arrived, the Bird looked wrathfully at him and gestured toward the water.

“Tomorrow I’m going to drown you.”

Louie spent a day gripped with fear, looking for the Bird, thinking about the tub of water. When the Bird found him, he was terrified.

“I have changed my mind,” the Bird said. Then he lunged at Louie and began punching him in the face, alternating right and left fists in a violent ecstasy. As abruptly as he had started, he stopped. Suddenly serene, he let go of Louie.

“I will drown you tomorrow,” he said.

The Bird strolled away. His face wore the same soft languor that Louie had seen on the face of the Quack after he beat Harris at Ofuna. It was an expression of sexual rapture.


Louie could take no more. He joined about a dozen officers in a secret meeting. By the time they parted, they had a plan to kill the Bird.

The plan was simple. The men would leap onto the Bird and pull him to the top floor of the barracks, overlooking the drop to the Hokura River. There, they would lash him to a large rock and shove him out the window. When he struck the water below, the rock would carry him under. He would never draw another breath.

The officers divvied up the tasks involved in the killing. A group of men would figure out how to overpower the Bird, who was quite fit and would be difficult to subdue. Several of the biggest POWs would find a heavy but portable rock and, out of view of the guards, hoist it up the ladders and roll it to the window. Louie was tasked with stealing enough strong rope to lash the rock to the Bird.

Louie couldn’t find a rope long enough to tie a man to a boulder. He began stealing shorter lengths of rope, secreting them away, then tying them together with his strongest Boy Scout knots. Meanwhile, the rock crew found a large boulder, big enough to drown the Bird and several other men. Somehow, they got it into the compound, into the barracks, and up the ladder without discovery. They positioned it by the window. When Louie had finally stolen enough rope, he tied it into one long line. It was looped around the rock, a dangling end lying ready to be wound around the Bird’s body. Louie then prepared for the second phase of the plan. He had volunteered to be one of the men to capture the Bird, drag him up, and throw him to his death.

As the conspirators planned, the Bird entered the barracks. If the rock was then in place, he either didn’t see it or didn’t recognize what it was there for. He dug through the men’s possessions. Under the tatami mat of an English officer, he found a piece of paper on which were listed the crimes of each of the Japanese officials. When the Bird looked up, he saw the man sneering at him.

The Bird was spooked. He believed that he saw the POWs glaring murderously at him. They had never looked at him in this way before. He knew that Japan was losing the war, and that when the end came, the Americans would try him. These POWs would accuse him of crimes, and the Americans would surely sentence him to death. No one, he knew, would defend him, and that fact left him angry and panicked. He was going to have to go to extreme measures to save himself.

Next to a window near which the Bird passed each day, the rock and rope sat ready. From the barracks window, it was a long plunge to the water.


At a quarter to three on the morning of August 6, 1945, a B-29 skipped off Runway Able on Tinian Island. At the yoke was Paul Tibbets, a veteran bomber pilot. The plane headed north, toward Japan. The mission was so secret that Tibbets carried cyanide capsules for all of the crewmen, to be used if they crashed and were captured.

As the day’s first light walked over the Pacific, the plane rose toward its bombing altitude, more than thirty thousand feet. Two crewmen climbed into the bomb bay. There sat a twelve-foot-long, nine-thousand-pound bomb called Little Boy. The men dropped to their hands and knees and crawled around the bomb, pulling out test plugs and replacing them with firing plugs. Little Boy was armed.

Crossing the Inland Sea, Tibbets saw a city ahead. A scout plane flying over it radioed back in code: The weather was clear. They wouldn’t have to bypass this city and pursue the alternate targets. Tibbets spoke over the interphone:

“It’s Hiroshima.”

The plane passed the coastline and crossed over the city. Tibbets turned the plane west, then ordered his crew to don shaded goggles. Below, he saw a T-shaped bridge, the target. Tibbets surrendered control of the plane to the Norden bombsight, and the bombardier lined up on the bridge.

