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then began the perilous walk up the railcar ramp. As he made his way up, a guard stepped onto the top of the ramp and started down. As they passed, the guard threw out his elbow, and Louie, top-heavy under the basket, fell over the side. He managed to get his legs under him before he hit the ground, some four feet down. One leg hit before the other. Louie felt a tearing sensation, then scorching pain in his ankle and knee.
Louie couldn’t bear any weight on the leg. Two POWs supported him while he hopped back to camp. He was removed from barge duty, but this was hardly comforting. Not only would he now be the only officer trapped in camp with the Bird all day, but his rations would be cut in half.
Louie lay in the barracks, ravenous. His dysentery was increasingly severe, and his fevers were growing worse, sometimes spiking to 104 degrees. To get his rations restored, he had to find work that he could do on one leg. Spotting an abandoned sewing machine in a shed, he volunteered to tailor the guards’ clothes in exchange for full rations. This kept him going for a while, but there was soon no one left to tailor for, and his rations were halved again. Such was his desperation that he went to the Bird and begged for work.
The Bird savored his plea. From now on, he said, Louie would be responsible for the pig in the compound. The job would earn him full rations, but there was a catch: Louie was forbidden to use tools to clean the pig’s sty. He’d have to use his hands.
All his life, Louie had been fastidious about cleanliness, so much so that in college he had kept Listerine in his car’s glove compartment so he could rinse his mouth after kissing girls. Now he was condemned to crawl through the filth of a pig’s sty, picking up feces with his bare hands and cramming handfuls of the animal’s feed into his mouth to save himself from starving to death. Of all of the violent and vile abuses that the Bird had inflicted upon Louie, none had horrified and demoralized him as did this. If anything is going to shatter me, Louie thought, this is it. Sickened and starving, his will a fraying wire, Louie had only the faint hope of the war’s end, and rescue, to keep him going.
Two Hundred and Twenty Punches
AT ELEVEN-THIRTY ON THE MORNING OF MAY 5, 1945, THE sound of four massive engines broke the silence over Naoetsu. A B-29 was turning circles over the village. Sirens sounded, but in the steel mill, the foreman ignored them, and the POWs continued working the furnaces. Then there was a sudden, enormous crash, and it began snowing very hard inside the mill.
It wasn’t snow, but a tremendous quantity of dust falling from the rafters. Something had shaken the mill violently. The foreman announced that the sound had only been a transformer blowing up, and kept the men working.
A moment later, a worker ran in and said something urgently to the foreman. The Japanese dropped everything and sprinted out, abandoning the POWs as they ran for the air-raid shelters on the beach. Gathering that only a B-29 could make the foreman run like that, the panicked POWs crowded together in a small room, praying that they wouldn’t get hit.
They didn’t. The B-29’s bombs missed the plant, blowing gaping holes in a field nearby. It took an hour for everyone, captive and free, to calm down. The guards did their best to impress the POWs with the incompetence of American airmen, taking them on a crater tour to show how badly the bomber had missed, but they were spooked. There was much more to this raid than a couple of holes in a farmer’s field, and everyone knew it. For the POWs, kept in ignorance of the Pacific war’s progression, this raid, and the growing number of B-29 sightings over the village, raised a dazzling possibility. If the Americans were turning their efforts toward a lone steel mill in a place as obscure as Naoetsu, had the B-29s already destroyed the big strategic cities?
The answer came ten days later. Four hundred new POWs tramped through the gates and halted in the compound. The Bird leapt onto a perch over them and delivered his standard harangue:
“You must be sober! You must be sincere! You must work for earnest! You must obey! I have spoken.”
“Who the hell is Ernest?” muttered a POW.
When the Bird was finished, the four hundred new men wedged into the barracks with the three hundred old ones, and the benjos ranneth over. The new men said they’d come from slave camps in the huge cities of Kobe, a matrix of war production, and Osaka, Japan’s biggest port. Weeks before, B-29s had swept over those cities in gleaming, three-hundred-plane swarms, showering them in fire. Large swaths of Kobe and Osaka had been burned to the ground. Of no use to Japan in razed cities, the POWs had been shipped to Naoetsu to be reenslaved for the empire. The new men had one other piece of news: Germany had fallen. The whole weight of the Allies was now thrown against Japan.
That month, the Bird’s presence at Naoetsu became sporadic. On top of his duty at Naoetsu, he’d been named disciplinary officer for Mitsushima, a camp in the mountains. He arrived there with his trademark flourish, bursting through a door and shouting, “Nanda!” at a group of startled POW officers, demanding to know what they were doing. Immediately, he set to beating the officers day and night. The POWs there called him “the Knob.”
