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encountered the same problem when trying to get a new uniform to replace the pants and shirt that he had worn every day since May 27, 1943. Until the snafu was straightened out, he had to subsist on candy bars from Red Cross nurses.

Soon after Louie’s arrival, he was sent to a hospital to be examined. Like most POWs, in gorging day and night, he had gained weight extremely rapidly; he now weighed 143 pounds, just seventeen pounds under his weight at the time of the crash. But thanks to dramatic water retention, it was a doughy, moon-faced, muscleless weight. He still had volatile dysentery and was as weak as a blade of grass. He was only twenty-eight, but his body, within and without, was etched with the trauma of twenty-seven months of abuse and deprivation. The physicians, who knew what Louie had once been, sat him down to have a solemn talk. After Louie left the doctors, a reporter asked him about his running career.





Louie in Okinawa. On his right hand is the USC class ring that caught in the wreckage of his plane as it sank. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

“It’s finished,” he said, his voice sharp. “I’ll never run again.”

——

The Zamperinis were on edge. Since Louie’s crash, his only message to make it to America had been his radio broadcast ten months earlier. The letters that he had written after the Bird had left Omori had not arrived. Other than the War Department’s December confirmation that Louie was a POW, no further word from or about him had come. The papers were full of stories about the murder of POWs, and families couldn’t rest easy. The Zamperinis contacted the War Department, but the department had nothing to tell. Sylvia kept writing to Louie, telling him of all they would do when he came home. “Darling, we will take the best of care for you,” she wrote. “You shall be ‘King Toots,’—anything your heart desires—(yes, even red heads and all).” But she, like the rest of the family, was scared. Pete, living in his officer’s quarters in San Diego, kept calling home to see if news had come. The answer was always no.

On the morning of September 9, Pete was startled awake by a hand on his shoulder, shaking him vigorously. He opened his eyes to see one of his friends bending over him with a huge smile. Trumbull’s story had appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The headline said it all: ZAMPERINI COMES BACK FROM DEAD.

In a moment, Pete was on his feet, throwing on his clothes. He bolted for a telephone and dialed his parents’ number. Sylvia picked up. Pete asked if she had heard the news.

“Did you hear the news?” she repeated back to him. “Did I! Wow!” Pete asked to speak to his mother, but she was too overcome to talk.

Louise and Virginia rushed to church to give thanks, then raced home to prepare the house. As she stood in Louie’s room, dusting his running trophies, Louise blinked away tears, singing out, “He’s on the way home. He’s on the way home.”

“From now on,” she said, “September 9 is going to be Mother’s Day to me, because that’s the day I learned for sure my boy was coming home to stay.”

“What do you think, Pop?” someone asked Louie’s father.

“Those Japs couldn’t break him,” Anthony said. “My boy’s pretty tough, you know.”

——

Liberation was a long time coming for Phil and Fred at Rokuroshi. After the August 22 announcement of the war’s end, the POWs sat there, waiting for someone to come get them. They got hold of a radio, and on it they heard chatter from men liberating other camps, but no one came for them. They began to wonder if anyone knew they were there. It wasn’t until September 2 that B-29s finally flew over Rokuroshi, their pallets hitting the rice paddies with such force that the men had to dig them out. The POWs ate themselves silly. One man downed twenty pounds of food in a single day, but somehow didn’t get sick.

That afternoon, an American navy man dug through his belongings and pulled out his most secret and precious possession. It was an American flag with a remarkable provenance. In 1941, just before Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, an American missionary woman had given it to a British POW. The POW had been loaded aboard a ship, which had sunk. Two days later, another British POW had rescued the flag from where it lay underwater and slipped it to the American navy man, who had carried it through the entire war, somehow hiding it from the Japanese, until this day. The POWs pulled down the Japanese flag and ran the Stars and Stripes up the pole over Rokuroshi. The men stood before it, hands up in salutes, tears running down their faces.

On September 9, Phil, Fred, and the other POWs were finally trucked off the mountain. Arriving in Yokohama, they were greeted with pancakes, a band playing “California, Here I Come,” and a general who broke down when he saw them. The men were escorted aboard a ship for hot showers and more food. On September 11, the ship set off for home.