At 8:15.17, the bomb slipped from the plane. Tibbets turned the plane as hard as he could and put it into a dive to gain speed. It would take forty-three seconds for the bomb to reach its detonation altitude, a little less than two thousand feet. No one knew for sure if, in that brief time, the bomber could get far enough away to survive what was coming.

One of the crewmen counted seconds in his head. When he hit forty-three, nothing happened. He didn’t know that he had been counting too quickly. For an instant, he thought the mission had failed.

Exactly as the thought crossed his mind, the sky over the city ripped open in a firestorm of color and sound and felling wind. A white light, ten times the intensity of the sun, enveloped the plane as the flash and sound and jolt of it skidded out in all directions. The tail gunner, looking out the back of the plane through his goggles, thought that the light had blinded him. Tibbets’s teeth began tingling, and his mouth filled with a taste of lead. He would later be told that it was the metal in his fillings resonating with the radioactivity of the bomb. He looked ahead and saw the entire sky swirling in pink and blue. Next to him, the copilot scribbled two words in his diary: MY GOD!

Behind him, the tail gunner’s vision cleared and he saw an eerie shimmering warp in the air over the city, ripping toward them at one thousand feet per second. “Here it comes!” he said. The shock wave slammed into the plane, pitching the men into the air and back down again. In confusion, someone yelled, “Flak!” Then a second wave, a consequence of the force of the explosion hitting the ground and then ricocheting upward, smacked them, and the plane heaved again.

At POW Camp 10-D, on the far side of the mountains by Hiroshima, prisoner Ferron Cummins felt a concussion roll down from the hills, and the air warmed strangely. He looked up. A fantastically huge, roiling cloud, glowing bluish gray, swaggered over the city. It was more than three miles tall. Below it, Hiroshima was boiling.


The Naked Stampede

THE NAOETSU POWS KNEW THAT SOMETHING BIG HAD happened. The guards paced around with stricken faces. Civilians walked past the camp, eyes dazed, hands in fists. A guard said something to Louie that stuck in his head: Hiroshima had been hit by cholera. The city was shut down, he said, and no one could come or go.

At one of the work sites, a civilian told a different story: One American bomb, he said, had destroyed an entire city. The POWs thought that he must have meant one raid with many bombs, but the man kept repeating that it was one bomb. He used a word that sounded like “atomic.” The word was unfamiliar, and no one knew how one bomb could wipe out a city. Tom Wade got hold of a newspaper. Something the paper called an “electronic bomb” had been dropped, and many people had died. The POWs didn’t know what to make of it.

At Omori, the shaken camp commander gathered the POWs. “One plane came over,” he said, “and a whole city disappeared.” He asked if anyone knew what weapon could do such a thing. No one had an answer.

On August 9, Nagasaki, like Hiroshima, disappeared.


Uneasy days passed. Everything in Naoetsu remained the same, and day and night, the POWs were still sent to labor in Japan’s war production factories. Clearly, something catastrophic had happened, but Japan had not given in.

Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/epa/Corbis

For the POWs, time had all but run out. It was now approaching mid-August, and the kill-all policy loomed. Even if Japan surrendered, many POWs believed that the guards would kill them anyway, either out of vengeance or to prevent them from testifying to what had been done to them. Indeed, an Omori interrogator had told Commander Fitzgerald that the Japanese had plans to kill the POWs in the event that they lost the war.

With officials talking about taking them to a new camp in the hills, the POWs believed that the Japanese planned to dump their bodies in a mountain forest, where no one would ever find them. They discussed defending themselves, but they had no answers to twenty-five guards with rifles. Escape, too, was impossible; the camp was cornered against the sea and two rivers, and with no way to get boats for seven hundred prisoners, the only route out was toward the village, where the sickly, weak men would be caught easily. They were fish in a barrel.

Louie lingered in his bunk, fading, praying. In his nightmares, he and the Bird fought death matches, the Bird trying to beat him to death, Louie trying to strangle the life from the sergeant. He’d been staying as far as he could from the Bird, who had been whipping about camp like a severed power line, but the sergeant always hunted him down.

