Military history

Chapter Eighteen
A Dead Body Breathing

SOMETHING FLEW THROUGH THE WINDOW IN THE DOOR of Louie’s cell and struck the floor, breaking into white bits. It was two pieces of hardtack, the dry biscuit that was the standard fare of sailors. A tiny cup of tea—so weak that it was little more than hot water, so small that it constituted a single swallow—was set on the sill. Phil received food also, but no water. He and Louie crawled about their cells, picking up slivers of biscuit and putting them into their mouths. A guard stood outside.

There was a rustle outside Louie’s cell, and a face appeared. The man greeted Louie cheerfully, in English, by name. Louie stared up at him.

The man was a Kwajalein native, and he explained that the American castaways were the talk of the island. A sports fanatic, he had recognized Louie’s name, which Louie had given to his captors. Prattling about track, football, and the Olympics, he paused only rarely to ask Louie questions. Once Louie got one or two words off, the native bounded back into his narrative.

After a few minutes, the native glanced at his watch and said he had to leave. Louie asked him what had happened to the marines whose names were carved into the wall. In the same chipper tone, the native replied that the marines were dead. All of the POWs held on that island, he said, were executed.

As the native walked out, the guard looked challengingly at Louie, lifted a flattened hand to his throat, and made a slashing gesture. He pointed to the names on the wall, then to Louie.

That night, Louie rested his head next to the door, trying to get as far as possible from the waste hole. He had only just settled there when the door swung open and the guard grabbed him and spun him around, pushing his head against the hole. Louie resisted, but the guard became angry. Louie gave up and lay as the guard ordered. He could see that the guard wanted him to lie in this position so he could see him through the window in the door. Every few minutes, all night long, the guard peered in, making sure that Louie didn’t move.


The morning of the second day began. Phil and Louie lay in sweltering silence, thinking that at any moment they’d be dragged out and beheaded. The guards stalked back and forth, snarling at the captives and drawing the sides of their hands across their necks with sadistic smiles.

For Louie, the digestive miseries continued. His diarrhea became explosive, and cramps doubled him over. He lay under a blanket of flies and mosquitoes, keeping his buttocks over the waste hole for as long as he could, until the guard snapped at him to move his face back to the hole.

The day passed. Three times, a single wad of rice, a little bigger than a golf ball, sailed through the door window and broke against the floor. Once or twice, a swallow of tea in a cup was left on the sill, and Louie sucked it down. Night came.

Another day came and went, then another. The heat was smothering. Lice hopped over the captives’ skin. Mosquitoes preyed on them in swarms so thick that when Louie snapped his fingers into a fist, then opened his hand, his entire palm was crimson. His diarrhea worsened, becoming bloody. Each day, Louie cried out for a doctor. One day, a doctor came. He leaned into the cell, looked at Louie, chuckled, and walked away.

Curled up on the gravelly floor, both men felt as if their bones were wearing through their skin. Louie begged for a blanket to sit on, but was ignored. He passed the time trying to strengthen his legs, pulling himself upright and standing for a minute or two while holding the wall, then sinking down. He missed the raft.

Two sips of water a day weren’t nearly enough to replace Louie’s torrential fluid loss. His thirst became worse than anything he’d known on the raft. He crawled to the door and pleaded for water. The guard left, then returned with a cup. Louie, grateful, drew close to the door to take a drink. The guard threw scalding water in his face. Louie was so dehydrated that he couldn’t help but keep begging. At least four more times, the response was the same, leaving Louie’s face speckled with blisters. Louie knew that dehydration might kill him, and part of him hoped it would.

One day, as he lay in misery, Louie heard singing. The voices he had heard over the raft had come to him again. He looked around his cell, but the singers weren’t there. Only their music was with him. He let it wash over him, finding in it a reason to hope. Eventually, the song faded away, but silently, in his mind, Louie sang it over and over to himself. He prayed intensely, ardently, hour after hour.

Down the hall, Phil languished. Rats were everywhere, climbing up his waste bucket and wallowing in his urine pail, waking him at night by skittering over his face. Periodically, he was prodded outside, halted before a pan of water, and ordered to wash his face and hands. Phil dropped his face into the pan and slurped up the water.

Louie often stared at the names of the marines, wondering who they were, if they’d had wives and children, how the end had come for them. He began to think of them as his friends. One day he pulled off his belt and bent the buckle upward. In tall, block letters, he carved his name into the wall beside theirs.