When news of the Trumbull story reached Indiana, Kelsey Phillips’s telephone began ringing, and friends and reporters flocked onto her front porch. Remembering the War Department’s request that she not speak publicly of her son’s survival, Kelsey kept a smiling silence, awaiting official notification that Allen had been released from the POW camp. It wasn’t until September 16 that the War Department telegram announcing Allen’s liberation reached her. It was followed by a phone call from her sister, who delivered a message from Allen that had passed from person to person from Rokuroshi to Yokohama to San Francisco to New Jersey to Indiana: He was free. Allen’s friends went downtown and bought newspapers, spread them out on someone’s living room floor, and spent the morning reading and crying.

As she celebrated, Kelsey thought of what Allen had written in a letter to her. “I would give anything to be home with all of you,” the letter said, “but I’m looking forward to the day—whenever it comes.”

“That day,” Kelsey rejoiced, “has come.”

——

On Okinawa, Louie was having a grand time, eating, drinking, and making merry. When he was given orders to fly out, he begged a doctor to arrange for him to stay a little longer, on the grounds that he didn’t want his mother to see him so thin. The doctor not only agreed to have Louie “hospitalized,” he threw him a welcome-back-to-life bash, complete with a five-gallon barrel of “bourbon”—alcohol mixed with Coke syrup, distilled water, and whatever else was handy.

More than a week passed, bombers left with loads of POWs, and still Louie stayed on Okinawa. The nurses threw him another party, the ersatz bourbon went down easy, and there was a moonlit jeep ride with a pretty girl. Along the way, Louie discovered that a delightful upside to being believed dead was that he could scare the hell out of people. Learning that a former track recruiter from USC was on the island, he asked a friend to tell the recruiter that he had a college running prospect who could spin a mile in just over four minutes. The recruiter eagerly asked to meet the runner. When Louie appeared, the recruiter fell over backward in his chair.

On September 17, a typhoon hit Okinawa. Louie was in a tent when nature called, sending him into the storm to fight his way to an outhouse. He was on the seat with his pants down when a wind gust shot the outhouse over an embankment, carrying Louie in it. Dumped in the mud under a downpour, Louie stood up, hitched up his pants, got broadsided by another gust, and fell over. He crawled through the mud, “lizarding his way,” as he put it, up the hill. He had to bang on the hospital door for a while before someone heard him.

The next morning dawned to find planes flipped over, ships sunk, tents collapsed. Louie, covered in everything that a somersault inside an outhouse will slather on a man, was finally willing to leave Okinawa. He got an enlisted man to pour water over his head while he soaped off, then went to the airfield. When he saw the plane that he was to ride in, he felt a swell of nausea. It was a B-24.

The first leg of the journey, to the Philippine city of Laoag, went without incident. On the second flight, to Manila, the plane was so overloaded with POWs that it nearly crashed just after takeoff, dipping so low that seawater sprayed the POWs’ legs through gaps in the bomb bay floor.* But the bomber made it to Manila, where Louie got passage out on a transport plane. He sat in the cockpit, telling the pilot his story, from the crash to Kwajalein to Japan. As Louie spoke, the pilot dropped the plane down over an island and landed. The pilot asked Louie if he’d ever seen this place before. Louie looked around at a charred wasteland, recognizing nothing.

“This is Kwajalein,” said the pilot.

This couldn’t be Kwajalein, Louie thought. In captivity, glimpsing the island through gaps in his blindfold, or when being hustled to interrogation and medical experimentation, he’d seen a vast swath of intense green. Now, he couldn’t find a single tree. The fight for this place had ripped the jungle off the island. Louie would long wonder if kind-hearted Kawamura had died here.

Someone told him that there was, in fact, one tree still standing. They borrowed a jeep and drove over to see it. Staring at Kwajalein’s last tree, with food in his belly, no blindfold over his eyes, no one there to beat him, Louie felt as if he were in the sweetest of dreams.

On he went to Hawaii. Seeing the condition of the POWs, American authorities had decided to hospitalize virtually all of them. Louie was checked into a Honolulu hospital, where he found himself rooming with Fred Garrett. It was the first time that Louie had slept on a mattress, with sheets, since the first days after his capture. He was given a new uniform and captain’s bars, having been promoted during his imprisonment, as most army POWs were. Trying on his new clothes, he pulled off his beloved muslin shirt, set it aside, and forgot about it. He went downtown, then remembered the shirt and returned to retrieve it. It had been thrown away. He was heartbroken.

Louie and Fred hit the town. Seemingly everyone they met wanted to take them somewhere, feed them, buy them drinks. On a beach, they made a spectacle of themselves when Fred, feeling emasculated by the pity over his missing leg, flung away his crutches, hopped over to Louie, and tackled him. The wrestling match drew a crowd of offended onlookers, who thought that an able-bodied soldier was beating up a helpless amputee. Swinging around Hawaii, getting drunk, knocking heads with Fred, Louie never left himself a moment to think of the war. “I just thought I was empty and now I’m being filled,” he said later, “and I just wanted to keep being filled.”