Then, abruptly, the violence stopped. The Bird had left camp. The guards said that he had gone to the mountains to ready the promised new camp for the POW officers. The August 22 kill-all death date was one week away.


On August 15, Louie woke gravely ill. He was now having some twenty bloody bowel movements a day. After the month’s weigh-in, he didn’t record his weight in his diary, but he did note that he’d lost six kilos, more than thirteen pounds, from a frame already wasted from starvation. When he gripped his leg, his fingers sank in, and the imprints remained for long after. He’d seen too many men die to be ignorant of what this meant: beriberi.

In late morning, after the night work crews had dragged in and the day crews had headed off, Louie crept out of the barracks. With the Bird away, it was safer to walk in the open. Crossing the compound, Louie saw Ogawa, his overseer at the potato field. Ogawa had always been an innocuous man, one of the few Japanese whom Louie had never had reason to fear. But when he saw Louie, Ogawa yanked out his club and struck Louie in the face. Louie reeled in astonishment, his cheek bleeding.

A few minutes later, at noon, the compound was suddenly, eerily silent. The Japanese were all gone. At the same moment, in the factory mess halls, the POWs looked up from their bowls and realized that they were alone. The guards had left.

In camp, Tinker walked through the compound. Passing the guardroom, he glanced inside. There were the guards, crowded around a radio in rapt attention, listening to a small, halting Japanese voice. Something of great importance was being said.

At the factories, at half past one, the guards reappeared and told the POWs to get back to their stations. As Ken Marvin returned to his station, he found his overseers sitting down. One of the Japanese told him that there was no work. Looking around, Marvin spotted Bad Eye, the one-eyed civilian guard he’d been teaching incorrect English, and asked him why there was no work. Bad Eye replied that there was no electricity. Marvin looked up; all of the light bulbs were burning. He turned quizzically to Bad Eye and told him that the lights were on. Bad Eye said something in Japanese, and Marvin wasn’t sure he understood. Marvin found a friend fluent in Japanese, pulled him into the room, and asked Bad Eye to repeat what he’d said.

“The war is over.”

Marvin began sobbing. He and his friend stood together, bawling like children.

The workers were marched back to camp. Marvin and his friend hurried among the POWs, sharing what Bad Eye had said, but not one of their listeners believed it. Everyone had heard this rumor before, and each time, it had turned out to be false. In camp, there was no sign that anything had changed. The camp officials explained that the work had been suspended only because there had been a power outage. A few men celebrated the peace rumor, but Louie and many others were anticipating something very different. Someone had heard that Naoetsu was slated to be bombed that night.

The POWs couldn’t sleep. Marvin lay on his bunk, telling himself that if they were sent to work in the morning, Bad Eye’s story must have been false. If they weren’t, maybe the war was over. Louie hunkered down, miserably ill, waiting for the bombers.

No B-29s flew over Naoetsu that night. In the morning, the work crews were told that there was no work and were dismissed.

Upstairs, Louie began vomiting. As he bobbed in a fog of nausea, someone came to his bunk and handed him five letters. They were from Pete, Sylvia, and his parents, all written many months earlier. Louie tore open the envelopes, and out came photographs of his family. It was the first that Louie had seen or heard of them in nearly two and a half years. He clutched his letters and hung on.

The POWs were in a state of confusion; the guards would tell them nothing. A day passed with no news. When night fell, the men looked over the countryside and saw something they’d never seen before. The village was illuminated in the darkness; the blackout shades all over Naoetsu had been taken down. As a test, some of the POWs removed the shades on the barracks windows. The guards ordered them to put the shades back up. If the war had ended, the guards were going to considerable lengths to hide this fact from the POWs. The kill-all date was five days away.

The next day, Louie was sicker still. He examined his feeble body and scrawled sad words in his diary: “Look like skeleton. feel weak.”

