POWs celebrate the war’s end. Naval History and Heritage Command

The following day, the hungover POWs walked down the mountain to the nearest villages. They found mostly ghost towns. The civilians had seen the bonfire, abandoned their homes, and fled. The POWs hiked back up and waited for help to come.


At Naoetsu, most of the guards stayed in camp, their haughtiness replaced by gushing obsequiousness. There was almost no food and no tobacco. Fitzgerald went to the Japanese commander three times a day to demand more food, and was rejected each time. POWs left camp in search of something to eat. Someone came back with a cow. Someone else herded in pigs. It wasn’t enough. Fitzgerald wrote a dispatch to the Swiss consul in Tokyo, telling of the terrible conditions in camp and asking for immediate help, but the Japanese commander refused to send it. Livid, Fitzgerald threatened to inform the American forces about the commander’s behavior, but the commander still refused.

At about ten in the morning on August 26, six days after the war’s end was announced in Naoetsu, Fitzgerald was just stepping out of the commander’s office when a crowd of American fighter planes, sent from the carrier Lexington, shot overhead and began circling. The POWs charged outside, yelling. They hastily cleared an area, fetched some white lime, and painted two giant words on the ground: FOOD SMOKES. Messages dropped from the cockpits. The planes had been hauling emergency supplies to POW camps but had exhausted their loads. The pilots promised that food would soon come.

Unable to feed the POWs, the pilots did the next best thing, putting on a thirty-minute air show while the prisoners shouted their approval. Fitzgerald stood among his men, moved by their joyful upturned faces. “Wonderful?” wrote J. O. Young in his diary. “To stand cheering, crying, waving your hat and acting like a damn fool in general. No one who has not spent all but 16 days of this war as a Nip prisoner can really know what it means to see ‘Old Sammy’ buzzing around over the camp.”

The fighters had a persuasive effect on the Japanese commander. He called for Fitzgerald, complained that Fitzgerald had not behaved “like a gentleman,” and accused him of bluffing when he had threatened to tell the American forces about him.

“I meant every word I said,” Fitzgerald replied.

Ninety minutes later, Japanese trucks drove into camp, and out came rations, biscuits, and canned fruit.

That afternoon, more planes from the Lexington flew over, and sea bags began thumping down all over camp. The POWs ran for their lives. One man, leaping from a fence to avoid getting clobbered, broke his ankle. One bag missed the camp altogether, splashing down in the river. The POWs ventured out, tore into the bags, and split up the loot. Each man received half a tin of tangerines, one pack of hardtack, two cigarettes, and a bit of candy. Someone waded into the river to grab the errant bag, and in it found magazines and a newspaper. Concerned that the food dropped wasn’t nearly adequate, Fitzgerald told someone to write 700 PWS HERE on the ground.

As the men ate, they passed around the magazines and peeled through the soaked pages. The fighting, they learned, had ended on August 15; the small voice that Wade had heard on the radio in the guardroom that day had been that of Emperor Hirohito, announcing the cessation of hostilities. This meant that for five days—seven in the case of Rokuroshi—the Japanese had deceived the POWs to hide the fact that the war was over. Given all the signs that a massacre had been imminent, it seems likely that the commanders had been awaiting instruction on whether or not to carry it out, and had wanted to keep the men docile in case the answer was affirmative.

Three days after the fighters flew over, the Americans sent in the big boys: six B-29s, the words Food for POWs scrawled down the wing of one of them. The bomb bay doors parted and pallets poured out, swinging under red, white, and blue parachutes. The first load hit the compound. Others fell over the rice paddies, pursued by hundreds of gleeful living skeletons. One canister bore a message written in chalk: BOMBED HERE IN MAY 45—SORRY I MISSED. BILLY THE KID. RHODE ISLAND NEW YORK. Boxes fell all over the landscape. Some civilians pulled them into their homes and hid them. Others, though in great hardship themselves, dragged them into camp.

The cargo banged down and boxes broke open. Cascades of pink peaches spilled over the countryside. A vegetable crate exploded, and the sky rained peas. A box dragged down the power lines in Naoetsu. Another harpooned the guardhouse. Louie and Tinker just missed being totaled by a giant drum full of shoes that they never saw coming. It shot through the benjo roof, landing on an unfortunate Australian, whose leg was broken, and a Yank from Idaho, whose skull was fractured, fortunately not fatally. The Idahoan had been fasting all day in hopes that care packages would begin falling and he could gorge himself on American food instead of seaweed. To prevent further disaster, someone ran onto the road and wrote DROP HERE.