——

That October, Tom Wade walked off a transport ship in Victoria, Canada. With a multitude of former POWs, he began a transcontinental rail journey that became a nonstop party, including eight impromptu weddings. “I must have kissed a thousand girls crossing the continent,” Wade wrote to Louie, “and when I walked through the train with lipstick all over my face after the first station, I was the most popular officer on the train.” In New York, he was taken aboard the Queen Elizabeth to sail for England. He snuck down the gangway, necked with a Red Cross girl, and stole back aboard toting a box of Hershey bars. When he reached England, he discovered that the local women preferred Yank and Canadian soldiers to Brits. “I decided to do something about it,” he wrote. “I sewed a couple of extra patches and oddments on to my uniform, nobody was any wiser, and stormed them. I did all right.”

On October 16, Russell Allen Phillips, wearing his dress uniform and captain’s bars, stepped off a train in Indiana. He’d been gone for four years. His mother, his sister, and a throng of friends were there. A telegram had come from his father, who was soon to return from Europe: THANK THE LORD GREAT DAY HAS ARRIVED. WELCOME HOME MY SON. There, too, was the woman whose image had sustained him. Cecy was in his arms at last.

At Kelsey’s house in Princeton, they sat Allen down on the front steps, and he grinned while they snapped his picture. When they got the print back, someone wrote one word on it: Home!

Four weeks later, in a wedding ceremony officiated by Reverend Phillips at Cecy’s parents’ house, the hero finally got the girl. Allen had no car, so he borrowed one from a friend. Then, as he had promised in a letter so long ago, he ran away with Cecy to a place where no one would find them.



Russell Allen Phillips arrives at his mother’s house. On the back of this photo, someone wrote, “Home!” Courtesy of Karen Loomis

——

Pete was so anxious to see Louie that he could hardly bear it. The fighting had ended in mid-August, it was now October, and still Louie was hospital-hopping far from home. Then Pete learned that Louie was finally stateside, transferred from Hawaii to San Francisco’s Letterman General Hospital. As soon as he got the news, Pete went AWOL. He bummed a ride to San Francisco on a navy plane, hitched his way to Letterman, and walked in. At the front desk, he called Louie’s room. A minute later, Louie bounded into the lobby.

Each felt startled by the sight of the other. Pete had expected Louie to be emaciated and was surprised to find him looking almost portly. Louie was disturbed to see how the years of worry had depleted his brother. Pete was gaunt, and he’d gone largely bald. The brothers fell together, eyes shining.

Pete and Louie spent several days together in San Francisco while doctors finally cured Louie of his dysentery. After reading the Trumbull article, Pete had worried that Louie might be severely traumatized, but as the two laughed and kidded each other, his fears faded. Louie was as upbeat and garrulous as ever. Once, when a group of reporters shuffled in to interview Louie, they crowded around Pete, assuming that of the two men, this haggard one had to be the POW.

On a drizzling October day, the army sent a banged-up B-25 to San Francisco to bring Louie home. Pete, still AWOL, went aboard with his brother. The plane lifted off and rose over the clouds into a shining blue morning. Scared to death of flying, Pete tried to distract himself from the plane’s rattles and groans by staring out over a carpet of bright clouds, the upside of the rainstorm. He felt as if he could step from the plane and walk on them.

Over Long Beach, they sank back into the rain and landed. There, bursting from army cars, were their mother and father, and Sylvia and Virginia. The moment the plane stopped, Louie jumped down, ran to his sobbing mother, and folded himself around her.

“Cara mamma mia,” he whispered. It was a long time before they let go.





Louie’s homecoming, Long Beach Airport. Foreground, left to right: Virginia, Sylvia, Louise, and Louie. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini


* One POW’s worst nightmare came true. Upon liberation, he was told by a reporter that his wife, believing him dead, had just married his uncle. When she learned that her first husband was alive, the woman immediately had her new marriage annulled and got the Associated Press to deliver a message to her lost husband: “I love only you, Gene. Please forgive me.”

* Louie was luckier than he knew. Another transport crashed on takeoff, in part because several Dutch POWs had overloaded the plane by packing aboard a large cache of GI shoes that they intended to sell back home. Everyone on the plane died. Another POW transport was lost over the ocean.





