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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
May 1943’… Well, what do you know?… Boy.… that’s rich.… Here I am just as alive as I could be.… but hell I’m supposed to be dead.… Yeah and this reminds me of another fellow who’s in the same boat as me or at least he was.… Anyway he told me that he was officially reported as ‘killed in action’ but in reality was a prisoner-of-war.… After several months he received a letter from his wife in which she told him that she had married again since she thought he was dead … Of course, she was astonished to hear that he was safe and held in an internment camp.… She however, consolated him by saying that she was willing to divorce again or marry him once again when he gets home.… Boy, I really feel sorry for a fellow like that.and the blame lies with the official who allow such unreliable rports [sic].… After all the least they can do is to let the folks back home know just where theri boy are [sic]…
Anyway thats not my worry but I hope the folks back home are properly notified of the fact that I am alive and intend to stay alive … It’s certainly a sad world when a fellow can’t even be allowed to live, I mean when a fellow is killed off by a so-called ‘official report.… How about that?…
Louie was aghast. He had long wondered why he’d been spared from execution on Kwajalein, after the nine marines had been killed, and why he’d been subjected to the will-weakening torment of Ofuna yet not interrogated, even though everyone else had been. At last, the Japanese had made their intentions clear. On Kwajalein, after Louie’s execution had been ordered, an officer had persuaded his superiors to keep Louie alive to make him into a propaganda tool. A famous American Olympian, he’d reasoned, would be especially valuable.* The Japanese had probably sent Louie to the crucible of Ofuna, then to Omori under the Bird, to make his life in camp unbearable so he’d be willing to do anything, even betray his country, to escape it. They had hidden him from the world, keeping his name off Red Cross rosters, and waited until his government had publicly declared his death before announcing that he was alive. In doing so, they hoped to embarrass America and undermine American soldiers’ faith in their government.
Louie refused to read the statement. Still smiling, the producers asked him to join them on a little tour. They brought him to a cafeteria and served him a delicious American-style meal, then took him to a private living area that had beds with mattresses and sheets. If Louie would make the broadcast, the producers said, he could live here, and he’d never have to see Omori again. Finally, Louie was introduced to a group of men, Australians and Americans. These men, the producers said, were helping them make broadcasts. As Louie held out his hand, the propaganda prisoners dropped their eyes to the floor. Their faces said it all; if Louie agreed to make this broadcast, he would be forced into a life as his enemy’s propagandist.
Louie was taken back to the studio and urged to do the broadcast. He refused. The smiles evaporated; the faces hardened. The producers ordered him to do it. He said no. The producers left the room to meet in private.
Louie was alone in the studio. In front of him were several copies of the message that they wanted him to deliver. He slid his hand through a tear in his pocket, snagged a copy, and pulled it into his coat. The producers returned.
“Okay,” one of them said. “I think you go to punishment camp.”
Omori was called a punishment camp, but the producers were clearly referring to some other place. For Louie, any camp had to be better than Omori, because the Bird wouldn’t be there. The producers gave him one last chance to change his mind. He did not.
Louie was dumped back at Omori. The Bird was waiting for him, glowing with renewed hatred. His beatings resumed, with intensified vigor. Maybe Louie was being punished for refusing to make the broadcast, or maybe the producer to whom Louie had appealed for help had told the Bird of Louie’s accusations. Louie stood his ground, took his beatings with rebellion boiling in him, and waited to be shipped to “punishment camp.” And like all the other POWs, he watched the sky, praying that the promise of that first B-29 would be fulfilled.
In the early afternoon on Friday, November 24, the Tokyo sirens began to howl. From the sky came an immense shivering sound. The POWs looked up. There, so high that they appeared to be gleaming slits in the sky, were acres and acres of B-29s, one hundred and eleven of them, flying toward an aircraft factory on the rim of the city. Caught in what would later be called the jet stream, the planes were streaking along at speeds approaching 445 miles per hour, almost 100 miles per hour faster than they were built to fly. The Americans had arrived.
“It was a cold, clear, sunny day,” wrote POW Johan Arthur Johansen, who was at a slave site at the time. “The planes were shining like silver in the sunshine against the blue sky overhead … It was a beautiful sight which lift[ed] our spirit right up to the sky.” Men began yelling, “Drop the bombs!” and “Happy landings!” and “Welcome back!” The guards stared up, so awed by the planes that they didn’t seem to hear the men shouting.