The Bird reappeared, apparently back from preparing whatever lay in store for the POWs in the mountains. He looked different, a shade of a mustache darkening his lip. Louie saw him step into his office and close the door.


On August 17, at Rokuroshi POW camp on the frigid summit of a Japanese mountain, a telephone rang.

Phil, Fred Garrett, and more than 350 other Rokuroshi POWs were shivering through summer inside the barracks, trying to survive on a nearly all-liquid diet. In this extremely remote, deathly quiet camp, the lone telephone hardly ever rang, and the POWs noticed it. A few minutes later, the Japanese commander hurried out of camp and down the mountain.

For some time, the Rokuroshi prisoners had been racked with tension. All summer, the sky had been scratched with vapor trails. One night in July, the men had looked from the barracks to see the whole southern horizon lit up in red, generating light so bright that the men could read by it. On August 8, the guards had begun nailing the barracks doors shut. Then, on August 15, the guards had suddenly become much more brutal, and the POWs’ workload, breaking rocks on a hillside, had been intensified.

After the commander left, something troubling happened. The guards began bringing the POWs out of the barracks and dividing them into small groups. Once they had the men assembled, they herded them out of camp and deep into the mountain forest, heading nowhere. After pushing the men onward through the trees for some time, the guards led the men back to camp and into the barracks. Later, the walks were repeated. No explanation was given. The guards seemed to be inuring the men to this strange routine in preparation for something terrible.


On August 20, a white sky stretched out over Naoetsu, heavy and threatening. There was a shout in the compound: All POWs were to assemble outside. Some seven hundred men tramped out of the barracks and formed lines before the building. The little camp commander, gloves on his hands and a sword on his hip, stepped atop the air-raid spotter’s platform, and Kono climbed up beside him. The commander spoke, and Kono translated.

“The war has come to a point of cessation.”

There was no reaction from the POWs. Some believed it, but kept silent for fear of reprisal. Others, suspecting a trick, did not. The commander went on, becoming strangely solicitous. Speaking as if the POWs were old friends, he voiced his hope that the prisoners would help Japan fight the “Red Menace”—the Soviet Union, which had just seized Japan’s Kuril Islands.

With the commander’s speech finished and the POWs waiting in suspicious silence, Kono invited the POWs to bathe in the Hokura River. This, too, was odd; the men had only rarely been allowed to go in the river. The POWs broke from their lines and began hiking down to the water, dropping clothes as they walked. Louie dragged along after them, peeled off his clothes, and waded in.

All over the river, the men scattered, scrubbing their skin, unsure what was happening. Then they heard it.

It was the growl of an aircraft engine, huge, low, and close. The swimmers looked up, and at first saw nothing but the overcast sky. Then, there it was, bursting from the clouds: a torpedo bomber.

As the men watched, the bomber dove, leveled off, and skimmed over the water, its engine screaming. The POWs looked up at it. The bomber was headed straight toward them.

In the instant before the plane shot overhead, the men in the water could just make out the cockpit and, inside, the pilot, standing. Then the bomber was right over them. On each side of the fuselage and on the underside of each wing, there was a broad white star in a blue circle. The plane was not Japanese. It was American.

The plane’s red code light was blinking rapidly. A radioman in the water near Louie read the signals and suddenly cried out:

“Oh! The war is over!”

In seconds, masses of naked men were stampeding out of the river and up the hill. As the plane turned loops above, the pilot waving, the POWs swarmed into the compound, out of their minds with relief and rapture. Their fear of the guards, of the massacre they had so long awaited, was gone, dispersed by the roar and muscle of the bomber. The prisoners jumped up and down, shouted, and sobbed. Some scrambled onto the camp roofs, waving their arms and singing out their joy to the pilot above. Others piled against the camp fence and sent it crashing over. Someone found matches, and soon, the entire length of fence was burning. The Japanese shrank back and withdrew.

In the midst of the running, celebrating men, Louie stood on wavering legs, emaciated, sick, and dripping wet. In his tired mind, two words were repeating themselves, over and over.

