From the book UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand
Enslaved in Naoetsu
Louie Zamperini is moved to a new POW camp - Keith Hunt
LOUIE WOULD REMEMBER THE MOMENT WHEN HE SAW THE Bird as the darkest of his life. For the Bird, it was something else. He beamed like a child on his birthday. He seemed certain that the POWs were overjoyed to see him.
Fitzgerald forked forward on his crutches and assumed the duties of senior POW. The Bird announced that just as at Omori, he was in command, and that the men must obey. He said that he would make this camp just as Omori had been under his tenure.
Ringing with shock, Louie picked himself up and hiked through the snow to the barracks, a two-story building on the edge of a small cliff that dropped straight down to the frozen Hokura River. The three hundred residents, mostly Australians, were shrunken down to virtual stick figures. Most were wearing the tropical-weight khakis in which they'd been captured, and which, thanks to years of uninterrupted wear, were so ragged that one civilian likened them to seaweed. The wind, scudding off the sea, whistled through cracks in the walls, and there were so many holes in the roof that it snowed indoors. The whole building was visibly infested with fleas and lice, and rats trotted through the rooms. The beds were planks nailed into the walls; the mattresses were loose rice straw. Everywhere, there were large gaps in the floor; the POWs had pulled up the floorboards and burned them in an effort to survive temperatures that regularly plunged far below zero.
Stacked against one wall were dozens of small boxes, some of which had broken open and spilled gray ash onto the floor. These were the cremated remains of sixty Australian POWs—one in every five prisoners—who had died in this camp in 1943 and 1944, succumbing to pneumonia, beriberi, malnutrition, colitis, or a combination of these. Relentless physical abuse had precipitated most of the deaths. In a POW camp network that would resonate across history as a supreme example of cruelty, Naoetsu had won a special place as one of the blackest holes in the Japanese empire. Of the many hells that Louie had known in this war, this place would be the worst.
Louie lay on his plank and tried to ready himself for what Naoetsu would bring. As he fell asleep that night, halfway around the globe the world's best runners were gathering for a track meet at Madison Square Garden. The promoters had renamed the marquee event in tribute to Louie, who was still believed dead by virtually everyone outside of his family. When the Zamperinis heard of it, they were upset: The race was to be called the Louis S. Zamperini Memorial Mile. Out of respect for the family, the name was changed to the Louis S. Zamperini Invitational, but that did little to lift the spirits of those involved. Marty Glickman, who'd been on the 1936 Olympic team with Louie, watched the race with tears streaming down his face.
The race was won by Jim Rafferty, America's best miler. His time was 4:16.4, four seconds slower than the time Louie had clocked on the sand of Oahu just before climbing aboard Green Hornet.
The first weeks Louie spent in Naoetsu were almost lethally cold. Each night of shivering in his bed of straw ended abruptly before dawn, when he was shouted awake and forced outside for tenko in deep snow, howling wind, and darkness. By day, he huddled with Tinker, Wade, and his other friends in patches of sunlight, trying in vain to keep warm. He was soon nursing a cough, fever, and flulike symptoms, and the Naoetsu slop did nothing to help his body recover. The rations, which were halved for officers, rarely varied from millet or barley and boiled seaweed, plus a few slices of vegetable. The drinking water, which the POWs had to haul in on sleds, was yellow and reeked. Seeing the guards smoking American cigarettes, the POWs knew that the Red Cross was sending relief packages, but the prisoners got nothing.
Watanabe was the same fiend that he'd been at Omori, prompting the Aussies to nickname him "Whatabastard." He held a far lower rank than Naoetsu's commander, an elfin man sporting an abbreviated mustache as an apparent homage to Hitler, but the commander deferred to the Bird, just as the officers at Omori had done. And here, the Bird had recruited a henchman, an eggplant-shaped man named Hiroaki Kono, who trailed Watanabe around camp, assaulting men with the intensity, wrote Wade, of "a roaring Hitlerian animal."
Louie's transfer to Naoetsu, into the grip of the Bird, had been no coincidence. Watanabe had handpicked him and the others to come to this camp, which was short on officers. According to Wade, each chosen man had a skill or history that would make him useful. Al Mead, who had helped save Louie from starvation at Ofuna, had headed Omori's cookhouse; Fitzgerald had been a ranking officer; Wade had been a barracks commander; and so on. The only man with no such history was Louie. Wade believed that the Bird had chosen Louie simply because he wanted to torment him.
Wade was right. From almost the moment that Louie walked into camp, the Bird was on him, slapping him, punching him, and berating him. Other POWs were shocked at how the sergeant pursued Louie, attacking him, remembered one POW, "just for drill." Louie took his beatings with as much defiance as ever, provoking the Bird to ever more violent attacks. Once again in his tormenter's clutches, Louie descended back into a state of profound stress.
