work, the ill couldn’t recover. Men harrowed by dysentery—“the benjo boogie”—swallowed lumps of coal or burnt sticks to slow the digestive waterfall. Many men weighed less than ninety pounds.

The only saving grace of Omori, prior to November 1943, had been the attitude of the Japanese personnel, who weren’t nearly as vicious as those at Ofuna. The prisoners gave them nicknames, including Hogjaw, Baby Dumpling, Bucktooth, Genghis Khan, and Roving Reporter; one unfortunate officer, wrote POW Lewis Bush, wore puffy pants and “walked as though he was always bursting to go to the lavatory,” prompting the men to call him Lieutenant Shit-in-Breeches. There were