Watanabe rang the bell, but no one answered. He rang again, longer, and heard footfalls on the garden stones. The gate swung open, and there was the face of his youngest brother, whom he hadn’t seen since the latter was a boy. His brother threw his arms around him, then pulled him into the house, singing out, “Mu-cchan’s back!”

Mutsuhiro Watanabe’s flight was over. In his absence, many of his fellow camp guards and officials had been convicted of war crimes. Some had been executed. The others wouldn’t be in prison for long. In keeping with the American effort to reconcile with Japan, all of them, including those serving life sentences, would soon be paroled. It appears that even Sueharu Kitamura, “the Quack,” was set free, in spite of his death sentence. By 1958, every war criminal who had not been executed would be free, and on December 30 of that year, all would be granted amnesty. Sugamo would be torn down, and the epic ordeals of POWs in Japan would fade from the world’s memory.

Watanabe would later admit that in the beginning of his life in exile, he had pondered the question of whether or not he had committed any crime. In the end, he laid the blame not on himself but on “sinful, absurd, insane war.” He saw himself as a victim. If he had tugs of conscience over what he’d done, he shrugged them away by assuring himself that the lifting of the fugitive-apprehension order was a personal exoneration.

“I was just in a great joy of complete release and liberation,” he wrote in 1956, “that I was not guilty.”


Watanabe married and had two children. He opened an insurance agency in Tokyo, and it reportedly became highly profitable. He lived in a luxury apartment worth a reported $1.5 million and kept a vacation home on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Almost everyone who knew of his crimes believed he was dead. By his own account, Watanabe visited America several times, but he apparently didn’t encounter any former POWs. Then, in the early 1980s, an American military officer visiting Japan heard something about the Bird being alive. In 1991, Bob Martindale was told that a Japanese veteran had spotted a man he thought was Watanabe at a sports event. Among the other POWs, few, if any, heard of this. Louie remained in ignorance, convinced that the Bird had killed himself decades earlier.

In the summer of 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of his flight from Naoetsu, Watanabe was seventy-seven years old. His hair had grayed; his haughty bearing had bent. He seemed to be close to concluding his life without publicly confronting his past. But that year, he was at last ready to admit that he had abused men. Perhaps he truly felt guilty. Perhaps, as he approached his death, he had a troubling sense that he’d be remembered as a fiend and wished to dispel that notion. Or perhaps he was motivated by the same vanity that had consumed him in wartime, and hoped to use his vile history, and his victims, to draw attention to himself, maybe even win admiration for his contrition. That summer, when London Daily Mail reporter Peter Hadfield came calling, Watanabe let him in.

Sitting in his apartment, his pawlike hand clutching a crystal wine glass, he finally spoke about the POWs.

“I understand their bitterness, and they may wonder why I was so severe,” he said. “But now my feeling is I want to apologize. A deep, deep apology … I was severe. Very severe.”

He made a fist and waved it past his chin. “If the former prisoners want, I would offer to let them come here and hit me, to beat me.”

He claimed that he’d used only his hands to punish POWs, an assertion that would have riled the men who’d been kicked, clubbed with his kendo stick and baseball bat, and whipped in the face with his belt. He said that he’d only been trying to teach the POWs military discipline, and asserted that he’d been acting under orders. “If I had been better educated during the war, I think I would have been kinder, more friendly,” he said. “But I was taught that the POWs had surrendered, and this was a shameful thing for them to have done. I knew nothing about the Geneva Convention. I asked my commanding officer about it, and he said, ‘This is not Geneva, this is Japan.’

“There were two people inside me,” he continued. “One that followed military orders, and the other that was more human. At times I felt I had a good heart, but Japan at that time had a bad heart. In normal times I never would have done such things.

“War is a crime against humanity,” he concluded. “I’m glad our prime minister apologized for the war, but I can’t understand why the government as a whole doesn’t apologize. We have a bad cabinet.”

After the interview, a Daily Mail reporter tracked down Tom Wade and told him that Watanabe had asked for forgiveness. “I accept his apology and wish him contentment in his declining years,” Wade said. “It’s no good hanging on to the hatred after so long.”

Asked if he’d like to accept Watanabe’s offer to let the POWs beat him, Wade said no, then reconsidered.

“I might just have one good blow,” he said.

The Daily Mail article apparently ran only in England. It wasn’t until almost a year later that Louie learned that Watanabe still lived. His first reaction was to say that he wanted to see him.