And yet, by virtue of his rank, Louie was fortunate. Naoetsu was a factory village that generated products critical to the war effort, and all of its young workers had gone to war. The POWs were here to take their place. Each day, the enlisted POWs waded through the snow to labor in a steel mill, a chemical factory, the port's coal and salt barges, or a site at which they broke rocks for mineral extraction. The work was extraordinarily arduous and often dangerous, and shifts went on day and night, some for eighteen hours. In the hikes back from this slave labor, men were so rubber-legged that they tumbled into snow crevasses,and had to be dragged out.
Each morning and night, Louie saw the enlisted men rambling in from their slave shifts, some completely obscured by coal soot, some so exhausted that they had to be carried into the barracks. The Japanese literally worked men to death at Naoetsu. Louie had much to bear, but at least he didn't have this.
Winter faded. The river ice gave way to flowing water, and houses emerged where only snow had been. When the drifts in the compound melted, a pig miraculously appeared. All winter, he'd been living below the POWs in a snow cavern, sustained by bits of food dropped to him by an Australian. Louie looked at him in wonder. The animal's skin had gone translucent.
With the ground thawed, the Bird announced that he was sending the officers to work as farm laborers. Though this violated the Geneva Convention's' prohibition on forcing officers to labor, Fitzgerald now knew what life in camp with the Bird was like. Work on the farm would keep the officers out of the Bird's path for hours, every day, and couldn't be anything like the backbreaking labor done by the enlisted men. Fitzgerald raised no protest.
Each morning, Louie and the rest of the farming party assembled before the barracks, attended by a civilian guard named Ogawa. They loaded a cart with benjo waste-—to be used as fertilizer, as was customary in Japan-—-then yoked themselves to the cart like oxen and pulled it to and from the farm. As they picked their way along the road, sometimes darting off to try to steal a vegetable from a field while Ogawa's back was turned, Japanese farmers came out to stare at them, probably the first Westerners they'd ever seen. Louie looked back at the them, stooped old men and women. The hardships of this war were evident on their blank, weary faces and from their bodies, winnowed for want of food. A few children scampered about, raising their arms in imitation of surrender and mocking the prisoners. There were no young adults.
The walk, six miles each way, was a tiring slog, but the work, planting and tending potatoes, was relatively easy. Ogawa was a placid man, and though he carried a club, he never used it. The plot had a clean well, a relief after the stinking camp water, and Ogawa let the men drink all they wished. And because they were now working outside the camp, the officers were granted full rations. Though those rations were dwindling as Japan's fortunes fell, a full bowl of seaweed was better than half a bowl of seaweed.
April 13 was a bright day, the land bathed in sunshine, the sky wide and clear. Louie and the other officers were scattered over the potato plot, working, when the field suddenly went still and the men turned their faces to the sky. At the same moment, all over Naoetsu, labor at the outdoor work sites halted as the POWs and guards gazed up. High overhead, something was winking in the sunlight, slender ribbons of white unfurling behind it. It was a B-29.
It was the first Superfortress to cross over Naoetsu. The Omori officers had seen hundreds of B-29s over Tokyo, but for the Australians, who'd been hidden in this village since 1942, this was their first glimpse of the bomber.
Followed by innumerable eyes, some hopeful and some horrified, the B-29 made a slow arc from one horizon to the other, following the coastline. No guns shot at it; no fighters chased it. It dropped no bombs, passing peacefully overhead, but its appearance was a telling sign of how far over Japan the Americans were now venturing, and how little resistance the Japanese could offer. As all of Naoetsu watched, the plane slid out of view, and its contrails dissolved behind it.
The POWs were elated; the Japanese were unnerved. At the work sites, the prisoners hid their excitement behind neutral faces to avoid provoking the guards, who were unusually tense and hostile. On the walk back to camp that evening, the prisoners absorbed a few swipes with a club, but their mood remained merry. When they reached the gates, the Bird was waiting for them.
Roosevelt, he said, was dead.
The men deflated. The Bird sent them into the barracks.
A few days later, Ogawa made a little joke to the Bird, teasing him about how his POW officers were lazy. Ogawa meant no harm, but the remark sent the Bird into a fury. He shouted for the farm workers to line up before him, then began berating them for their indolence. He stormed and frothed, seeming completely deranged. Finally, he screamed his punishment: From now on, all officers would perform hard labor, loading coal on barges. If they refused, he would execute every one of them. One look at the Bird told Fitzgerald that this was an order he could not fight. Early the next morning, as the officers were marched off to labor, the Bird stood by, watching them go. He was smiling.