The Bird was so vicious at Mitsushima that the POW officers soon concluded that they had to kill him to save themselves. Conspirators formed “murder squads” set on drowning the Bird or hurling him from a cliff. Whenever the Bird was in camp, they stalked him, but he seemed to be on to them, moving about with armed guards. Meanwhile, two POW physicians, Richard Whitfield and Alfred Weinstein, hatched a plan to poison the Bird with massive doses of atropine and morphine. Again the Bird eluded them: The day after the doctors formed their plan, the Bird had the pharmacy medications locked up.
Whitfield devised a new plan. Preparing a bottle of saline solution and glucose to serve as a culture medium, he mixed in stool samples from two patients infected with amoebic and bacillary dysentery, tossed in three flies, then stored the bottle next to his skin for several days to incubate the pathogens. He and Weinstein delivered it to the POW cook, who poured it onto the Bird’s rice for the better part of a week. To their amazement, the Bird didn’t get sick, so the doctors mixed up a new dose, using the stools of six ill POWs. This time, they hit the jackpot.
In two days, the Bird was violently ill, completely incapacitated with rocketing diarrhea and a 105-degree fever. Weinstein found him in his room, crying and “whimpering like a child.” The Bird ordered Weinstein to cure him. Weinstein gave him what he said were sulfa pills. Suspicious, the Bird made Weinstein take some of the pills himself. Weinstein took them, knowing that all that was in them was aspirin and baking soda. The Bird lost fifteen pounds in one week. Weinstein urged him to eat his rice.
With the Bird out of the way, the men and even the guards were, wrote Weinstein, “almost hysterically childish” in their delight. But the Bird seemed unmurderable. After ten days, his fever broke. He returned to Naoetsu to take out his rage on the officers and Louie.
By June, Louie’s leg was healed enough to bear his weight, and he was sent back to shovel coal and salt. He was growing ever sicker, and his dysentery never eased. When he appealed for rest while burning up with fever, the Bird refused him. His temperature was only 103, he said; you go to work. Louie went.
One day that month, Louie, Tinker, and Wade were shoveling on a barge when the foreman discovered that fish had been stolen from the galley. The foreman announced that if the thieves didn’t turn themselves in, he’d report the theft to the Bird. During a lunch break, the innocent men persuaded the culprits to confess. When the men walked into camp that night, the foreman told the Bird anyway, as he suspected that more men had been in on the theft.
The Bird called for the work party to line up before him and ordered the thieves to stand before the group. He then walked down the line, pulling out Wade, Tinker, Louie, and two other officers and making them stand with the thieves. He announced that these officers were responsible for the behavior of the thieves. His punishment: Each enlisted man would punch each officer and thief in the face, as hard as possible.
The chosen men looked at the line of enlisted men in terror: there were some one hundred of them. Any man who refused to carry out the order, the Bird said, would meet the same fate as the officers and thieves. He told the guards to club any men who didn’t strike the chosen men with maximum force.
The enlisted men had no choice. At first, they tried to hit softly, but the Bird studied each blow. When a man didn’t punch hard enough, the Bird would begin shrieking and clubbing him, joined by the guards. Then the errant man would be forced to hit the victim repeatedly until the Bird was satisfied. Louie began whispering to each man to get it over with, and hit hard. Some of the British men whispered, “Sorry, sir,” before punching Wade.
For the first few punches, Louie stayed on his feet. But his legs soon began to waver, and he collapsed. He pulled himself upright, but fell again with the next punch, and then the next. Eventually, he blacked out. When he came to, the Bird forced the men to resume punching him, screaming, “Next! Next! Next!” In Louie’s whirling mind, the voice began to sound like the tramping of feet.
The sun sank. The beating went on for some two hours, the Bird watching with fierce and erotic pleasure. When every enlisted man had done his punching, the Bird ordered the guards to club each one twice in the head with a kendo stick.
The victims had to be carried to the barracks. Louie’s face was so swollen that for several days he could barely open his mouth. By Wade’s estimate, each man had been punched in the face some 220 times.
June 1945 became July. Every day, a single B-29 crossed over Naoetsu, so high that only the contrails gave it away. The men called it “the Lone Ranger.” Every night, bombers passed over in strength, forests of planes brushing over the village. To the POWs, they were a beautiful sight, “all lit up,” wrote POW Joe Byrne, “as if they were going to a picnic.” Throughout each day and night, the air-raid sirens kept kicking in. Sometimes, at night, the men could hear soft booming in the darkness.