I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!


Down on the riverbank, a battered Australian POW named Matt Clift sat at the water’s edge. His eyes were on the torpedo bomber, which was swooping overhead, alternately crossing over the river, then the camp. As Clift watched, something flitted out of the cockpit, trailing a long yellow ribbon. It carried through the air westward, directly toward the river. Clift stood up, leaned over the water, and reached out so far that he was on the verge of falling in. The object, a little wooden packet, dropped right into his hands. Regaining his balance with the treasure in his grasp, Clift had a delightful thought: Chocolate! His heart filled with gratitude for the “damn good bloke” of a pilot above.

Clift spent some time trying to twist the packet open, and at some point realized, to his crushing disappointment, that it wasn’t chocolate. When he finally got it open, he found a handwritten message inside:


Before he flew off, Hawkins dropped two gifts: a candy bar with a bite taken out of it and a twenty-count packet of cigarettes with one missing. Fitzgerald had the candy bar sliced into seven hundred slivers, and each man licked a finger, dabbed it on his bit of chocolate, and put it in his mouth. Louie’s portion was the size of an ant. Then Fitzgerald had the men form nineteen circles, each of which received one cigarette. Each man got one delectable puff.

Another American plane thrummed over, and a man fell out of it. Down and down he fell, and his parachute didn’t open. Everyone gasped. Then they realized that it wasn’t a man; it was a pair of pants, stuffed full of something, the waist and leg holes tied shut.

The officers retrieved the pants, and Louie stood among them as the waist was opened. Inside, sitting atop a pile of goods, was an American magazine. On the cover was a photograph of an impossibly voluminous bomb cloud. The men fell silent, piecing together the rumors of one giant bomb vaporizing Hiroshima and the abrupt end to the war.

Below the magazine were cartons of cigarettes and candy bars, and very soon, the compound was littered with wrappers and naked, skinny, smoking men. In a pocket, Fitzgerald found a letter belonging to the pants’ owner. The man had been busy: He had a wife in California and a girlfriend in Perth.


The rock still sat at the foot of the barracks window, Louie’s rope tied around it. But the conspirators were too late; the Bird was nowhere to be found. Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.

* Torpedo bombers.

* The TBF pilot, Ray Hawkins, was a legend. In World War II, he shot down fourteen Japanese planes, making him an ace nearly three times over, and was awarded three Navy Crosses. He went on to fly in the Korean War, then became a Blue Angels flight leader. He was the first man to eject from a jet at supersonic speed. He survived.


Cascades of Pink Peaches

ON AUGUST 22, PHIL AND FRED GARRETT SAT IN THE Rokuroshi POW camp, wondering what was happening. Isolated on their chilly mountain, the POWs had been told nothing of the momentous events of recent days. All they knew was that the camp commander had been gone for five days, and in his absence, the guards had been leading the POWs on ominous walks through the forest.

That afternoon, the Japanese commander slogged back up the mountain, looking wilted. He walked into the barracks and approached the ranking American, Lieutenant Colonel Marion Unruh.

“The emperor has brought peace to the world,” he said.

The commander surrendered his sword to Unruh, who gathered his men and told them that the war was over. The POWs immediately gathered for a thanksgiving service. They were told that they must not seek revenge; they were officers and gentlemen, and they were to behave that way.

The POWs promptly threw a party to end all parties. They demolished the camp fence and built a gigantic pile of wood, described by one POW as fifty feet tall. They asked the Japanese interpreter if he could get them sake, and a barrel full of it soon arrived. The men jacked the lid off the barrel, imbibing began, the pile of wood was set on fire, an Alabaman transformed a huge can into a drum, and inebriated men began dancing. A conga line of crazy drunk POWs wrapped around camp and through the barracks, and one partier did a striptease, flinging off his clothes to reveal an emphatically unattractive body. The revelry, which went on all night, was so riotous that one man marveled at the fact that all the POWs were still alive when the sun came up.