An orgy of eating and smoking commenced. Men crammed their stomachs full, then had seconds and thirds. Louie opened a can of condensed split pea soup and shoveled it into his mouth, too hungry to add water. J. O. Young and two friends drank two gallons of cocoa. The food kept falling. So much of it showered down that Fitzgerald asked a man to go out on the road and make sure that whoever had written 700 PWS HERE hadn’t accidentally added a zero.

At nightfall, the eating stopped. Men upended by swollen stomachs drifted off to sleep with no air raids, no tenkos, no Bird. Louie lay among them, swaddled in an American parachute that he had dragged in from the rice paddy.

“ ’Tis about 6 p.m., and I’m lying here in blissful misery just as all POWs have sat around and dreamed about throughout this internment, in short so full of chow that it’s hard to even breath [sic],” J. O. Young wrote in his diary. “As four years prisoners … there is no such thing as being satisfied after eating. You either don’t have enough, or as we are all now so darn full you’re in misery.”

“There’s just one thing left to say as we bunk down for the night,” he continued, “an [sic] that it’s wonderful to be Americans and free men, and it’s a might [sic] hard job even now to realize we’re free men.”


On the morning of September 2, a B-29 known as Ghost Ship traced the long thread of beach marking the coast of western Japan. The plane had earned its moniker when an air traffic controller, unable to see five-foot, seven-inch pilot Byron Kinney in the cockpit, had exclaimed, “There’s nobody in that plane! It must be a ghost ship!” In a briefing on Guam the afternoon before, Kinney had been told that he’d be carrying supplies to a remote POW camp called Naoetsu.

Louie was in the compound alone when Ghost Ship dipped under the clouds, skimmed the rice paddy, dropped its first load, and began a long circle for a second drop. Hearing the bomber, sleepy men shuffled out of the barracks and began running into the drop zone. Louie saw the plane coming back and began trying to alert the men. As he descended, Kinney saw POWs scattered over the paddy, looking “dirty, ragged and haggard,” and a lone man trying to pull them back. He aborted the drop and circled again. By the time he returned, Louie had cleared the paddy. The second drop rolled out.

Kinney turned the plane again, descended very low over camp, and dipped his wings. Louie stood under him in a crowd of POWs, waving his shirt. Kinney was so low that he and Louie saw each other’s smiling faces. “We could almost hear their cheers as we passed over the last time,” Kinney wrote. “They looked so happy. It touched my heart. I felt perhaps we were the hand of Providence reaching out to those men. I was very thankful I had gone.”

B-29 pilot Byron Kinney shot this photograph on his final pass over Naoetsu on September 2, 1945. The Naoetsu POW camp is straight ahead, on the far side of the bridge. The large barracks from which Louie and other officers planned to throw the Bird to his death is faintly visible, at the confluence of the two rivers. Byron Kinney

As Ghost Ship sailed off, one of Kinney’s crewmen piped the radio over the interphone. On came General Douglas MacArthur’s voice, broadcasting from the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Standing with MacArthur was Bill Harris. He’d been rescued from Omori and brought to the ship to occupy a place of honor. Alongside the Americans stood Japanese officials, there to sign surrender documents.

In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four.* Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died.* By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate.

In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese massacred all 5,000 Korean captives on Tinian, all of the POWs on Ballale, Wake, and Tarawa, and all but 11 POWs at Palawan. They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down.

On the morning of September 2, 1945, Japan signed its formal surrender. The Second World War was over.


For Louie, these were days of bliss. Though he was still sick, wasted, and weak, he glowed with euphoria such as he had never experienced. His rage against his captors was gone. Like all the men around him, he felt flush with love for everyone and everything.

Only the thought of the Bird gave him pause. A few days earlier, Louie would have bound and killed him without remorse. Now the vengeful urge no longer had sure footing. The Bird was gone, his ability to reach Louie—physically, at least—extinguished. At that moment, all Louie felt was rapture.