In the decades after the war, the abandoned Naoetsu campsite decayed, and the village residents didn’t speak of what had transpired there. Over time, the memory was largely lost. But in 1978, a former POW wrote a letter to teachers at Naoetsu High School, beginning a dialogue that introduced many locals to the tragedy that had taken place in their village. Ten years later, former POW Frank Hole journeyed back to the village, which had joined another village to form Joetsu City. He planted three eucalyptus seedlings outside city hall and gave city leaders a plaque in memory of the sixty Australians who had died in the camp.

As they learned the POWs’ stories, Joetsu residents responded with sympathy. Residents formed a group dedicated to building a peace park to honor the dead POWs and bring reconciliation. Among the founding members was Shoichi Ishizuka, a veteran who’d been held as a POW by the Americans and treated so kindly that he referred to the experience as “lucky prison life.” When he learned what his Allied counterparts had endured in his own village, he was horrified. A council was formed, fund-raising began, and exhibits were erected in town. If the plan succeeded, Joetsu would become, among the ninety-one cities in Japan in which POW camps once stood, the first to create a memorial to the POWs who had suffered and died there.

Though 85 percent of Joetsu residents donated to the park fund, the plan generated heated controversy. Some residents fought the plan vehemently, calling in death threats and vowing to tear down the memorial and burn supporters’ homes. In keeping with the goal of reconciliation, the memorial council sought the participation of relatives of the guards who’d been convicted and hanged, but the families balked, fearing ostracism. To honor the grief of families on both sides of the war, the council proposed creating a single cenotaph for both the POWs and the hanged guards, but this deeply offended the former POWs. At one point, the plan was nearly given up.

Eventually, the spirit of reconciliation prevailed. In October 1995, on the site of the former Naoetsu camp, the peace park was dedicated. The focal point was a pair of statues of angels, flying above a cenotaph in which rested Hole’s plaque. In a separate cenotaph a few yards away was a plaque in memory of the eight hanged guards. At the guards’ families’ request, no names were inscribed on it, only a simple phrase: Eight stars in the peaceful sky.


In early 1997, CBS TV’s Draggan Mihailovich arrived in Tokyo to search for Watanabe, armed with an address and a phone number. CBS’s Japanese bureau chief called the number and reached Watanabe’s wife, who said that her husband couldn’t speak to them—he was gravely ill and bedridden. Mihailovich had the bureau chief call again to convey his wishes for Watanabe’s recovery. His wishes did the trick: Mrs. Watanabe said that her husband had left the country on business and she didn’t know when he’d return.

Seeing that he was being dodged, Mihailovich staked out Watanabe’s apartment building and office. He waited for hours; Watanabe didn’t appear. Just as Mihailovich was losing hope, his cell phone rang. Watanabe had returned the bureau chief’s call. Told that the producers had a message from Louis Zamperini, Watanabe had agreed to meet them at a Tokyo hotel.


Mihailovich rented a room at the hotel and set up a camera crew inside. Doubting that Watanabe would agree to a sit-down interview, he rigged his cameraman with a tiny camera inside a baseball cap. At the appointed hour, in walked the Bird.

They sat down in the lobby, and Watanabe ordered a beer. Mihailovich explained that they were profiling Louis Zamperini. Watanabe knew the name immediately. “Six hundred prisoner,” he said. “Zamperini number one.”

Bob Simon, CBS’s on-air correspondent for the story, thought that this would probably be his only chance to question Watanabe, so there in the lobby, he began grilling him about his treatment of Louie. Watanabe was startled. He said something about Zamperini being a good man, and how he—Watanabe—hated war. He said that his central concern had been protecting the POWs, because if they had escaped, civilians would have killed them. Asked why he’d been on the list of most wanted war criminals, he puffed with apparent pride. “I’m number seven,” he said. “Tojo number one.” Exile, he said, had been very painful for him.

They asked Watanabe if he’d come upstairs for an on-camera interview. Watanabe asked if the interview would air in Japan, and Mihailovich said no. To Mihailovich’s surprise, Watanabe agreed.

Upstairs, with cameras rolling, they handed Watanabe a photograph of a youthful Louie, standing on a track, smiling. Simon dug in.

“Zamperini and the other prisoners remember you, in particular, being the most brutal of all the guards. How do you explain that?”

Watanabe’s right eyelid began drooping. Mihailovich felt uneasy.