A B-29 over Japan. Associated Press
At Omori, the camp accountant, Yuichi Hatto, was standing with a group of POWs. As they watched, a lone Japanese fighter raced toward the planes, then abruptly, startlingly, flew straight into a bomber, the smaller plane shattering and raining down on Tokyo Bay. The bomber began falling, white smoke twirling from it. A single parachute puffed from its side, and one of the POWs cried, “One safe! Safe!” The English word caught in Hatto’s ear; he had heard it used only in baseball games. The bomber hit the water, killing all aboard. The lone survivor, under his parachute, wafted over Tokyo as gently as a dandelion seed. As the man sank into the city, Hatto had a sick feeling, thinking of what would happen to that airman when he reached the ground. The other bombers flew on. A few minutes later, there was distant booming.
As the fall stretched on, B-29s crossed over Omori nearly every day, sometimes a lone plane, sometimes vast continents of aircraft. On sunny days, the men stood out and watched them; on cloudy days, they only heard them, a growl above the gray. In Tokyo, the sirens sang so incessantly that the POWs began sleeping through them.
Eighty-one bombers went over on November 27. On the drizzly night of November 29–30, the prisoners were awakened by two incendiary raids on Tokyo’s industrial areas. Explosions were heard far away, and the POWs could see licks of fire on the mainland, the last gasps of the 2,773 structures that burned that night. Civilians began streaming over the bridge and camping outside Omori’s walls in hopes of escaping the bombs.
One day that fall, Louie stood outside, watching Japanese fighters turning lupine circles around a crowd of B-29s. The battle was so high that only the giant, shining bombers were consistently visible; the fighters, tiny in contrast, flickered in and out of view as the sunlight caught them. Every little while, there was a sharp, brief burst of light alongside the bombers. To Louie, it looked like firecrackers. It was the fighters, gunned by the B-29s, blowing up. The bombers flew on, imperious. The Bird watched the scene with a stricken face. “Hikoki dame,” he said. “Hikoki dame.” Japan’s planes, he was lamenting, were no good.
Every B-29 that beat a path over Tokyo wound the Bird tighter. He hounded the POWs with endless inspections, prohibited smoking, singing, and card playing, and outlawed religious services. He slapped one officer across the face repeatedly for five minutes, made him stand at attention, coatless, for four hours in the cold, then ordered him to clean the benjos for two hours a day for two weeks. He beat a kitchen worker with a spoon the size of an oar. He pawed through the men’s belongings, confiscating personal papers and photographs of loved ones, deeming much of it “suspicious” and destroying it. He was seized with paranoia. “You win war, and you make all Japanese like black slaves!” he shouted at a POW. He hauled Martindale to his office, accused him of plotting to burn down a barracks, and beat him so energetically, with fists and a kendo stick, that he overturned all of the furniture.
B-29 Superfortresses. Associated Press
In December, the Bird left camp for several days, and Omori was briefly peaceful. But on the night before the Bird was slated to return, the POWs were jarred from their sleep to hear him charging through camp in a driving rainstorm, yelling that it was a fire drill. When the designated firefighters assembled under the freezing downpour, the Bird punched several of them in the face, ran through barracks shouting and punching other men, then ordered every man in camp to line up outside. When Louie and the others did as told, the Bird drew his sword, swung it around, and screamed orders and invectives. For two hours, the Bird forced the men to pump water on imaginary fires, beat out phantom blazes with brooms, and run in and out of buildings “rescuing” food and documents.
As December progressed, the Bird’s mania deepened. He rounded up the officers and hounded them across the bridge and into Tokyo, on the pretense of retrieving firewood from bombed-out houses. Troughs of water for firefighting had been set along the streets, and as the men marched, the Bird leapt upon one, drew his sword, and screamed “Keirei!” The men saluted him, and the Bird, lost in a fantasy, stood on his roost in an absurdly exaggerated troop-reviewing pose that reminded Tom Wade of Mussolini. Civilians gathered and began cheering. After the POWs had passed, the Bird jumped down, ran ahead, and hopped onto another trough, shouting, striking his pose, and demanding salutes. Over and over he repeated the farce, driving the men on for miles.
When the bombs were falling, the Bird would snap, running through camp with his sword in the air, wailing at the men, foam flying from his mouth, lips peeled back in a wicked rictus, eyelid drooping, face purple. During at least two bombings, he prevented the POWs from seeking cover in the trenches. In one incident, he ran the POWs outside, stood them at attention, and ordered the guards to aim their rifles at them. With bombs booming, the Bird raced up and down the line of terrified POWs, swinging his sword over their heads.