Forgiveness coursed through all of the men at Naoetsu. POWs doled out supplies to civilians and stood in circles of children, handing out chocolate. Louie and other POWs brought food and clothing to the guards and asked them to take it home to their families. Even Kono was spared. Ordered to stay in camp, he holed up in his office for eleven days, so afraid of retribution that he never once came out. When a POW opened the door, Kono gasped and ran to a corner. A few days before, he might have met with reprisal, but today, there was no such spirit. The POWs left him alone.*

There was only one act of vengeance in the camp. When a particularly hated guard appeared in the galley, a POW grabbed him by the collar and the seat of the pants and threw him out the door with such force that he sailed over the riverside drop-off and into the Hokura River. The POWs never saw him again.

The pallets didn’t stop falling. After a few days of B-29 visits, food, medicine, and clothing were piling up everywhere. The officers distributed the food as soon as it landed, and every man was entombed in goodies. Eventually someone climbed on the roofs and wrote: NO MORE—THANKS. ANY-NEWS?

Gorging brought consequences. Digestive systems that had spent years scraping by on two or three cups of seaweed per day were overwhelmed. Naoetsu became a festival of rapid-fire diarrhea. The benjo lines wound everywhere, and men unable to wait began dropping their pants and fertilizing Japan wherever the spirit moved them. Then they went right back to happy feasting.

All over Japan, B-29s continued pouring food down on POWs. More than one thousand planes saturated the landscape with nearly forty-five hundred tons of Spam and fruit cocktail, soup, chocolate, medicine, clothing, and countless other treasures. At Omori, Bob Martindale had taken over the hateful little office where the Bird had sat before his picture window, hunting men. He was there when an enormous box sailed out of the sun, hit the ground just outside the window, and exploded, obliterating the Bird’s office in a cataclysm of American cocoa powder. Martindale stumbled out, caked head to toe in cocoa, but otherwise uninjured.


Everyone in camp was eager to get home, but radio messages sent out by the occupying forces stated that POWs should remain in camps for the time being. Fitzgerald was told that an evacuation team would come to Naoetsu on September 4 to oversee the POWs’ transport to Yokohama, and then home. So the POWs settled in to wait, eating, smoking, resting, eating, celebrating, swimming, and eating more. Louie ate voraciously, got stronger, and expanded exponentially, his face and body bloating from water retention.

Louie did his best to clean himself up, starting with his muslin shirt, which he’d worn every day since the morning he had climbed into Green Hornet. A beloved brother to him, it was torn, faded, and stained with coal dust, and Louie’s handwritten name was now nearly invisible on its breast pocket. Louie boiled it in a pot to kill the lice and fleas, then scrubbed it to get the coal out.

POWs fanned out over the countryside. Men carried air-dropped items into town, where they met cautiously friendly civilians and traded their goods for shaves, haircuts, and souvenirs. They knocked on doors, offering to trade air-dropped food and tobacco for fresher fare. Inside the houses, they saw large industrial machines, just as Louie had seen in the ruins of Tokyo. Tinker found a Victrola in camp, then went to town and bought a gift for Louie, a recording of Gustave Charpentier’s Impressions d’Italie. The POWs broke into the storehouse and found some fifteen hundred Red Cross boxes. Several men discovered a brothel and came back to camp with sinners’ grins. Ken Marvin and a friend borrowed kids’ bikes and pedaled the roads, discovering what a beautiful place they’d been in all this time. Coming upon a public bath full of civilians, Marvin jumped right in with them, scrubbing himself clean for the first time since his last shower on Wake Atoll in December 1941. “My God!” he remembered. “Just like a smorgasbord!”

September 4 arrived. The evacuation team never showed up. More than two weeks had passed since the TBF had flown over the river and blinked out the message that the war was over, and Commander Fitzgerald, like all of the men in camp, was sick of waiting. He asked Marvin and another man to don MP badges and walk with him to the train station. When they got there, Fitzgerald asked a Japanese station official to arrange for a ten-carriage train to be there the next day. The official refused, and was plenty obnoxious about it.

Commander John Fitzgerald had been in Japanese custody since April 1943. For two and a half years, he’d been forced to grovel before sadists and imbeciles as he tried to protect his men. He’d been starved, beaten, and enslaved, given the water cure, had his fingernails torn out. He was done negotiating. He hauled back and punched the station official, to the delight of Ken Marvin. The next morning, the train was there, right on time.

