Military history

Chapter Nineteen
Two Hundred Silent Men

LOUIE AND PHIL WERE SITTING IN A HOLDING ROOM ON the navy ship when the door slapped open and a crowd of agitated, sloppy-drunk Japanese sailors pushed in. One of them asked if Japan would win the war.

“No,” said Phil.

A fist caught Phil in the face, then swung back and struck him again. Louie was asked who would win the war.


The sailors fell onto the captives, fists flying. Something connected with Louie’s nose, and he felt a crunch. An officer ran in, peeled the crewmen off, and ordered them out. Louie’s nose was bleeding. When he touched it, he felt a gash and a bone elbowing out sideways.

In choppy English, the officer told them that the crewmen had been rifling through the captives’ wallets, which had been confiscated when they came on board. In Louie’s wallet, they had found a folded, stained bit of newspaper. It was the cartoon that Louie had cut from the Honolulu Advertiser many months before, depicting his service in the raid on Wake. The officer said that about half of the ship’s crew had been on Wake that night, and their ship, apparently anchored offshore, had been sunk.

The crewmen had regrets about attacking the captives. Later, the door opened again, and two of them lurched in, muttered apologies, draped their arms around Louie, and gave him sake.

This clipping was in Louie’s wallet throughout his raft journey, and was stained purple by the wallet dye. Its discovery by the Japanese resulted in Louie and Phil being beaten. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

Louie and Phil were separated again, and Louie was locked in an officer’s cabin. Every few days, he had strange visits from a grinning sailor who would lean into the room, say, “Thump on the head for a biscuit?,” rap his knuckles on Louie’s head, hand him a biscuit, and amble away.

Between the sailor’s visits, Louie had nothing to do but sit, pinching his fingers around his nose to set the bones. Bored, he rummaged through the cabin and found a bottle of sake. He began taking furtive sips of the rice wine, little enough that its absence might not be missed. When, during a submarine alert, he panicked and drank so much that no one could fail to notice it, he decided that he might as well finish it off. In the last days of the journey, the skinny American and the fat Japanese bottle had a grand time together.


After a three-week journey, including a stopover at Truk Atoll, the ship docked at Yokohama, on the eastern coast of Japan’s central island, Honshu. Louie was blindfolded and led out. Solid ground came underfoot. Through a gap in his blindfold, Louie’s first glimpse of Japan was the wordCHEVROLET, stamped on a hubcap. He was standing before a car.

He heard someone stomping off the ship, shouting. The men around Louie froze; the man approaching, he assumed, must be an officer. Louie felt the officer grabbing him and shoving him into the car’s jump seat. As he struggled to get his legs in, the officer cracked him in the face with a flashlight. Louie felt his nose bones splay again. He thought of the sake and wondered if this man was its owner. He folded himself into the seat, alongside Phil.

The Chevy motored up through hilly country. After the better part of an hour, it stopped. Hands pulled Louie onto his feet and led him into an enclosed, humid space. The blindfold was untied. He was in a bathhouse, apparently in the promised POW camp. Phil was no longer with him. There was a tub before him, filled with water that carried the tart smell of disinfectant. Told to undress and get in, he stepped into the water, luxuriating in the warmth, scrubbing himself clean for the first time since he’d left Oahu.

When his bath was over, he was told to dress again. A man came with clippers and shaved his head and beard. Louie was escorted out, led down a hallway, and stopped at a door. The guard told him to go in and wait for orders.

Louie walked into the room. The lights were out, and he could only just make out the silhouette of a man in civilian clothing, facing away from him. Someone flipped on a light, the man turned, and Louie saw his face.

It was his college friend Jimmie Sasaki.


“We meet again,” Sasaki said. Louie gaped at him in astonishment. He knew nothing of Sasaki’s alleged spying, and was stunned to see his friend in the service of his enemy. Sasaki looked at him warmly. He’d been prepared to see Louie, but he was disturbed by how thin he was. He made a playful crack about how ugly Louie looked bald.

What followed was a strange and stilted conversation. Sasaki asked a few questions about Louie’s odyssey, then began reminiscing about USC, meals at the student union, ten-cent movies on campus. Louie, uneasy, waited for questions on military matters, but they never came. The closest Sasaki got was to express confidence that Japan would win the war. He told Louie that he was a civilian employee of the Japanese navy, which had made him head interrogator of all POWs in Japan. He said he bore a rank equal to that of admiral.

Louie was taken outside. He was in a large compound with several one-story buildings surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. There was something spooky about this place. Louie, like every man brought there, noticed it immediately. Gathered in drifts against the buildings were some two hundred whisper-thin captive Allied servicemen. Every one of them had his eyes fixed on the ground. They were as silent as snow.