“I wasn’t given military orders,” Watanabe said, contradicting the assertion he’d made in the 1995 interview. “Because of my personal feelings, I treated the prisoners strictly as enemies of Japan. Zamperini was well known to me. If he says he was beaten by Watanabe, then such a thing probably occurred at the camp, if you consider my personal feelings at the time.”

He tossed his head high, jutted out his chin, and directed a hard gaze at Simon. He said that the POWs had complained of “trifle things” and had used epithets to refer to the Japanese. These things, he said, had made him angry. With hundreds of prisoners, he said, he’d been under great pressure.

“Beating and kicking in Caucasian society are considered cruel. Cruel behavior,” he said, speaking very slowly. “However, there were some occasions in the prison camp in which beating and kicking were unavoidable.”

When the interview was over, Watanabe looked shaken and angry. Told that Zamperini was coming to Japan and wanted to meet him to offer his forgiveness, Watanabe replied that he would see him and apologize, on the understanding that it was only a personal apology, not one offered on behalf of the Japanese military.

As they packed up, Mihailovich had a last request. Would he agree to be filmed walking down the street? This, it seemed, was what Watanabe had come for. He donned his cap, stepped to the sidewalk, turned, and walked toward the camera. He moved just as he had in parades before his captives, head high, chest thrust out, eyes imperious.


One day nine months later, as he prepared to return to Japan to carry the Olympic torch, Louie sat at his desk for hours, thinking. Then he clicked on his computer and began to write.


To Matsuhiro [sic] Watanabe,

As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.

Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.

The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”

As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 [sic] and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison … I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.

Louis Zamperini

He folded the letter and carried it with him to Japan.

The meeting was not to be. CBS contacted Watanabe and told him that Zamperini wanted to come see him. Watanabe practically spat his reply: The answer was no.

When Louie arrived in Joetsu, he still had his letter. Someone took it from him, promising to get it to Watanabe. If Watanabe received it, he never replied.

Watanabe died in April 2003.


On the morning of January 22, 1998, snow sifted gently over the village once known as Naoetsu. Louis Zamperini, four days short of his eighty-first birthday, stood in a swirl of white beside a road flanked in bright drifts. His body was worn and weathered, his skin scratched with lines mapping the miles of his life. His old riot of black hair was now a translucent scrim of white, but his blue eyes still threw sparks. On the ring finger of his right hand, a scar was still visible, the last mark that Green Hornet had left in the world.

At last, it was time. Louie extended his hand, and in it was placed the Olympic torch. His legs could no longer reach and push as they once had, but they were still sure beneath him. He raised the torch, bowed, and began running.

All he could see, in every direction, were smiling Japanese faces. There were children peeking out of hooded coats, men who had once worked beside the POW slaves in the steel mill, civilians snapping photographs, clapping, waving, cheering Louie on, and 120 Japanese soldiers, formed into two columns, parting to let him pass. Louie ran through the place where cages had once held him, where a black-eyed man had crawled inside him. But the cages were long gone, and so was the Bird. There was no trace of them here among the voices, the falling snow, and the old and joyful man, running.

* America’s War Crimes Acts of 1948 and 1952 awarded each former POW $1 for each day of imprisonment if he could prove that he wasn’t given the amount and quality of food mandated by the Geneva Convention, and $1.50 per day if he could prove that he’d been subjected to inhumane treatment and/or hard labor. This made for a maximum benefit of $2.50 per day. Under the Treaty of Peace, $12.6 million in Japanese assets were distributed to POWs, but because America’s POWs had already received meager War Crimes Acts payments, first claim on the assets was given to other nations.


“I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,” Louie once told me, “because I can talk.”

When I finished writing my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I felt certain that I would never again find a subject that fascinated me as did the Depression-era racehorse and the team of men who campaigned him. When I had my first conversation with the infectiously effervescent and apparently immortal Louie Zamperini, I changed my mind.

That conversation began my seven-year journey through Louie’s unlikely life. I found his story in the memories of Olympians, former POWs and airmen, Japanese veterans, and the family and friends who once formed the home front; in diaries, letters, essays, and telegrams, many written by men and women who died long ago; in military documents and hazy photographs; in unpublished memoirs buried in desk drawers; in deep stacks of affidavits and war-crimes trial records; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. By the end of my journey, Louie’s life was as familiar to me as my own. “When I want to know what happened to me in Japan,” Louie once told his friends, “I call Laura.”