Louie couldn’t speak to Phil, nor Phil to him, but occasionally one of them would cough or scuff the floor to let the other know that he was there. Once, the guards left the cells unattended, and for the first time, Phil and Louie were alone. Louie heard Phil’s voice.

“What’s going to happen?”

Louie had no answer. There was a beating of boots in the hall and the Americans fell silent.


The guards maintained a fixed state of fury at the captives, glaring at them wrathfully, making threatening gestures, shouting at them. Virtually every day, they flew into rages that usually ended in Phil and Louie being bombarded with stones and lit cigarettes, spat upon, and poked with sticks. Louie always knew that he was in for it when he heard a guard arriving in a stomping fit—a consequence, he hoped, of an American victory. The situation worsened when the guard had company; the guards used the captives to impress each other with their cruelty.

The pretext for many of the outbursts was miscommunication. The captives and their guards came from cultures with virtually no overlap in language or custom. Louie and Phil found it almost impossible to understand what was being asked of them. Sign language was of little help, because even the cultures’ gestures were different. The guards, like nearly all citizens of their historically isolated nation, had probably never seen a foreigner before, and probably had no experience in communicating with a non-Japanese. When misunderstood, they often became so exasperated that they screamed at and beat the captives.

For self-preservation, Louie and Phil studied everything they heard, developing small Japanese vocabularies. Kocchi koi meant “come here.” Ohio was a greeting, used by the occasional civil guard. Though Louie soon knew what it meant, his stock reply was “No, California.” Phil learned that mizu meant water, but the knowledge got him nowhere; his cries for mizu were ignored.

When the guards weren’t venting their fury at the captives, they entertained themselves by humiliating them. Every day, at gunpoint, Louie was forced to stand up and dance, staggering through the Charleston while his guards roared with laughter. The guards made Louie whistle and sing, pelted him with fistfuls of gravel, taunted him as he crawled around his cell to pick up bits of rice, and slid long sticks through the door window so they could stab and swat him, finding his helpless contortions hilarious. Down the hall, the guards did the same to Phil. Sometimes Louie could hear Phil’s voice, tiny and thin, groaning. Once, driven to his breaking point by a guard jabbing him, Louie yanked the stick from the guard’s hands. He knew he might get killed for it, but under this unceasing degradation, something was happening to him. His will to live, resilient through all of the trials on the raft, was beginning to fray.

The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter. But on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live. One American airman, shot down and relentlessly debased by his Japanese captors, described the state of mind that his captivity created: “I was literally becoming a lesser human being.”

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.


Louie had been on Kwajalein for about a week when his cell door was thrown open and two guards pulled him out. He flushed with fear, thinking that he was being taken to the sword. As he was hustled toward what seemed to be an officers’ quarters, he passed two girls with Asian features, walking with heads down, eyes averted, as they retreated from the building. Louie was pulled into a room and stopped before a table covered with a white tablecloth, on which was arranged a selection of foods. Around it sat Japanese officers in dress uniforms, smoking cigarettes. Louie wasn’t here to be executed. He was here to be interrogated.

The officers took long draws on their cigarettes and sighed the smoke toward Louie. Periodically, one of them would open a bottle of cola, pour it into a cup, and drink it slowly, making a show of his enjoyment.

The ranking officer stared coolly at his captive. How do American soldiers satisfy their sexual appetites? he asked. Louie replied that they don’t—they rely on willpower. The officer was amused. The Japanese military, he said, provides women for its soldiers, an allusion to the thousands of Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Filipino women whom the Japanese military had kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. Louie thought of the girls outside.

The interrogators asked about Louie’s plane. They knew, probably from Louie’s conversation with the officers on the first atoll, that it was a B-24. What model was it? On Oahu, Louie had heard that during a battle, a B-24D had crashed on a reef and had been retrieved by the Japanese.Green Hornet had been a D model. Knowing that the Japanese already knew about this model, he decided not to lie, and told them that he had been in a D. They handed him a pencil and paper and asked him to draw the plane. When he was done, his interrogators held up a photograph of a D model. They had been testing him.