Every escalation in the bombing brought a parallel escalation in the Bird’s attacks on Louie. He sped around camp in search of the American, fuming and furious. Louie hid, but the Bird always found him. Three or four times a week, the Bird launched himself at Louie in what Frank Tinker would call his “death lunge,” coming at him with fists flying, going for his face and head. Louie would emerge dazed and bleeding. He was more and more convinced that Watanabe wouldn’t stop until he was dead.
Louie began to come apart. At night, the Bird stalked his dreams, screeching, seething, his belt buckle flying at Louie’s skull. In the dreams, the smothered rage in Louie would overwhelm him, and he’d find himself on top of his monster, his hands on the corporal’s neck, strangling the life from him.
As Louie suffered through December, some three hundred miles away, his former pilot was wasting away in a filthy, unheated barracks in the Zentsuji POW camp. Phil had been transferred to Zentsuji the previous August, joining one-legged Fred Garrett, who’d been transferred from Ofuna.
Though Ofuna interrogators had spoken of Zentsuji as a “plush” reward, the camp was no such place. The prisoners’ diet was so poor that the men wandered the compound, ravenous, pulling up weeds and eating them. Their only drinking water came from a reservoir fed by runoff from rice paddies fertilized with human excrement, and to avoid dying of thirst, the POWs had to drink it, leaving 90 percent of them afflicted with dysentery. In one barracks room, men lost an average of fifty-four pounds over eighteen months. An officer estimated that twenty men fainted each day. Almost everyone had beriberi, and some men went blind from malnutrition. On the last day of November, they buried an American who had starved to death.
There was one blessing at Zentsuji. Phil was permitted to send brief messages home on postcards. He wrote one after another. They were mailed, but got snarled in the postal system. The fall waned and another Christmas approached, and Phil’s family received none of them.
A year and a half had passed since Phil had disappeared. His family remained in limbo, having heard nothing about him since his plane had gone down. In November, they had learned about Louie’s broadcast. The news had been tantalizing, but frustrating. Louie had mentioned other servicemen who were with him, but the names had been obscured by static, and the transcript hadn’t conveyed them with certainty. Had Louie mentioned Allen?
On a Friday night in December 1944, the telephone rang in Kelsey Phillips’s home. On the line was a major from the adjutant general’s office at the War Department. Probably through the Red Cross, the department had received news from Zentsuji. Allen was alive.
Kelsey was jubilant. She asked the major to cable her husband and her son’s fiancée, and in Washington, Cecy got the news she had awaited for so long. The fortune-teller had said that Allen would be found before Christmas. It was December 8. Overcome with elation, Cecy called her brother to shout the news, quit her job, dashed through her apartment throwing clothes and pictures of Allen into a suitcase, and hopped a plane back to Indiana to wait for her fiancé to come home.
Four days before Christmas, a card from Allen, written in October, finally reached home. “Dear Folk: Hope you all are well and am looking forward to being home with you. I hope we can go rabbit hunting before the season closes Dad. Give my love to Cecy Martha and Dick. Happy birthday dad.” Kelsey pored over the precious slip of paper, comforted by the familiar lines of her son’s handwriting. Chaplain Phillips, now stationed in France, got the news on Christmas Eve. “Words really cannot describe the way I feel,” he wrote to his daughter. “I am in an altogether new world now. I can think of nothing more wonderful. It is a real touch of all that heaven means.”
In a letter officially confirming that Allen was a POW, the Phillipses were asked not to speak publicly about the fact that Allen had been discovered alive. Kelsey would henceforth heed this request, but the letter had reached her too late; by the morning after the War Department’s call, the news was already all over town, and stories about Allen’s survival were in the local papers. The Zamperinis, who had received a similar letter stating that the War Department now believed that Louie’s broadcast had been real, were also asked not to speak of it publicly. The War Department probably didn’t want it known that they had erroneously declared two airmen dead, especially as the Japanese were exploiting this fact.
Kelsey was allowed to send one cable to her son, and she filled the other days writing letters to him. On December 14, she wrote to Louise Zamperini. As relieved as Kelsey was for Allen, there was heaviness in her heart. Of all of the men on Green Hornet, only Louie and Allen had been found. Hugh Cuppernell’s mother was so demoralized that she could no longer bear to write to the other mothers. Sadie Glassman, mother of the belly gunner, Frank Glassman, had written to Louise, asking if she had heard anything about Frank. “Even though we have heard nothing,” she wrote, “the fact that you might know something makes us feel as though there might be a little hope.”
“It is difficult to rejoice outwardly (though I do in my heart) when I think of the other mothers whom I have learned to love, and realize how keenly they feel the loss that is theirs,” Kelsey wrote to Louise. “How my heart goes out to them and I shall write them every one.”