Early on the morning of September 5, Louie packed up his diary, the record from Tinker, and his letters from home, and stepped down the barracks ladder for the last time. In the compound, the POWs were congregating in joyful anticipation. Everyone carried what few possessions they had, and the British Commonwealth soldiers held the white boxes bearing the remains of the sixty Aussies who had died in camp. Determined to leave this indecent place with dignity, the men assembled behind flags of their nations. Then, together, they passed through the camp gate and marched up the road, toward wives and sweethearts and children and Mom and Dad and home.

As he walked over the bridge, Louie glanced back. Some of the guards and camp officials stood in the compound, watching them go. A few of the sickest POWs remained behind, awaiting transport the next day. Fitzgerald stayed with them, unwilling to leave until the last of his men was liberated.* Louie raised his arm and waved the war good-bye. He crossed over the bridge, and the camp passed out of view.

As the train pushed off for Yokohama, the POWs’ last sight of Naoetsu was a broken line of Japanese, the few civilian guards and camp staffers who had been kind to them, standing along the side of the track. Their hands were raised in salute.

* Japan also held more than 215,000 POWs from other countries and untold thousands of forced laborers. Their death rates are unknown.

* There has been some confusion concerning American POW statistics. The figures above, compiled by Charles Stenger, PhD, in a comprehensive study of POW statistics for the Veterans Administration, appear to be definitive.

* Kono put on civilian clothes, fled camp, wrote his mother to say he was killing himself, then took a false name and moved to Niigata. A year later, he was recognized on a wanted poster and arrested. Convicted of abusing POWs, he was sentenced to life at hard labor.

* When Fitzgerald got home, he would be honored with the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for his heroism in combat and in the POW camp.


Mother’s Day

THE NAOETSU POWS HAD CONTROL OF THE TRAIN. AT EVERY town on the line, the train squealed to a stop and the men piled off, then piled back on, laden with liberated sake and whatever else they could steal. The journey went on, sake coursed through skinny bodies, and the men grew rowdier. A lieutenant stood up and, with solemn officiousness, warned the men to behave themselves. He didn’t want anyone falling off the train, he said.

At about three in the afternoon, the train stopped and began backing up. Just as the lieutenant had feared, a man had gone overboard. As the train rolled backward, the errant POW came into view. It was the lieutenant himself, at least three sheets to the wind. He was lucky. All afternoon, drunken POWs staggered off the train, but the train didn’t stop for them. They had to find their own way.

From the top of Japan to the bottom, trains packed with POWs snaked toward Yokohama. Men pressed their faces to the windows to catch their first glimpse of what all of those B-29s had done. Once-grand cities were now flat, black stains, their only recognizable feature a gridwork of burned roads, passing nothing, leading nowhere.

At the first sight of the destruction of their enemy, the POWs cheered. But after the first city there was another, then another, city after city razed, the survivors drifting about like specters, picking through the rubble. The cheering died away. On Louie’s train, the silence came as they passed through Tokyo. A week after Louie had left Omori, sixteen square miles of Tokyo, and tens of thousands of souls, had been immolated by B-29s.

A few of the trains slipped past Hiroshima. Virtually every POW believed that the destruction of this city had saved them from execution. John Falconer, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, looked out as Hiroshima neared. “First there were trees,” he told historian Donald Knox. “Then the leaves were missing. As you got closer, branches were missing. Closer still, the trunks were gone and then, as you got in the middle, there was nothing. Nothing! It was beautiful. I realized this was what had ended the war. It meant we didn’t have to go hungry any longer, or go without medical treatment. I was so insensitive to anyone else’s human needs and suffering. I know it’s not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn’t. But I believed the end probably justified the means.”


At seven that evening, the Naoetsu train entered bombed-out Yokohama and stopped at the station.

“Welcome back, boys.”

“Before me in immaculate khaki uniform and cap stood an American girl with a magazine-cover smile, faultless makeup and peroxide blonde hair,” wrote Tom Wade. “After three and a half years in prison camp, I had been liberated by the great American blonde!”

The POWs were soon blissfully enveloped in Red Cross nurses, some of whom cried at the sight of them. Perhaps the women weren’t all beautiful, but to Ken Marvin, they looked like goddesses.