Louie was led to a bench, some distance from the other captives. He saw Phil far away, sitting alone. A couple of captives sat on other benches across the compound, hiding their hands from the guards’ view and gesturing to each other in Morse code—fists for dots and flat hands for dashes. Louie watched them until a captive approached. The man seemed to have permission to speak. He began to tell Louie about where he was.

This wasn’t a POW camp. It was a secret interrogation center called Ofuna, where “high-value” captured men were housed in solitary confinement, starved, tormented, and tortured to divulge military secrets. Because Ofuna was kept secret from the outside world, the Japanese operated with an absolutely free hand. The men in Ofuna, said the Japanese, weren’t POWs; they were “unarmed combatants” at war against Japan and, as such, didn’t have the rights that international law accorded POWs. In fact, they had no rights at all. If captives “confessed their crimes against Japan,” they’d be treated “as well as regulations permit.” Over the course of the war, some one thousand Allied captives would be hauled into Ofuna, and many would be held there for years.

The man told Louie the rules. He was forbidden to speak to anyone but the guards, to put his hands in his pockets, or to make eye contact with other captives. His eyes were to be directed downward at all times. He had to learn to count in Japanese, because every morning there was tenko, a roll call and inspection in which men had to count off. To use the benjo—latrine—he had to ask in broken Japanese: “Benjo kudasai,” said while bowing. He wouldn’t be given a cup, so if he was thirsty he’d have to beg the guard to escort him to the washstand. There were rules about every detail of life, from the folding of blankets to the buttoning of clothes, each reinforcing isolation and total obedience. The slightest violation would bring a beating.

The Japanese were abundantly clear about one thing. In this secret place, they could, and did, do anything they wanted to their captives, and no one would ever know. They stressed that they did not guarantee that captives would survive Ofuna. “They can kill you here,” Louie was told. “No one knows you’re alive.”

After nightfall, Louie was taken into a barracks and led to a tiny cell. On the floor was a thin tatami (straw mat), which would be his bed, with three paper sheets. There was a small window, but it had no glass, so wind eddied through the room. The walls were flimsy, the floorboards gapped, the ceiling was tarpaper. It was mid-September, and with winter approaching, Louie would be living in a building that was, in one captive’s words, barely a windbreak.

Louie curled up under the paper sheets. There were dozens of men in cells near him, but no one made a sound. Phil was in a cell far down the hall, and for the first time in months, Louie wasn’t near him. In this warren of captive men, he was alone.


Each day began at six: a bell clanging, a shouting guard, captives running outside to tenko. Louie would fall into a line of haggard men. Guards stalked them, clubs or baseball bats in their hands and rifles with fixed bayonets over their shoulders, making menacing postures and yelling unintelligibly. The captives were hounded through a frenzied routine: counting off, bowing toward Emperor Hirohito, rushing to the washstand and benjo, then rushing back to the assembly area five minutes later. Then it was back to the barracks, where guards rifled through the men’s things in search of contraband, misfolded blankets, misaligned buttons—anything to justify a beating.

Breakfast came from captives who handed out bowls of watery, fetid slop, which each man ate alone in his cell. Then men were paired off, given clots of wet rope, and forced to bend double, put the rope on the floor, and wash the 150-foot-long barracks aisle floor at a run, or sometimes waddling duck-style, while the guards trotted behind them, swatting them. Then it was back outside, where the guards made the men run circles or perform calisthenics, often until they collapsed. When the exercise was over, the men had to sit outside, regardless of the weather. The only breaks in the silence were the screams coming from the interrogation room.

Punctuating the passage of each day were beatings. Men were beaten for folding their arms, for sitting naked to help heal sores, for cleaning their teeth, for talking in their sleep. Most often, they were beaten for not understanding orders, which were almost always issued in Japanese. Dozens of men were lined up and clubbed in the knees for one man’s alleged infraction. A favorite punishment was to force men to stand, sometimes for hours, in the “Ofuna crouch,” a painful and strenuous position in which men stood with knees bent halfway and arms overhead. Those who fell over or dropped their arms were clubbed and kicked. Captives who tried to assist victims were attacked themselves, usually far more violently, so victims were on their own. Any attempt to protect oneself—ducking, shielding the face—provoked greater violence. “My job,” remembered captive Glenn McConnell, “was to keep my nose on my face and keep from being disassembled.” The beatings, he wrote, “were of such intensity that many of us wondered if we’d ever live to see the end of the war.”

At night, in the cell again, Louie awaited dinner, eaten alone in the dark. Then he just sat there. He wasn’t permitted to speak, whistle, sing, tap, read, or look out his window. There was another inspection outside, another haranguing, and then the uneasy pause of night, the pacing of the guards, before the dawn again brought shouting and running and the thud of clubs.