Louie was sick and demoralized. He lay on his plank, daydreaming about the Olympics, holding them before himself as a shining promise, a future for which to endure an unbearable present. He prayed ceaselessly for rescue. His nightmares of his battles with the Bird were hellish, unbearable. His hope was dimming. In his barracks one day, a man dragged in from slave work, looking spent. He lay down, asked to be awakened for dinner, and went still. At chowtime, Louie kicked his foot. The man didn’t move. He was dead. He was young, like everyone else, and hadn’t even looked sick.
The food situation was increasingly dire. In the spring, with the import of the Kobe and Osaka POWs, the camp population had more than doubled, but the rations had not. Now the rations were smaller still, usually consisting of nothing but seaweed. When a famished prisoner tried to get food from civilians, the Bird broke his jaw. Several POW officers appealed to the authorities for meat; to withhold it, they said, violated international law. After this appeal, two guards left camp and returned with a dog, reportedly the only one left in Naoetsu. The next morning, a bell rang, and Louie walked into the compound. There, impaled on a post facing the POWs, was the dog’s skinned head. A few minutes later, the men were served breakfast. In the bowls were the remains of the dog.
As summer stretched on and the rations dwindled, Louie and the other POWs began looking toward winter with dread. They were told that both their rations and the barracks heating fuel were going to be cut more come winter, and might be halted altogether. Many of the men were already so thin and sick that they were, wrote one, “hanging on from day to day.” Few POWs, in Naoetsu or anywhere else, thought they’d live to see another spring. At Omori, someone made up a slogan: “Frisco dive in ’45 or stiff as sticks in ’46.”
There was a worry more pressing yet. Even in isolated Naoetsu, it was obvious to the POWs that the Japanese empire was staggering. Watching B-29s crossing over with impunity, they knew that Japan’s air defenses had been gutted, and that the Americans were very close. The civilians that they saw were in shocking condition: The limbs of the adults were grotesquely swollen from beriberi; the children were emaciated. The POWs were so disturbed by the obvious famine among the civilians that they stopped stealing at the work sites. It was clear to them that Japan had long ago lost this war.
But Japan was a long way from giving in. If a massively destructive air war would not win surrender, invasion seemed the only possibility. POWs all over the country were noticing worrisome signs. They saw women holding sharpened sticks, practicing lunges at stacks of rice straw, and small children being lined up in front of schools, handed wooden mock guns, and drilled. Japan, whose people deemed surrender shameful, appeared to be preparing to fight to the last man, woman, or child.
Invasion seemed inevitable and imminent, both to the POWs and to the Japanese. Having been warned of the kill-all order, the POWs were terrified. At Borneo’s Batu Lintang POW camp, which held two thousand POWs and civilian captives, Allied fighters circled the camp every day. A civilian warned POW G. W. Pringle that “the Japanese have orders no prisoners are to be recaptured by Allied forces. All must be killed.” Villagers told of having seen hundreds of bodies of POWs in the jungle. “This then is a forerunner of a fate which must be ours,” wrote Pringle in his diary. A notoriously sadistic camp official began speaking of his empathy for the POWs, and how a new camp was being prepared where there was ample food, medical care, and no more forced labor. The POWs knew it was a lie, surely designed to lure them into obeying an order to march that would, as Pringle wrote, “afford the Japs a wonderful opportunity to carry out the Japanese Government order to ‘Kill them all.’ ”
Pringle was right. In the camp office sat written orders, drawn up by the commander and approved by central military authorities, for all captives to be “liquidated” on September 15. Women and children would be poisoned; civilian men would be shot; the sick and disabled would be bayoneted. The five hundred POWs would be marched twenty-one miles into the jungle, shot, and burned.
At Omori, Japanese kitchen workers, as well as some soldiers, told the POWs that plans for their destruction had been set. The POWs would be turned loose, on the excuse that the guards were needed to defend Japan, and when the men stepped onto the bridge, the guards would mow them down with machine guns. The POW officers met to discuss it, but couldn’t come up with any way to prevent it or defend themselves.
At camps across Japan, things looked just as ominous. Machine guns and barrels of accelerant were brought in. Metal dog tags were confiscated, in an apparent effort to comply with the stipulation that those executing POWs “not … leave any traces.” Prisoners were ordered to dig tunnels and caverns, and at a number of camps, friendly guards warned POWs that mines, ditches, and tunnels were going to be used as death chambers.