Someone spotted a mess hall, and a charge ensued. In the midst of it stood a journalist, Robert Trumbull. He called out, asking if anyone had a story to tell. As he hurried past, Frank Tinker told him to talk to Louie Zamperini, gesturing toward his friend.

“Zamperini’s dead,” said Trumbull, who thought that the man in question didn’t even look like the famous runner. He asked Louie if he could prove his identity. Louie pulled out his wallet. The Japanese had cleaned out the main folds, but in a hidden pocket he’d tucked eight dollars, the cartoon that had gotten him and Phil beaten up, and a USC football admission pass inscribed with his name.

Trumbull was astonished. He took Louie aside and began asking questions, and Louie recounted his entire saga. He omitted one detail: For the sake of Mac and his family, he said nothing of how the chocolate had been lost. Phil would do the same, saying that the chocolate had gone overboard. When Louie finished, Trumbull asked him to summarize what he had endured. Louie stood silently.

“If I knew I had to go through those experiences again,” he finally said, “I’d kill myself.”

The next morning, Louie was taken to an airfield to be flown to Okinawa, where many POWs were being collected before being sent home. Seeing a table stacked with K rations, he began cramming the boxes under his shirt, brushing off an attendant who tried to assure him that he didn’t have to hoard them, as no one was going to starve him anymore. Looking extremely pregnant, Louie boarded his plane.

Somewhere in the bustle, he’d been separated from his friends. There had been no good-byes. By seven that morning, he was airborne—leaving Japan, he hoped, forever.

At Okinawa, a staff sergeant named Frank Rosynek stood by the airfield, watching transport planes come in. He was with Louie’s old outfit, the 11th Bomb Group, which was now stationed on Okinawa, and he had come to the airfield to welcome the POWs. “They were a pathetic looking bunch: mostly skin and bones, clad in rags with makeshift footwear, and nervous,” he wrote. He walked among them, listening to their stories, marveling at how they savored the mess hall grub, watching them tear up over photographs of wives and steady girls who, they hoped, hadn’t given them up for dead.*

Rosynek’s CO asked him to come to the debriefing of a POW from the 11th. When Rosynek arrived, he saw three officers sitting before a drawn, unshaven POW in sun-bleached clothes. The officers were staring at the POW as if in shock. The colonel told Rosynek that the man was Louis Zamperini, and that he had disappeared some two and a half years earlier. Everyone in the bomb group had thought he was dead. Rosynek was incredulous. It had been his job to write next-of-kin letters for lost men, and he had probably written to Zamperini’s mother, but he no longer remembered. There had been so many such letters. Not one of those men had turned up alive, until now.

It was probably sometime later that day when the dead man walked into the 11th Bomb Group’s quarters. Jack Krey, who had packed up Louie’s belongings on Oahu, captured the reaction to news of Louie’s reappearance: “Well, I’ll be damned.”

It wasn’t the reunion that Louie had anticipated. Most of these men were strangers to him. Many of his friends, he learned, were dead. Two hundred and twenty-five men from the 11th had gone missing and were presumed dead, including twenty-six from Louie’s 42nd squadron. Many more had been killed in action. Of the sixteen rowdy young officers who had shared the pornographic palace on Oahu, only four—Louie, Phil, Jesse Stay, and Joe Deasy—were still alive. Louie and Phil had vanished in the Pacific. Deasy had gone home with tuberculosis. Only Stay had completed his forty-mission tour of duty. He’d seen five planes on his wing go down, with every man killed, and yet somehow, the sum total of damage to his bombers was one bullet hole. He’d gone home in March.

Someone brought Louie the August 15 issue of the Minneapolis Star-Journal. Near the back was an article entitled “Lest We Forget,” discussing athletes who had died in the war. More than four hundred amateur, professional, and collegiate athletes had been killed, including nineteen pro football players, five American League baseball players, eleven pro golfers, and 1920 Olympic champion sprinter Charlie Paddock, whom Louie had known. There on the page with them, Louie saw his own picture and the words “great miler … killed in action in the South Pacific.”

The Okinawa mess hall was kept open around the clock for the POWs, who couldn’t stop eating. Louie headed straight for it, but was stopped at the door. Because the Japanese had never registered him with the Red Cross, his name wasn’t on the roster. As far as the mess was concerned, Louie wasn’t a POW. He