At Ofuna, as at the scores of POW camps scattered throughout Japan and its conquests, the men used for guard duty were the dregs of the Japanese military. Many had washed out of regular soldierly life, too incompetent to perform basic duties. Quite a few were deranged. According to captives, there were two characteristics common to nearly all Ofuna guards. One was marked stupidity. The other was murderous sadism.

In the Japanese military of that era, corporal punishment was routine practice. “Iron must be beaten while it’s hot; soldiers must be beaten while they’re fresh” was a saying among servicemen. “No strong soldiers,” went another, “are made without beatings.” For all Japanese soldiers, especially low-ranking ones, beating was inescapable, often a daily event. It is thus unsurprising that camp guards, occupying the lowest station in a military that applauded brutality, would vent their frustrations on the helpless men under their authority. Japanese historians call this phenomenon “transfer of oppression.”

This tendency was powerfully reinforced by two opinions common in Japanese society in that era. One held that Japanese were racially and morally superior to non-Japanese, a “pure” people divinely destined to rule. Just as Allied soldiers, like the cultures they came from, often held virulently racist views of the Japanese, Japanese soldiers and civilians, intensely propagandized by their government, usually carried their own caustic prejudices about their enemies, seeing them as brutish, subhuman beasts or fearsome “Anglo-Saxon devils.” This racism, and the hatred and fear it fomented, surely served as an accelerant for abuse of Allied prisoners.

In Japan’s militaristic society, all citizens, from earliest childhood, were relentlessly indoctrinated with the lesson that to be captured in war was intolerably shameful. The 1941 Japanese Military Field Code made clear what was expected of those facing capture: “Have regard for your family first. Rather than live and bear the shame of imprisonment, the soldier must die and avoid leaving a dishonorable name.” As a result, in many hopeless battles, virtually every Japanese soldier fought to the death. For every Allied soldier killed, four were captured; for every 120 Japanese soldiers killed, one was captured. In some losing battles, Japanese soldiers committed suicide en masse to avoid capture. The few who were captured sometimes gave false names, believing that their families would rather think that their son had died. The depth of the conviction was demonstrated at Australia’s Cowra camp in 1944, when hundreds of Japanese POWs flung themselves at camp machine guns and set their living quarters afire in a mass suicide attempt that became known as “the night of a thousand suicides.” The contempt and revulsion that most Japanese felt for those who surrendered or were captured extended to Allied servicemen. This thinking created an atmosphere in which to abuse, enslave, and even murder a captive or POW was considered acceptable, even desirable.

Some guards, intoxicated by absolute power and indoctrinated in racism and disgust for POWs, fell easily into sadism. But those less inclined toward their culture’s prejudices may still have been vulnerable to the call to brutality. To be made responsible for imprisoning people is surely, to many guards, an unsettling experience, especially when they are tasked with depriving their prisoners of the most basic necessities. Perhaps some guards forced their prisoners to live in maximally dehumanizing conditions so that they could reassure themselves that they were merely giving loathsome beasts their due. Paradoxically, then, some of the worst abuses inflicted on captives and POWs may have arisen from the guards’ discomfort with being abusive.

Writing of his childhood in slavery, Frederick Douglass told of being acquired by a man whose wife was a tenderhearted woman who had never owned a slave. “Her face was made of heavenly smiles and her voice of tranquil music,” Douglass wrote. She lavished him with motherly love, even giving him reading lessons, unheard of in slaveholding society. But after being ordered by her husband to treat the boy like the slave he was, she transformed into a vicious “demon.” She, like the Ofuna guards more than a century later, had succumbed to what Douglass called “the fatal poison of irresponsible power.”

Of all of the warped, pitiless men who persecuted captives at Ofuna, Sueharu Kitamura stood above all others. In civilian life, by different accounts, he was either a sake salesman or a movie scenario writer. In Ofuna, he was the medical officer. Fascinated by suffering, he forced sick and injured captives to come to him for “treatment,” then tortured and mutilated them while quizzing them on their pain, his mouth curved in a moist smile. Known as “the Butcher” and “the Quack,” Kitamura was Ofuna’s most eager instigator of beatings. He was a massive man, built like a bison, and he punched like a heavyweight. No official in Ofuna was more hated or feared.

Though under great pressure to conform to a culture of brutality, a few guards refused to participate in the violence. In one incident, a captive was clubbed so savagely that he was certain he was going to be killed. In the middle of the assault, the attacking guard was called away, and a guard known as Hirose* was ordered to finish the beating. Out of sight of other guards, Hirose told the captive to cry out as if he were being struck, then pounded his club harmlessly against the floor. The two acted out their parts until it seemed enough “beating” had been done. The captive believed that Hirose may have saved his life.