In opening his world to me, Louie could not have been more gracious. He sat through some seventy-five interviews, answering thousands of questions with neither impatience nor complaint. He was refreshingly honest, quick to confess his failures and correct a few embellished stories that journalists have written about him. And his memory was astounding; nearly every time I cross-checked his accounts of events against newspaper stories, official records, and other sources, his recollections proved accurate to the smallest detail, even when the events took place some eighty-five years ago.

A superlative pack rat, Louie has saved seemingly every artifact of his life, from the DO NOT DISTURB sign that he swiped from Jesse Owens in Berlin to the paper number that he wore as he shattered the interscholastic mile record in 1934. One of his scrapbooks, which covers only 1917 to 1938, weighs sixty-three pounds. This he volunteered to send me, surrendering it to my late friend Debie Ginsburg, who somehow manhandled it down to a mailing service. Along with it, he sent several other scrapbooks (fortunately smaller), hundreds of photographs and letters, his diaries, and items as precious as the stained newspaper clipping that was in his wallet on the raft. All of these things were treasure troves to me, telling his story with immediacy and revealing detail. I am immensely grateful to Louie for trusting me with items so dear to him, and for welcoming me into his history.

Pete Zamperini, Sylvia Zamperini Flammer, and Payton Jordan didn’t live to see this book’s completion, but they played an enormous role in its creation, sharing a lifetime of memories and memorabilia. There were many joys for me in writing this book; my long talks with Pete, Sylvia, and Payton ranked high among them. I also thank Harvey Flammer, Cynthia Zamperini Garris, Ric Applewhite, and the late Marge Jordan for telling me their stories about Louie and Cynthia.

Karen Loomis, the daughter of Russell Allen Phillips and his wife, Cecy, walked me through her family’s history and sent her father’s wartime love letters to her mother, scrapbooks, photographs, clippings, and her grandmother’s memoir. Thanks to Karen, I was able to peer into the life of the quiet, modest pilot known as Phil and uncover the brave and enduring man underneath. Someday I’ll make it down to Georgia for long-promised muffins with Karen. My thanks also go to Bill Harris’s daughter Katey Meares, who sent family photographs and told me of the father she lost far too soon, remembering him standing on his head in his kitchen to summon giggles from his girls. I also thank Monroe and Phoebe Bormann, Terry Hoffman, and Bill Perry for telling me about Phil and Cecy.

For the men who endured prison camp, speaking of the war is often a searing experience, and I am deeply grateful to the many former POWs who shared their memories, sometimes in tears. I shall never forget the generosity of Bob Martindale, Tom Wade, and Frank Tinker, who spent many hours bringing POW camp and the Bird to life for me. Milton McMullen described Omori, the POW insurgency, and the day he knocked over a train. Johan Arthur Johansen told of Omori and shared his extensive writings on POW camp. The late Ken Marvin spoke of the last pancakes he ate on Wake before the Japanese came, Naoetsu under the Bird, and teaching a guard hilariously offensive English. Glenn McConnell spoke of Ofuna, Gaga the duck, and the beating of Bill Harris. The late John Cook told me of slavery at Naoetsu and shared his unpublished memoir. I also send thanks to former POWs Fiske Hanley, Bob Hollingsworth, Raleigh “Dusty” Rhodes, Joe Brown, V. H. Spencer, Robert Cassidy, Leonard Birchall, Joe Alexander, Minos Miller, Burn O’Neill, Charles Audet, Robert Heer, and Paul Cascio, and POW family members J. Watt Hinson, Linda West, Kathleen Birchall, Ruth Decker, Joyce Forth, Marian Tougas, Jan Richardson, Jennifer Purcell, Karen Heer, and Angie Giardina.

Stanley Pillsbury spent many afternoons on the phone with me, reliving his days aboard his beloved Super Man, the Christmas raid over Wake, and the moment when he shot down a Zero over Nauru. Frank Rosynek, a born raconteur, sent his unpublished memoir, “Not Everybody Wore Wings,” and wrote to me about the bombing of Funafuti and Louie’s miraculous return from the dead on Okinawa. Lester Herman Scearce and the late pilots John Joseph Deasy and Jesse Stay told of Wake, Nauru, Funafuti, and the search for the lost crew of Green Hornet. Martin Cohn told of squadron life on Hawaii; John Krey told of Louie’s disappearance and reappearance. Byron Kinney described the day he flew his B-29 over Louie at Naoetsu and listened to the Japanese surrender as he flew back to Guam. John Weller described the fearfully complex job of a B-24 navigator.

