Military history

Chapter Twenty-four

AFTER A DAY SPENT SHIVERING IN OMORI’S QUARANTINE area, Louie was led into the main body of the camp, an enormous compound crowded with some nine hundred prisoners. He wandered down a long row of barracks until he found the one to which he was assigned. As he walked in, several POWs came forward to greet him. One of them slipped a cup of piping hot tea into his chilled hands. A Scottish prisoner approached, carrying a spoon and a bulging sock. He dipped the spoon into the sock and ladled out two heaping teaspoons of sugar into Louie’s cup. To any POW, sugar was a treasure of incalculable value, and Louie couldn’t understand how this man could have acquired an entire sock full of it.

As he sipped his tea, Louie was introduced to two barracks commanders, British lieutenant Tom Wade and American lieutenant Bob Martindale, who began filling him in on Omori. They spoke about the corporal who had attacked him at the gate. His name was Watanabe, they said, but Louie should never refer to him by his real name. Such was Watanabe’s paranoia that he often hid outside the barracks, trying to catch men speaking of him so he could beat them for it. The men referred to him by a host of nicknames, including the Animal, the Big Flag, Little Napoleon, and, most often, the Bird, a name chosen because it carried no negative connotation that could get the POWs beaten.

It was the Bird’s favorite pastime to send guards bursting into a barracks ahead of him, screaming Keirei! He would then race in to choose his victim. Sitting far from the door didn’t ensure safety; the Bird loved to leap through open windows. Men were told to always be ready, speak of him only in whispers, and agree in advance on a subject to switch to if the Bird ran into the room demanding to be told what they were talking about. Men were advised to say that they were speaking of sex, because the subject interested and distracted him.

The Omori barracks were arranged in two lines separated by a central avenue. At the avenue’s end stood the Bird’s office, placed so that the corporal could see the entire avenue through his large front window. To get anywhere in camp, other than the benjos behind the barracks, POWs had to step into the Bird’s view. One of his demands was that men salute not only him but his window. He often left the office vacant and hid nearby, baseball bat in hand, ready to club men who failed to salute the window.

Among the POWs, there was an elaborate sentry system to monitor the Bird’s movements. When he was in his office, men would say, “The Animal is in his cage.” When he was out, they’d say, “The Animal is on the prowl.”

“Flag’s up!” meant that the Bird was coming. Men were so attuned to the Bird’s presence that they instantly recognized the clopping sound his clogs made in the sand. The sound usually triggered a stampede to the benjos, where the Bird seldom went.

As he absorbed the advice on coping with the Bird, Louie learned something else that surely sank his heart. He had thought that since this was a POW camp, he would be able to write home to let his family know he was alive. Once, Omori POWs had been allowed to write letters, but no longer. The Bird didn’t allow it.

When new POWs arrived at Omori, they were registered with the Red Cross, and word of their whereabouts was forwarded to their governments, then their families. But Omori officials didn’t register Louie. They had special plans for him, and were apparently hiding him. In the absence of Louie’s name on a Red Cross roster, the American government had no reason to believe that he was alive, and Louie’s family was told nothing.

For Louie, the shared lessons about the Bird did no good. No sooner had Louie stepped outside than the Bird found him, accused him of an imaginary infraction, and attacked him in a wild fury. The next day came another beating, and the next, another. Though there were hundreds of POWs in camp, this deranged corporal was fixated on Louie, hunting the former Olympian, whom he would call “number one prisoner.” Louie tried to conceal himself in groups of men, but the Bird always found him. “After the first few days in camp,” Louie said, “I looked for him like I was looking for a lion loose in the jungle.”


When Louie woke each morning, the first thing that he thought of was the Bird. He’d look for the corporal through morning tenko, roll call, farting at the emperor, and forcing down rations. After breakfast, the enlisted men were assembled into work parties and marched away. With the camp population drastically diminished by the exodus, Louie had no crowds to hide in. The Bird was on him immediately.

The one good thing about being an officer in Omori was that one was exempt from slave labor, albeit at the painful cost of half of the standard ration. But soon after Louie’s arrival, the Bird called out the officers and announced that from now on, they’d labor at the work sites alongside the enlisted men. When a man protested that this violated international law, the Bird swung his kendo stick straight into the man’s head. The Bird approached the next man, who also said he wouldn’t work. Again the kendo stick banged down. Louie was the third man. Trying to avoid getting his head cracked open, he blurted out a compromise idea. They’d love to work within the camp, he said, making it a better place.