What Hirose did took nerve. Everywhere in Japan, demonstrating sympathy for captives or POWs was taboo. When a child living near the Zentsuji POW camp expressed compassion for the prisoners, her comments became a national scandal. Camp personnel caught trying to improve conditions for POWs, or even voicing sympathy for them, were sometimes beaten by their superiors. “The general opinion towards POWs at that time was very bad,” wrote Yukichi Kano, a private at another camp who was beloved by POWs he tried to assist. “There was always some risk of to be misunderstood by other Japanese by making humane interpretation of our duty. To resist against the wrong hostile feeling, prejudice, and lack of knowledge was not very easy for the lower rank soldier like me.”

At Ofuna, merciful guards paid the price. One officer, upon learning that another guard had shown leniency to captives, assaulted the guard with a sword. During his nightly walk from his kitchen job to his cell, one captive would regularly see a guard who refused to beat prisoners being singled out for gang attacks from his fellow guards.


At Ofuna, captives weren’t just beaten, they were starved. The thrice-daily meals usually consisted of a bowl of broth with a bit of vegetable and a bowl or half bowl of rancid rice, sometimes mixed with barley. It contained virtually no protein and was grossly lacking in nutritive value and calories. It was camp policy to give diminished and/or spoiled rations to captives suspected of withholding information, and at times the entire camp’s rations were cut to punish one captive’s reticence. The food was infested with rat droppings, maggots, and so much sand and grit that Louie’s teeth were soon pitted, chipped, and cracked. The men nicknamed the rations “all dumpo.”

The extremely low caloric intake and befouled food, coupled with the exertion of the forced exercise, put the men’s lives in great danger. “We were dying,” wrote captive Jean Balch, “on about 500 calories a day.” Scurvy was common. Foodborne parasites and pathogens made diarrhea almost ubiquitous. Most feared was beriberi, a potentially deadly disease caused by a lack of thiamine. There were two forms of beriberi, and they could occur concurrently. “Wet” beriberi affected the heart and the circulatory system, causing marked edema—swelling—of the extremities; if untreated, it was often fatal. “Dry” beriberi affected the nervous system, causing numbness, confusion, unsteady gait, and paralysis. When wet beriberi victims pressed on their swollen limbs, deep indentations would remain long after the pressure was removed, giving the men the unnerving impression that their bones were softening. In some cases, wet beriberi caused extreme swelling of the scrotum. Some men’s testicles swelled to the size of bread loaves.


In Ofuna’s theater of cruelty, survival was an open question, and deaths were common. For Louie, Phil, and the other captives, the only hope lay in the Allies rescuing them, but this prospect also carried tremendous danger.

In the fall of 1942, when the Americans attacked Japanese ships off Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, the Japanese beheaded twenty-two POWs held on the island. A similar horror played out on Japanese-held Ballale, in the Shortland Islands, where British POWs were being used as slaves to build an airfield. According to a Japanese officer, in the spring of 1943, when it appeared that the Americans were soon to land on Ballale, Japanese authorities issued a directive that in the event of an invasion, the POWs were to be killed. No landing occurred, but in response to an Allied bombing, the Japanese executed all of the POWs anyway, some seventy to one hundred men.

A few weeks after Louie arrived at Ofuna, an American carrier force began bombing and shelling Wake Atoll, where the Americans captured during the Japanese invasion were still being held as slaves. Mistakenly believing that an invasion was imminent, the Japanese commander had the prisoners blindfolded, bound, shot, and dumped in a hole. One man escaped. When he was caught three weeks later, the commander himself beheaded him. The only trace of the men was found years afterward. In the atoll lagoon, on a hunk of coral, one of the POWs had scraped a message:





These murders were the first applications of what would come to be known as the “kill-all” rule. Japanese policy held that camp commanders could not, under any circumstances, allow Allied forces to recapture POWs. If Allied advances made this a possibility, POWs were to be executed. “If there is any fear that the POWs would be retaken due to the tide of battle turning against us,” read a May 1944 order issued to every POW branch camp commander, “decisive measures must be taken without returning a single POW.”

That August, the Japanese War Ministry would issue a clarification of this order, sending it to all POW camp commanders:

At such time as the situation becomes urgent and it be extremely important, the POWs will be concentrated and confined in their present location and under heavy guard the preparation for the final disposition will be made … Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of them as the situation dictates … In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.

As the Allies fought their way toward Japan, the captives in Ofuna and POWs everywhere else faced the very real threat that Allied successes would bring the kill-all policy to bear on them. While none of the captives knew of the incidents in which this order had already been followed, the guards at Ofuna enjoyed warning them about the policy. Like every other captive, Louie knew that most of the guards would be eager to carry it out.

* Probably Lieutenant Hiroetsu Narushima.

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