I am deeply indebted to several Japanese people who spoke candidly of a dark hour in their nation’s history. Yuichi Hatto, the Omori camp accountant and a friend to POWs, was an indispensable source on the Bird, Omori, and life as a Japanese soldier, answering my questions in writing, in his second language, when we were unable to speak on the telephone. Yoshi Kondo told me about the founding of the Joetsu Peace Park, and Shibui Genzi wrote to me about Japanese life in Naoetsu. Toru Fukubayashi and Taeko Sasamoto, historians with the POW Research Network Japan, answered my questions and pointed me toward sources.

The delightful Virginia “Toots” Bowersox Weitzel, Louie’s childhood friend, made me cassette tapes of the most popular songs at Torrance High in the 1930s, narrating them with stories from her days as a school cheerleader. Toots, who passed away just before this book went to press, told of tackling Louie on his sixteenth birthday, cheering him on as he ran the Torrance track with Pete, and playing football with him in front of Kellow’s Hamburg Stand in Long Beach. She was the only ninetysomething person I knew who was obsessed with American Idol. Olympians Velma Dunn Ploessel and Iris Cummings Critchell vividly described their experiences aboard the USS Manhattan and at the Berlin Games. Draggan Mihailovich told me of his remarkable encounter with the Bird. Georgie Bright Kunkel wrote to me about her brother, the great Norman Bright.


As I traced Louie’s path through history, many people went out of their way to help me find information and make sense of it. With the assistance of former USAAF bombardier Robert Grenz, William Darron of the Army Air Forces Historical Association brought a Norden bombsight to my house, set it up in my dining room, put a rolling screen of Arizona beneath it, and taught me how to “bomb” Phoenix. As I worked on my book, Bill was always happy to answer my questions. Gary Weaver of Disabled American Veterans climbed all over a B-24 to film the interior for me; thanks to Gary Sinise for putting me in contact with Mr. Weaver. Charlie Tilghman, who flies a restored B-24 for the Commemorative Air Force, taught me about flying the Liberator.

When I was too ill to get to the National Archives, Peggy Ann Brown and Molly Brose went there for me, wading into voluminous POW and war-crimes records and coming back with some of my most critical material. John Brodkin typed up my citations to save me from my vertigo and climbed on my dining room table to photograph images out of Louie’s scrapbook. Nina B. Smith translated POW documents from Norwegian, and Noriko Sanefuji translated my letters to and from Japanese sources. Julie Wheelock transcribed many of my interviews, straining to hear elderly voices taped on my nearly-as-elderly recorder. Gail Morgan of the Torrance High School Alumni Association dug through the school archives in search of photographs of Louie.

I also want to send thanks to Draggan Mihailovich, Christopher Svendsen, and Sean McManus of CBS, who kindly got me permission to view unaired videotape from CBS’s 1998 feature on Louie. Roger Mansell’s Center for Research, Allied POWs Under the Japanese ( was a comprehensive source of information on POW camps; thanks also to historian Wes Injerd, who works with Mansell’s site. Jon Hendershott, associate editor at Track and Field News, helped me decipher confusing 1930s mile records. Paul Lombardo, author of The One Sure Cure: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell, and Tony Platt, author of Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, taught me about eugenics. Rick Zitarosa of the Naval Lakehurst Historical Society answered questions about the Graf Zeppelin. Janet Fisher of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, Janet Wall of the National Climatic Data Center, and Keith Heidorn, PhD, of the Weather Doctor (, answered weather-related questions. Fred Gill, MD, helped me understand Phil’s head injury. Charles Stenger, PhD, cleared up my confusion on POW statistics.

Working with Yvonne Kinkaid and Colonel J. A. Saaverda (Ret.) of the Reference Team, Analysis and Reference Division, Air Force Historical Research and Analysis, Bolling Air Force Base, the wonderfully helpful Colonel Frank Trippi (Ret.) unearthed heaps of AAF documents for me. I am also grateful to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Clark, USAF (Ret.), at the Air Force Historical Studies Office, Bolling Air Force Base; Will Mahoney, Eric Van Slander, and Dave Giordano of the National Archives; Cathy Cox and Barry Spink of the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base; and Carol Leadenham, assistant archivist for reference at the Hoover Institution Archives. I also thank my dear friend