As Christmas neared, Louie faltered. Starvation was consuming him. The occasional gifts from the thieves helped, but not enough. What was most maddening was that ample food was so near. Twice that fall, Red Cross relief packages had been delivered for the POWs, but instead of distributing them, camp officials had hauled them into storage and begun taking what they wanted from them.* They made no effort to hide the stealing. “We could see them throwing away unmistakable wrappers, carrying bowls of bulk cocoa and sugar between huts and even trying to wash clothes with cakes of American cheese,” wrote Tom Wade. The Bird was the worst offender, smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes and openly keeping Red Cross food in his room. From one delivery of 240 Red Cross boxes, the Bird stole forty-eight, more than five hundred pounds of goods.
Toward the end of December, the Bird ordered all of the men to the compound, where they found a truck brimming with apples and oranges. In all of his time as a POW, Louie had seen only one piece of fruit, the tangerine that Sasaki had given him. The men were told that they could take two pieces each. As the famished men swarmed onto the pile, Japanese photographers circled, snapping photos. Then, just as the men were ready to devour the fruit, the order came to put it all back. The entire thing had been staged for propaganda.
On Christmas Eve, some Red Cross packages were finally handed out. Louie wrote triumphantly of it in his diary. His box, weighing some eleven pounds, contained corned beef, cheese, pâté, salmon, butter, jam, chocolate, milk, prunes, and four packs of Chesterfields. All evening long, the men of Omori traded goods, smoked, and gorged themselves.
That night, there was another treat, and it came about as the result of a series of curious events. Among the POWs was a chronically unwashed, ingenious, and possibly insane kleptomaniac named Mansfield. Shortly before Christmas, Mansfield broke into the storehouse—slipping past seven guards—and made off with several Red Cross packages, which he buried under his barracks. Discovering his cache, guards locked him in a cell. Mansfield broke out, stole sixteen more parcels, and snuck them back into his cell. He hid the contents of the packages in a secret compartment he’d fashioned himself, marking the door with a message for other POWs: Food, help yourself, lift here. Caught again, he was tied to a tree in the snow without food or water, wearing only pajamas, and beaten. By one account, he was left there for ten days. Late one night, when Louie was walking back from the benjo, he saw the camp interpreter, Yukichi Kano, kneeling beside Mansfield, draping a blanket over him. The next morning, the blanket was gone, retrieved before the Bird could see it. Eventually, Mansfield was untied and taken to a civilian prison, where he flourished.
The one good consequence of this event was that in the storehouse, Mansfield had discovered a Red Cross theatrical trunk. He told other POWs about it, and this gave the men the idea of boosting morale by staging a Christmas play. They secured the Bird’s approval by stroking his ego, naming him “master of ceremonies” and giving him a throne at the front of the “theater”—the bathhouse—outfitted with planks perched on washtubs to serve as a stage. The men decided to put on a musical production of Cinderella, written, with creative liberties, by a British POW. Frank Tinker put his operatic gifts to work as Prince Leander of Pantoland. The Fairy Godmother was played by a mountainous cockney Brit dressed in a tutu and tights. Characters included Lady Dia Riere and Lady Gonna Riere. Louie thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Private Kano translated for the guards, who sat in the back, laughing and clapping. The Bird gloried in the limelight, and for that night, he let Louie and the others be.
At Zentsuji, Christmas came to Phil and Fred Garrett. Some POWs scrounged up musical instruments and assembled in the camp. Before seven hundred starving men, they played rousing music as the men sang along. They ended with the national anthems of England, Holland, and the United States. The Zentsuji POWs stood together at attention in silence, thinking of home.
After Christmas, the Bird abruptly stopped attacking the POWs, even Louie. He paced about camp, brooding. The men watched him and wondered what was going on.
Several times that year, a dignitary named Prince Yoshitomo Tokugawa had come to camp. A prominent and influential man, reportedly a descendant of the first shogun, Tokugawa was touring camps for the Japanese Red Cross. At Omori, he met with POW Lewis Bush, who told him about the Bird’s cruelty.
The Bird was suspicious. After Tokugawa first visited, the Bird forbade Bush from speaking to him again. When the prince returned, Bush defied the Bird, who beat him savagely as soon as the prince left. Tokugawa kept coming, and Bush kept meeting with him. The Bird slugged and kicked Bush, but Bush refused to be cowed. Deeply troubled by what he heard, Tokugawa went to the war office and the Red Cross and pushed to have something done about Watanabe. He told Bush that he was encountering resistance. Then, just before the New Year, the prince at last succeeded. The Bird was ordered to leave Omori.