What did he know about the E-model B-24? Nothing, he told them. It was a lie; Super Man, while always officially a D model, had undergone upgrades that had effectively made it an E. Where was the radar system? The location of the radar had no bearing on how it worked, so Louie told the truth. How do you operate it? Louie knew the answer, but he replied that as a bombardier, he wouldn’t know. The interrogators asked him to draw the radar system. Louie invented an imaginary system, making a drawing so elaborate that, it was later written, the system looked like “a ruptured octopus.” The interrogators nodded.

They moved on to the Norden bombsight. How do you work it? You just twist two knobs, Louie said. The officers were annoyed. Louie was sent back to his cell.

Suspecting that he’d be brought back, Louie brainstormed, trying to anticipate questions. He thought about which things he could divulge and which things he couldn’t. For the latter, he came up with lies and practiced until he could utter them smoothly. Because he’d been partially truthful in the first session, he was now in a better position to lie.

Phil was pulled in for interrogation. He, too, knew about the captured B-24D, so he spoke freely about the plane’s components. The interrogators asked him to describe American war strategy. He replied that he thought they would attack the outlying captured territories, then work their way in until they defeated Japan. The interrogators responded with whoops of laughter. Phil sensed something forced. These men, he suspected, thought that Japan was going to lose.


Louie was sitting in his cell when a new guard appeared at the door. Louie looked up, saw a face he didn’t recognize, and felt an upswell of dread, knowing that a new guard would likely assert his authority.

“You Christian?” the guard asked.

Louie, whose parents had tried to raise him Catholic, hadn’t gone near church since one Sunday in his boyhood, when a priest had punished him for tardiness by grabbing him by the ear and dragging him out. But though Louie emerged with a sore ear, a little religion had stuck with him. He said yes. The guard smiled.

“Me Christian.”

The guard gave his name, which Louie would later recall, with some uncertainty, as Kawamura. He began babbling in English so poor that all Louie could pick out was something about Canadian missionaries and conversion. The guard slipped two pieces of hard candy into Louie’s hand, then moved down the hall and gave two pieces to Phil. A friendship was born.

Kawamura brought a pencil and paper and began making drawings to illustrate things he wished to talk about. Walking back and forth between the cells, he’d draw a picture of something—a car, a plane, an ice cream cone—and say and write its Japanese name. Louie and Phil would then write and say the English name. The prisoners understood almost nothing of what Kawamura said, but his goodwill needed no translation. Kawamura could do nothing to improve the physical conditions in which the captives lived, but his kindness was lifesaving.

When Kawamura was off guard duty, a new guard came. He launched himself at Louie, ramming a stick through the door window and into Louie’s face, as if trying to put out his eyes. The next day, Kawamura saw Louie’s bloody face and asked who had done it. Upon hearing the guard’s name, Kawamura hardened, lifting his arm and flexing his biceps at Louie. When his shift was up, he sped away with an expression of furious determination.

For two days, Louie saw nothing of Kawamura or the vicious guard. Then Kawamura returned, opened Louie’s cell door a crack, and proudly pointed out the guard who had beaten Louie. His forehead and mouth were heavily bandaged. He never guarded the cell again.


As Louie and Phil lay in their cells one day, they heard a commotion outside, the clamoring sounds of a mob. Then faces pressed into Louie’s door window, shouting. Rocks started flying in. More men came, one after another, screaming, spitting on Louie, hitting him with rocks, hurling sticks like javelins. Down the hall, the men were doing the same to Phil. Louie balled himself up at the far end of the cell.

On and on the procession went. There were eighty, perhaps ninety men, and each one spent some thirty seconds attacking each captive. At last, the men left. Louie sat in pools of spit and jumbled rocks and sticks, bleeding.

When Kawamura saw what had happened, he was livid. He explained that the attackers were a submarine crew stopping over on the island. When Louie was taken to interrogation, he complained about the attack. The officers replied that this was what he ought to expect.

The interrogators wanted Louie to tell them the numbers of aircraft, ships, and personnel in Hawaii. Louie told them that the last time he’d seen Hawaii, it had been May. Now it was August. He couldn’t be expected to have current information. He was sent back to his cell.


Some three weeks after his arrival on Kwajalein, Louie was again pulled from his cell. Outside for the first time since his arrival on the island, he saw Phil. Their eyes met. It looked like this might be the end.

They were taken to the interrogation building, but this time they were halted on the front porch, Phil on one end, Louie on the other. Two men in white medical coats joined them, along with four aides holding paperwork and stopwatches. Japanese began collecting below the porch to watch.