That summer, at Phil and Fred Garrett’s camp, Zentsuji, officials suddenly announced that they were separating the Americans from the other POWs. The officials said that the Americans were being moved to a pleasant new camp, for their safety. The men were loaded onto a train and taken across Japan, through sad rivers of refugees. Peeking past the drawn window blinds, they saw razed cities. The air smelled of burned bodies.
After dark, they reached a remote area. The men were told to begin walking up a nearly impassable trail, winding up the side of a mountain. In a crashing rainstorm, they hiked for hours, through forest, over boulders, and through ravines, climbing so high that the surrounding mountains were capped in snow in summer. Garrett, his stump still un-healed, labored on his crutches, and the Japanese wouldn’t allow anyone to help him. Men began fainting from exhaustion, but the Japanese drove the group on, allowing no rest stops. Drenched to the skin, the POWs limped up the path for eleven miles, leaving a trail of discarded possessions as they tried to lighten their loads.
At two in the morning, high on the mountain, Phil, Garrett, and the other POWs reached a collection of wooden shacks in a rocky clearing. Too exhausted to stand in formation, they collapsed. They were told that this was their new camp, Rokuroshi. No one explained why the POWs had been taken so far from anywhere and anyone, to a place that appeared uninhabitable. The POW physician, Hubert Van Peenen, looked about him, considered their situation, and came to a conclusion: This is the place of our extermination.
At Naoetsu that summer, camp officials began speaking of their concern that the POWs could be injured in air raids. For this reason, the officials said, the prisoners were soon going to be taken into the mountains, where they’d be safe. Away from their officers, the guards told a different story, telling the POWs that the army had issued orders to kill them all in August. This might have been dismissed as a lie, but that July, a civilian worker known for his sympathy for POWs warned a prisoner that an execution date had been set. The date he gave was the same as one that had reportedly been mentioned to prisoners in at least two other camps.
All of the Naoetsu POWs, the civilian said, would be killed on August 22.
The Boiling City
NO ONE IN NAOETSU WAS SLEEPING. B-29S CROSSED OVER every night, and the air-raid sirens wailed for hours on end, competing with the roar of the planes. The sound of them, and the sight of endless flocks of planes soaring unopposed over Japan, sent the Bird ever deeper into madness.
During the raids, the POWs were ordered to stay in the barracks with the lights out. Once the planes had passed, the Bird would bound in, ordering the Americans outside. He and his henchman, Kono, would pace back and forth, shouting and swinging clubs, kendo sticks, or rifles. On some nights, the Bird would shove the men into two lines, facing one another, and order them to slap each other’s faces. Sometimes he and Kono would make them stand with their arms over their heads for two to three hours at a time, or force them into the Ofuna crouch, pounding them when they faltered. During one beating, Louie was clubbed on his previously injured ankle, leaving it so painful that he could barely walk. And on at least one of these nights, the Bird beat Louie to unconsciousness.
Louie’s job as pig custodian was over. Barge loading had also been canceled; Allied planes had sunk so many Japanese ships that none came or went from Naoetsu anymore. Louie was back on half rations. Limping, sick, and hungry, he begged the Bird for work so he could get full rations again. The Bird brought him a paper-thin gray goat that appeared to be on the brink of death.
“Goat die, you die,” the Bird said.
Louie had nothing to secure the goat with, and no pen to put him in. His friend Ken Marvin stole a rope from his work site and brought it to him. Louie tied the goat to a pole and began nursing him, giving him water and grain. At night he tied him inside a grain shack. The goat only got sicker.
One morning, the Bird ordered Louie to come before him. He said that the goat had gotten loose, broken into a grain bin, and gorged himself. The animal was deathly ill, and it was Louie’s fault. Louie knew that his knot had been secure. If the goat had gotten loose, someone had untied him. The goat died.
Terrified of retribution, Louie tried to hide from the Bird, but his dysentery was becoming very serious. Risking being seen by the Bird, he went to the camp doctor to plead for medication. The Bird ran him down, demanding to know if he had received permission to approach the doctor. Louie said no.
The Bird marched Louie away from the doctor’s shack, passing Tinker and Wade, who’d been ordered to work outside. Out in the compound, the Bird halted. Lying on the ground before them was a thick, heavy wooden beam, some six feet long. Pick it up, the Bird said. With some effort, Louie hoisted it up, and the Bird ordered him to lift it high and hold it directly over his head. Louie heaved the beam up. The Bird called a guard over. If the prisoner lowers his arms, the Bird told him, hit him with your gun. The Bird walked to a nearby shack, climbed on the roof, and settled in to watch.