Tokugawa’s victory was a hollow one. Officials made no effort to take the Bird out of contact with POWs. They simply ordered his transfer to a distant, isolated camp, where he’d have exactly the same sway over prisoners, without the prying eyes of the prince and the Red Cross. Ensuring that no censure of Watanabe was implied, Colonel Sakaba promoted him to sergeant.
The Bird threw himself a good-bye party and ordered some of the POW officers to come. The officers dashed around camp to gather stool samples from the greenest dysentery patients, mixed up a ferocious gravy, and slathered it over a stack of rice cakes. When they arrived at the party, they presented the cakes to the Bird as a token of their affection. While the men lavished the Bird with lamentations on how they’d miss him, the Bird ate heartily. He seemed heartbroken to be leaving.
Later that day, Louie looked out of the barracks and saw the Bird standing by the gate in a group of people, shaking hands. All of the POWs were in a state of high animation. Louie asked what was happening, and someone told him that the Bird was leaving for good. Louie felt almost out of his head with joy.
If the rice cakes performed as engineered, they didn’t do so quickly. The Bird crossed the bridge onto the mainland, looking perfectly well. At Omori, the reign of terror was over.
* Phil had no such potential usefulness but was probably spared because his execution would have made Louie less likely to cooperate.
* After the war, the head of the Tokyo area camps would admit that he had ordered the distribution of Red Cross parcels to Japanese personnel.
AT OMORI, LIFE BECAME IMMEASURABLY BETTER. PRIVATE Kano quietly took over the camp, working with Watanabe’s replacement, Sergeant Oguri, a humane, fair-minded man. The Bird’s rules were abolished. Someone got into the Bird’s office and found a pile of mail sent to the POWs by their families. Some of the letters had been in his office for nine months. The letters were delivered, and the POWs were finally allowed to write home. “Trust you’re all in good health and in the highest of spirits, not the kind that comes in bottles,” Louie wrote in one letter to his family. “Tell Pete,” he wrote in another, “that when I’m 50, I’ll have more hair on my head than he had at 20.” The letters, like so many others, languished in the glacial mail system, and wouldn’t make it to America until long after the war’s end.
Two weeks into 1945, a group of men, tattered and bent, trudged over the bamboo bridge and into Omori. Louie knew their faces: These were Ofuna men. Commander Fitzgerald was with them. The Omori prisoners told him that he was the luckiest man in Japan. A vicious tyrant called the Bird had just left.
Among the new POWs, Louie spotted Bill Harris, and his heart fell. Harris was a wreck. When Louie greeted him, his old friend looked at him vaguely. He was hazy and distant, his mind struggling for purchase on his thoughts.
The beating the Quack had delivered to Harris in September 1944 hadn’t been the last. On November 6, apparently after Harris was caught speaking, the Quack had pounced on him again, joining several guards in clubbing him into unconsciousness. Two months later, Harris had been beaten once more, for stealing nails to repair his torn shoes, which he was trying to nurse through a frigid winter. He had asked the Japanese to give him some, but they had refused.
The Omori POW doctor examined Harris gravely. He told Louie that he thought the marine was dying.
That same day, Oguri opened the storehouse and had the Red Cross boxes handed out. Giving his box to Harris was, Louie would say, the hardest and easiest thing he ever did. Harris rallied.
Since his refusal to become a propaganda prisoner, Louie had been waiting to be shipped to punishment camp. While the Bird had badgered him, he had awaited his fate with equanimity. Now that the Bird was gone, and Harris was here with Louie’s other friends, Louie wanted to stay. He met every day with dread, awaiting his transfer.
The B-29s kept coming. Sirens sounded several times a day. Rumors eddied around camp: Manila had been captured, Germany had fallen, the Americans were about to charge the Japanese beaches. Louie, like a lot of POWs, was worried. Frightened by the bombing, the guards were increasingly jumpy and angry. Even guards who had once been amiable were now hostile, lashing out without reason. As the assaults on Japan intensified and the probability of invasion rose, the Japanese seemed to view the POWs as threatening.
Among the American forces, a horrifying piece of news had just surfaced. One hundred and fifty American POWs had long been held on Palawan Island, in the Philippines, where they’d been used as slaves to construct an airfield. In December, after American planes bombed the field, the POWs were ordered to dig shelters. They were told to build the entrances only one man wide.
On December 14, an American convoy was spotted near Palawan. The commander of the Japanese 2nd Air Division was apparently sure that the Americans intended to invade. It was the scenario for which the kill-all order had been written. That night, the commander sent a radio message to Palawan: “Annihilate the 150 prisoners.”