It was a short walk into slavery. The officers were taken to the river-bank and crowded onto a barge, which was heaped with coal destined for the steel mill. Six men were given shovels; Louie and the rest were given large baskets and told to strap them to their backs. Then, on the guards' orders, the shovelers began heaving coal into each man's basket. As a cubic foot of loose coal can weigh as much as sixty pounds, the bearers were soon staggering. Once the baskets were full, the bearers were ordered to lug the loads off the barge and up the shore to a railroad car, where they wobbled up a narrow, steep ramp, dumped the coal into the car, and returned to have their baskets refilled.
All day the men shoveled and hauled. The guards kept the basket men moving at a rapid clip. By the time the guards finally let them stop, the men were utterly exhausted; by Wade's estimate, over the course of the day, each basket bearer had carried well over four tons of coal.
So began a daily routine. Each time the men finished clearing one barge, they were pushed aboard another, and the hauling went on, punishing their bodies and numbing their minds. Somewhere along the way, as he and the others bent under their burdens and plodded along, Tom Wade began reciting poetry and speeches. Louie and the other slaves shoveled and walked in time with Shakespeare's soliloquies, with Churchill's vow to fight in the fields and in the streets and in the hills, with Lincoln's last full measure of devotion.
The barges were eventually empty, but the officers' life in slavery had only just begun. In a mass of POWs, Louie was herded onto another of the barges, which was pulled by a tugboat into the Sea of Japan. About three-quarters of a mile out, the barge drew alongside an anchored coal ship and stopped, the sea heaving under it, water spraying over the deck. Standing before the prisoners, a guard gestured to a net slung over the side of the ship. Jump from the barge onto the net, he said, then climb up onto the ship's deck.
The POWs were appalled. On the tossing sea, the two vessels were pitching up and down, crashing together and rolling apart, and the net was a rapidly moving target. If the men mistimed their jumps, they'd be caught between the crafts as they collided or thrown into the water as they gapped apart. The men balked, but the guards forced them forward, and the POWs began jumping. Louie, as scared as everyone else, sprang across and climbed clear. He was hustled into the ship's hold. Before him stood a giant dome of coal and, beside it, a large hanging net. As he was given a shovel, the guards suddenly teemed around him, screaming at him to get to work. Louie jammed his shovel into, the coal and began piling it into the net. Hour after hour, Louie stooped over his shovel in a churning cloud of black dust. The guards turned circles around him and the others, shouting and cracking them with clubs and kendo sticks. They pushed the POWs at such a frenzied pace that the laborers never had a moment to straighten their backs. Clubbed and badgered, Louie shoveled so frantically that the men alongside him whispered to him to slow down. At last, in the evening, the work was halted. The POWs were taken back to shore and dropped there, so caked in coal that they were virtually indistinguishable.
Every morning, the men were sent back to take up their shovels again. Every night, they dragged back into camp, a long line of blackened ghosts trudging into the barracks and falling onto their bunks, weary to their bones, spitting black saliva. There was just one bathtub in camp, and its water was almost never changed. The one other place to bathe was a vat at the steel mill, but the guards marched the POWs there for baths only once every ten days. Unwilling to brave the camp tub, the coal-labor men lived in a patina of soot, waiting to go to the mill. Eventually, Wade felt so befouled that he had someone shave the coal-clotted hair from his head. "It was an act of expiation," he wrote. Day after day, Louie shoveled. Occasionally, he was switched from coal to industrial salt; the work was just as taxing, and the salt liquefied in his sweat and ran down his back, burning fissures in his skin. Fitzgerald labored alongside his men and tangled with the foremen to protect them. Once, during a nonstop fourteen-hour shift, he ordered the POWs to stop and told the foreman that he wouldn't let his men work until they were fed. After much argument, the overseers brought the men a single, huge ball of rice, then sent them back to work.
Tragedy was inevitable, and Louie was there when it happened. He was standing on the barge, awaiting his turn to jump to the ship, when the man ahead of him mistimed his leap, thudding into the side of the ship just as it collided with the barge. Crushed between the vessels, the man crumpled onto the barge. The guards hardly paused, pushing Louie to make his jump. While the rest of the POWs tramped past him, the injured man was left where he lay. Louie never learned if he survived.
The slave labor at Naoetsu was the kind of work that swallowed men's souls, but the prisoners found ways to score little victories, so essential to their physical and emotional survival. Most of the work sites offered nothing to sabotage, but stealing was epidemic. On the barges, men would wait until the operator stepped away, then sprint into the galley and stuff all the food they could find into their clothes. The lunch boxes of the civilian guards kept vanishing; an overseer's pack of cigarettes, set down while he turned away, would be gone when he turned back. The POWs would pinch anything they could, often items they had no need for, risking a beating or worse for something as useless as a pencil box. The box itself was nothing; the theft of it was everything.