Thirty-four

The Shimmering Girl


ON AN OCTOBER AFTERNOON, LOUIE STEPPED OUT OF AN army car and stood on the lawn at 2028 Gramercy Avenue, looking at his parents’ house for the first time in more than three years.

“This, this little home,” he said, “was worth all of it.”

As his parents and siblings filed into the house, Louie paused, overcome by a strange uneasiness. He had to push himself to walk up the steps.

The house was done up top to bottom for his homecoming. The surface of the dining room table was a traffic jam of heaping dishes. Three years’ worth of Christmas and birthday presents sat ready for opening. There was a cake with Welcome Home Louie inscribed in the icing. In the garage sat Louie’s beige Plymouth convertible, just as he had left it.

The family ringed around Louie, babbling, eager to look at him and touch him. Anthony and Louise smiled, but there was a cast to their eyes, a tension that had never been there before. What Louie didn’t see was the rash on his mother’s hands. As soon as Louise had learned that her son was coming home, the rash had vanished. Nothing, not even a scar, remained. She would never tell Louie about it.

After dessert, the family sat and talked. They spoke easily, as they always had. No one asked about prison camp. Louie volunteered a little about it, and to everyone’s relief, it seemed to carry little emotion for him. It seemed that he was going to be just fine.

Sylvia had a surprise for Louie. Lynn Moody, the woman who had transcribed Louie’s broadcast, had arranged for a recording of it to be sent to the Zamperinis. The family treasured the record, which had given them proof that he was alive. Knowing nothing of the circumstances in which the broadcast had been made, Sylvia was eager to share it with Louie. As he sat nearby, relaxed and cheerful, she dropped the record on the turntable. The broadcast began to play.

Louie was suddenly screaming. Sylvia turned and found him shaking violently, shouting, “Take it off! Take it off! I can’t stand it!” As Sylvia jumped up, Louie swore at the voice, yelling something about propaganda prisoners. Sylvia snatched up the record, and Louie yelled at her to break it. She smashed it and threw it away.

Louie fell silent, shivering. His family stared at him in horror.

Louie walked upstairs and lay down on his old bed. When he finally drifted off, the Bird followed him into his dreams.

——

The same man was on many other minds that fall. On ships docked at Yokohama, in tents in Manila, and in stateside hospitals, former POWs were telling their stories. Investigators, gathering affidavits on war criminals, sat by as men told of abuses and atrocities that pushed the bounds of believability. As the stories were corroborated again and again, it became clear that these events had been commonplace in camps throughout Japan’s empire. In interview after interview, former POWs mentioned the same name: Mutsuhiro Watanabe. When Wade wrote that name on his statement, his interviewer exclaimed, “Not the same Watanabe! We’ve got enough to hang him six times already.”

“Sit back and take it easy,” Wade replied. “There’s lots more to come.”

On September 11, General MacArthur, now the supreme commander of Allied powers in occupied Japan, ordered the arrest of forty war-crimes suspects. While thousands of men would be sought later, this preliminary list was composed of those accused of the worst crimes, including list-topper Hideki Tojo, mastermind of Pearl Harbor and the man on whose orders POWs had been enslaved and starved, and Masahuru Homma, who was responsible for the Bataan Death March.* On the list with them was Mutsuhiro Watanabe.

——

The Bird had left Naoetsu in a panic, and without a plan. According to Watanabe family accounts, he fled to the village of Kusakabe, where his mother and other relatives were living. About a week and a half after Mutsuhiro’s arrival, his aunt found him out drinking and told him that she’d just heard a radio broadcast naming him as a war-crimes suspect. Mutsuhiro decided to make a run for it. He apparently told his mother that he was leaving to visit a friend’s tomb, then took his little sister aside and told her that he had to escape, but asked her not to tell his mother. As Mutsuhiro was preparing to go, his little sister gave him a deck of playing cards, to be used for fortune-telling.

Wearing his uniform with the insignia torn off, Mutsuhiro packed a trunk with food and clothing and lugged it to a car. He drove to the rail station and walked onto the first train he saw, without checking its destination. He hoped it would take him to someplace distant and obscure, but the train reached its terminus only two towns down the line, at the metropolis of Kofu. He got off, wandered the station, then lay down and slept.

In the morning, he meandered around Kofu. Somewhere in the city, he passed a radio and heard his name listed among those wanted for war crimes. To learn that he was being sought was no surprise, but he was shocked to hear his name listed alongside that of Tojo. If his case was considered comparable to that of Tojo, he thought, arrest would mean execution.