Louie stood in the sun, holding up the beam. The Bird stretched over the roof like a contented cat, calling to the Japanese who walked by, pointing to Louie and laughing. Louie locked his eyes on the Bird’s face, radiating hatred.
Several minutes passed. Louie stood, eyes on the Bird. The beam felt heavier and heavier, the pain more intense. The Bird watched Louie, amused by his suffering, mocking him. Wade and Tinker went on with their work, stealing anxious glances at the scene across the compound. Wade had looked at the camp clock when Louie had first lifted the beam. He became more and more conscious of how much time was passing.
Five more minutes passed, then ten. Louie’s arms began to waver and go numb. His body shook. The beam tipped. The guard jabbed Louie with his gun, and Louie straightened up. Less and less blood was reaching his head, and he began to feel confused, his thoughts gauzy, the camp swimming around him. He felt his consciousness slipping, his mind losing adhesion, until all he knew was a single thought: He cannot break me. Across the compound, the Bird had stopped laughing.
Time ticked on, and still Louie remained in the same position, conscious and yet not, the beam over his head, his eyes on the Bird’s face, enduring long past when his strength should have given out. “Something went on inside of me,” he said later. “I don’t know what it was.”
There was a flurry of motion ahead of him, the Bird leaping down from the roof and charging toward him, enraged. Watanabe’s fist rammed into Louie’s stomach, and Louie folded over in agony. The beam dropped, striking Louie’s head. He flopped to the ground.
When he woke, he didn’t know where he was or what had happened. He saw Wade and some other POWs, along with a few guards, crouched around him. The Bird was gone. Louie had no memory of the last several minutes, and had no idea how long he’d stood there. But Wade had looked at the clock when Louie had fallen.
Louie had held the beam aloft for thirty-seven minutes.
On the night of August 1, sirens sounded and the village shook. In the barracks, the POWs looked out and saw wave after wave of Superfortresses. In the skies over Japan that night, America was staging by far the biggest air raid, by tonnage, of World War II: 836 B-29s, bearing more than 6,100 tons of bombs, incendiaries, and mines. The POWs working the factory night shifts ran for the beach shelters, but the planes bypassed Naoetsu. In Nagaoka, forty miles away, civilians looked up and thought it was raining. The rain was napalm.
With the bombers sweeping overhead, the Bird stormed into the barracks and shouted for all Americans to get out. As the men lined up in the compound, the Bird and Kono picked up their kendo sticks, walked behind them, and began smashing them over their heads. Men started falling. When Louie went down, the Bird crouched over him, clubbing him. Woozy, Louie lay there as the Bird and the sirens screamed.
At dawn the sirens went silent. The POWs on the beach came out of the shelters. In the compound, the Bird and Kono went still. Louie stumbled to his feet and looked to the northeast. The edge of the world was glowing; Nagaoka was burning down.
That same night, B-29s showered leaflets over thirty-five Japanese cities, warning civilians of coming bombings and urging them to evacuate. The Japanese government ordered civilians to turn the leaflets in to authorities, forbade them from sharing the warnings with others, and arrested anyone with leaflets in their possession. Among the cities listed on the leaflets were Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That night was a turning point for Louie. The next morning, his dysentery was suddenly extremely severe. He was dangerously dehydrated and beginning to have trouble eating. Each day he was thinner, weaker.
Every day and night, the B-29s raked over the sky and the Bird rampaged through camp. He attacked Ken Marvin, knocked him unconscious, roused him with a bucket of water to his face, told him to take care of his health, then knocked him out again. While Louie hid upstairs on his bunk, sick with fever, he saw the Bird and Kono beat two sick POWs until they acquiesced to the Bird’s order to lick excrement from their boots. On another day, Louie looked across the compound to see the Bird and Kono standing before a line of POWs, holding a confiscated book on boxing and taking turns punching the prisoners.
Louie was walking in the compound when the Bird collared him and dragged him to the overflowing benjo pit. After pulling over several men, the Bird forced Louie and the others down on their stomachs, on top of the waste pits, and ordered them to do push-ups. Louie was just barely able to hold his body clear of the pit. Others were not so fortunate. When the exhausted men failed to push themselves all the way up, the Bird pressed the butt of his rifle to their heads and ground their faces into the waste.
Then came the day that Louie had been dreading. He was standing outside, filling a tub of water, when the Bird barked at him to come over. When Louie