Because the POW diet was severely deficient in sodium, leaving many men crippled by muscle cramps and other ailments, the men developed a system for stealing and processing salt. As they worked, the men on the salt barges would secrete handfuls of salt in their pockets. In its raw form, the salt was inedible, so the barge men would carry it up to camp and slip it to the POWs assigned to the steel mill. These men would hide the salt in their clothing and carry it to the mill, wait until, the guard wasn't looking, then drop lumps of it into canteens filled with water. At day's end, they'd hang the canteens on the sides of a coal-fire vat. By morning, the water would be boiled away, leaving only edible salt residue, a treasure beyond price.
While in the benjo one day, Louie looked through a knothole and noticed that a grain sack was resting against it, in a storage room on the other side of the wall. Remembering the thieving techniques of the Scots at Omori, he left the benjo, searched the camp, and found a pile of discarded bamboo reeds, which were hollow. He took one and, when the guards weren't watching, sharpened the end. That night, he put on his camp-issued pajamas, which were fitted with strings around the ankles. He pocketed his bamboo reed, pulled his ankle strings as tight as he could, and headed to the benjo. Once inside, he jammed one end of the reed through the knothole hard enough to pierce the grain sack, then put the other end into his pajama fly. The grain-—-rice-—-poured through the reed and into his pants. When he had about five pounds in each leg, Louie pulled the reed out.
Louie walked out of the benjo, moving as naturally as a man could with ten pounds of rice in his pajamas. He strolled past the barracks guards and climbed the ladder to the second floor, where Commander Fitzgerald awaited him, a blanket spread before him. Louie stepped onto the blanket, untied his pant legs, and let the rice spill out, then hurried back to his bunk. Fitzgerald quickly folded up the blanket, then hid the rice in socks and secret compartments he had made under the wall panels. After memorizing the guards' routines, Louie and Fitzgerald would wait for a time when the guards left the building, then dig out the rice, rush it to the building stove, boil it in water, and scoop it into their mouths as rapidly as they could, sharing it with a few others. They never got more than about a tablespoon of rice per man, but the accomplishment of outwitting their slaveholders was nourishment enough.
In Naoetsu's little POW insurgency, perhaps the most insidious feat was pulled off by Louie's friend Ken Marvin, a marine who'd been captured at Wake Atoll. At his work site, Marvin was supervised by a one-eyed civilian guard called Bad Eye. When Bad Eye asked Marvin to teach him English, Marvin saw his chance. With secret delight,, he began teaching Bad Eye catastrophically bad English. From that day forward, when asked, "How are you?," Bad Eye would smilingly reply, "What the fuck do you care?"
Disaster struck Louie one day that spring, on the riverbank. He'd been transferred back to hauling and was hunched under a basket, lugging a heavy load of salt from a barge to a railroad car. He carried his basket up the riverbank, then began the perilous walk up the railcar ramp. As he made his way up, a guard stepped onto the top of the ramp and started down. As they passed, the guard threw out his elbow, and Louie, top-heavy under the basket, fell over the side. He managed to get his legs under him before he hit the ground, some four feet down. One leg hit before the other. Louie felt a tearing sensation, then scorching pain in his ankle and knee. Louie couldn't bear any weight on the leg. Two POWs supported him while he hopped back to camp. He was removed from barge duty, but this was hardly comforting. Not only would he now be the only officer trapped in camp with the Bird all day, but his rations would be cut in half.
Louie lay in the barracks, ravenous. His dysentery was increasingly severe, and his fevers were growing worse, sometimes spiking to 104 degrees. To get his rations restored, he had to find work that he could do on one leg. Spotting an abandoned sewing machine in a shed, he volunteered to tailor the guards' clothes in exchange for full rations. This kept him going for a while, but there was soon no one left to tailor for, and his rations were halved again. Such was his desperation that he went to the Bird and begged for work.
The Bird savored his plea. From now on, he said, Louie would be responsible for the pig in the compound. The job would earn him full rations, but there was a catch: Louie was forbidden to use tools to clean the pig's sty. He'd have to use his hands.
All his life, Louie had been fastidious about cleanliness, so much so that in college he had kept Listerine in his car's glove compartment so he could rinse his mouth after kissing girls. Now he was condemned to crawl through the filth of a pig's sty, picking up feces with his bare hands and cramming handfuls of the animal's feed into his mouth to save himself from starving to death. Of all of the violent, and vile abuses that the Bird had inflicted upon Louie, none had horrified and demoralized him as did this. If anything is going to shatter me, Louie thought, this is it. Sickened and starving, his will a fraying wire, Louie had only the faint hope of the war's end, and rescue, to keep him going.
IT IS TRULY SHOCKING, DISGUSTING, AND HORRID, TO MEDIATE ON THE SLAVE CONDITIONS AND TREATMENT OF THE POWs IN JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR CAMPS. AND HOW LOUIE Z. WITHSTOOD IT ALL, TOOK IT ALL, AND AMAZINGLY SURVIVED. HOW MANY OF THEM SURVIVED IS AMAZING; BUT THE SAD TRUTH IS MANY DID NOT.