Louie and Phil were ordered to lie down. The doctors pulled out two long hypodermic syringes and filled each with a murky solution. Someone said it was the milk of green coconuts, though whether or not this was true remains unknown. The doctors said that what they were about to do would be good for the prisoners. If the solution worked as hoped—improving their condition, they were told—it would be given to Japanese troops.

The doctors turned the captives’ hands palm-up and swabbed their arms with alcohol. The needles slid in, the plungers depressed, and the aides clicked the stopwatches. The doctors told the captives to describe their sensations.

For Louie, within a few seconds, the porch started gyrating. The doctor pushed more solution into his vein, and the spinning worsened. He felt as if pins were being jabbed all over his body. Then the blood rushed from his head, the same sensation that he used to feel when Phil lifted Super Man out of a dive. His skin burned, itched, and stung. The porch pitched and turned. Across the porch, Phil was experiencing the same symptoms. The doctors, speaking in sterile tones, continued to question them. Then everything blurred. Louie cried out that he was going to faint. The doctor withdrew the needle.

The captives were taken back to their cells. Within fifteen minutes, Louie’s entire body was covered in a rash. He lay awake all night, itching and burning. Several days later, when the symptoms subsided, he and Phil were again taken to the porch and again injected, this time with more solution. Again they rolled through vertigo and burned with rashes. After another few days, they were subjected to a third experiment, and a few days later came a fourth. In the last infusion, a full pint of the fluid was pumped into their veins.

Both men survived, and as terrible as their experience had been, they were lucky. All over their captured territories, the Japanese were using at least ten thousand POWs and civilians, including infants, as test subjects for experiments in biological and chemical warfare. Thousands died.


Back in his cell, Louie felt a sharp headache coming on, and was soon dizzy and baking with fever. His bones ached. Phil was going through the same ordeal. The guards summoned a doctor. Louie picked out a familiar word: dengue. The prisoners had dengue fever, a potentially fatal mosquito-borne illness that was ravaging the tropics. The doctor offered no treatment.

Louie drifted into a febrile fog. Time slid by, and he felt little connection to his body. As he lay there, feet tramped outside, livid faces appeared again at the door, and Louie felt himself struck with rocks, stabbed with sticks, and slapped with wads of spit. A new crop of submariners had come.

Louie floated through it, too sick to resist. The faces streamed past, and the stones and sticks cracked off his burning bones. Time passed with merciful speed, and the abuse was soon over.


Louie was brought to interrogation again. The officers pushed a map of Hawaii in front of him and told him to mark where the air bases were.

Louie resisted for some time, but the interrogators leaned hard on him. At last, he broke. He dropped his head and, with an expression of ashamed resignation, told them everything—the exact location of the bases, the numbers of planes.

The Japanese broke into jubilant smiles. They opened up a bottle of cola and gave it to Louie, along with a biscuit and a pastry. As they celebrated, they had no idea that the “bases” that Louie had identified were the fake airfields he had seen when tooling around Hawaii with Phil. If the Japanese bombed there, the only planes they would hit would be made of plywood.

Louie and Phil’s usefulness had been exhausted. At headquarters, the officers discussed what to do with the captives. The decision was probably easy; the same Japanese officers had been responsible for killing the marines whose names were written on Louie’s cell wall. Louie and Phil would be executed.

On August 24, men gathered before Louie’s cell, and once more he was dragged out. Is this it? he thought. He was tugged to the interrogation building. Expecting to learn that he was condemned to execution, he was told something else: A Japanese navy ship was coming to Kwajalein, and he was going to be put on it and taken to a POW camp in Yokohama, Japan. At the last minute, the officers had decided not to kill him. It would be a long time before Louie learned why.

Louie felt deep relief, believing that at a POW camp, he would be treated under the humane rules of international law, put in contact with the Red Cross, and allowed to contact his family. Phil, too, was told that he was going to Yokohama. He was amazed and hopeful.

On August 26, 1943, forty-two days after arriving at Execution Island, Louie and Phil were led from their cells, stripped naked, splashed with buckets of water, allowed to dress again, and taken toward the ship that would carry them to Japan.

As he walked from his cell for the last time, Louie looked back, searching for Kawamura. He couldn’t find him.

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