At all costs, he vowed, he wouldn’t let himself fall into the hands of the Americans. He resolved to disappear forever.

——

As Mutsuhiro fled, the hunt for him began. Though they were now operating under the orders of their former enemies, the Japanese police worked swiftly and energetically to round up war-crimes suspects. The Watanabe case was no exception. After finding nothing at Mutsuhiro’s last known address, police appeared at his mother’s door in Kusakabe. Shizuka Watanabe told them that her son had been there, but had left. They had missed him by three days. Shizuka suggested that he might seek refuge with his sister Michiko, who lived in Tokyo. She’d soon be visiting Michiko, she said, and if she found Mutsuhiro there, she’d urge him to turn himself in.

The police seized on the lead. Shizuka gave them an address for Michiko, and they converged on it. Not only was there no Michiko there, there was no house. Every home in the neighborhood had burned long ago, in the firebombing.

Shizuka was now the focus of suspicion. On her regular visits to Tokyo, she always stayed with Michiko, and given that she was scheduled to do so that very week, she surely knew that her daughter’s home had burned down. Shizuka’s misdirection of the detectives may have been an honest mistake—Michiko had moved to a home down the same road, so the only change in the address was the door number—but the police began to suspect that she knew where her son was. On September 24, the police arrested her. If she knew anything, she let nothing slip. She was released.

The police were a long way from giving up. Two detectives began tailing Shizuka and often came into her home to question her. Her monetary transactions were tracked, and her landlord was regularly questioned. Mutsuhiro’s other relatives were investigated, questioned, and sometimes searched. Police intercepted all of the family’s incoming and outgoing mail. They even had a stranger deliver a fake letter, apparently making it appear to be from Mutsuhiro, in hopes of getting the family to betray his whereabouts.

Widening the hunt, the police investigated Mutsuhiro’s former army roommates. The home of his Omori commander was searched and put under surveillance. Mutsuhiro’s photograph was distributed throughout police ranks in the Tokyo metropolitan area and four prefectures. Every police station in Nagano Prefecture, where a Watanabe family mine was located, conducted special searches. Detectives went through Mutsuhiro’s academic records and searched for his teachers and classmates, going back to his childhood. They even got hold of a love letter from a girl who had asked Mutsuhiro if he’d marry her.

They found only two leads. A former soldier told them that Mutsuhiro had spoken of his intention to flee to Fukuoka Prefecture to be a farmer. The soldier thought that Mutsuhiro would hide with a friend named Yo. Police found Yo, questioned and investigated him, and questioned people in his neighborhood. It was a dead lead. Meanwhile, a detective at Mitsushima found a man who’d seen Mutsuhiro in August. The man said that Mutsuhiro had left, claiming to be headed for Tokyo, at the war’s end. But Mutsuhiro had gone to Kusakabe; there was no evidence that he’d gone to Tokyo. He may have seeded his acquaintances with false information to misdirect his pursuers.

There was one other possible clue. The man at Mitsushima mentioned something he had overheard Mutsuhiro say: He would rather kill himself than be captured. It seemed no idle threat; that fall, during a roundup of suspected war criminals, there was a wave of suicides among those sought. Perhaps the Bird was already dead.

While investigators combed Japan for Mutsuhiro, prosecutors were inundated with some 250 POW affidavits concerning his actions in camps. These would be distilled into an 84-count indictment. Even with each count stated with maximum brevity, in single spacing, the indictment stretched over eight feet of paper. It would reflect only a tiny fraction of the crimes that POWs said Watanabe had committed; Louie’s accusations of myriad attacks would make up only one count. Investigators believed that they had far more evidence than they needed to have Watanabe convicted and put to death. But nothing could go forward. The Bird was still at large.

——

As his tormenter disappeared into darkness, Louie was pulled into blinding light. With his Odyssean saga featured in newspapers, magazines, and radio shows, he was a national sensation. Two thousand people wrote him letters. Press photographers tailed him. His attempts to sleep were invariably interrupted by a ringing phone. Strangers teemed around him, pushing for news on what he’d do next. Everyone wanted him to tell his story. The War Department booked him on a speaking tour, and he was inundated with speaking invitations that usually came with an award, making them impossible to decline. In his first weeks home, staying with his parents, he gave ninety-five speeches and made countless radio appearances. When he went to dinner clubs, the managers begged him to regale the guests. For Louie, all of the attention was drenching, a great noise, overpowering.