The Bird paused. He seemed to feel that as long as he forced the officers to work, he was winning. He sent them into a shack and ordered them to stitch up leather ammunition pouches, backpacks, and equipment covers for the Japanese military. Louie and the other men were kept there for about eight hours a day, but they worked only when the Bird was around, and even then, they deliberately stitched the leather improperly.

The Bird’s next move was to announce that from now on, the officers would empty the benjos. Eight benjos were no match for nine hundred dysenteric men, and keeping the pits from oozing over was a tall order. Louie and the other officers used “honey dippers”—giant ladles—to spoon waste from the pits into buckets, then carried the buckets to cesspits outside the camp. The work was nauseating and degrading, and when heavy rains came, the waste oozed out of the cesspits and back into camp. To deprive the Bird of the pleasure of seeing them miserable, the men made a point of being jolly. Martindale created the “Royal Order of the Benjo.

“The motto,” he wrote, “was unprintable.”


As the officers finished each day of abuse, honey-dipping, and errant sewing, the enlisted slaves were driven back to camp. The first time Louie saw them return, he learned where that sock of sugar had come from.

At the work sites, Omori’s POWs were waging a guerrilla war. At the railyards and docks, they switched mailing labels, rewrote delivery addresses, and changed the labeling on boxcars, sending tons of goods to the wrong destinations. They threw fistfuls of dirt into gas tanks and broke anything mechanical that passed through their hands. Forced to build engine blocks, American Milton McMullen crafted the exteriors well enough to pass inspection but fashioned the interiors so the engines would never run. POWs loading at docks “accidentally” dropped fragile items, including a large shipment of wine and furniture en route to a Nazi ambassador. (The broken furniture was sent on; the wine was decanted into POW canteens.) Coming upon the suitcases of the German envoy, POWs shredded the clothes, soaked them in mud and oil, and repacked them with friendly notes signed “Winston Churchill.” They drank huge quantities of tea and peed profusely on nearly every bag of rice they loaded. And in one celebrated incident, POWs loading heavy goods onto a barge hurled the material down with such force that they sank the barge, blocking a canal. After a Herculean effort was put into clearing the sunken barge and bringing in a new one, the POWs sank it, too.

Emboldened by the thought that he was probably going to die in Japan and, thus, had nothing to lose, McMullen joined several other POWs in committing an act that was potentially suicidal. While enslaved at a railyard, they noticed that a group of track workers had neglected to put their tools away. When their guard became absorbed in wooing a pretty girl, the POWs sprinted from their stations, snatched up the tools, dashed over to a section of track, wrenched the pins and bolts out, and rushed back to their work. The guard, still talking to the girl, noticed nothing. A switch engine chugged in, pulling several boxcars. The engine hit the sabotaged strip, the rails shot out from under it, and the entire train tipped over. No one was hurt, but the Japanese were frantic. They looked to the POWs, who kept working, their faces devoid of expression. The Japanese began screaming accusations at one another.

As dangerous as these acts were, for the POWs, they were transformative. In risking their necks to sabotage their enemy, the men were no longer passive captives. They were soldiers again.

What the POWs couldn’t sabotage, they stole. They broke into shipping boxes, tapped bottles, lifted storage room doors off their hinges, raided ships’ galleys, and crawled up factory chutes. Scottish POWs who worked in the Mitsubishi food warehouse ran the most sophisticated operation. When the Japanese took their shoe sizes for work boots, the men asked for boots several sizes too big. They knitted special socks, some four feet long, and hoarded hollow bamboo reeds. Once at the sites, they leaned casually against sugar sacks, stabbed the reeds in, then ran the reeds into the socks, allowing sugar to pour through the reeds until the socks were full. Others tied up their pant cuffs, stuck the reeds in their waistbands, and filled their pants with sugar. Each load was deposited in a secret compartment in the latrine, to be retrieved at day’s end.

Each evening, Louie saw the slaves tramping back in, their clothes packed with booty. The critical moment came when inspection was called. Men would deftly pass contraband, or the men bearing it, around during the searches, while the guards’ backs were turned. McMullen would hide fish in his sleeves; when patted down, he’d hold his arms up and grip the fish tails so they wouldn’t slide out. The biggest trick was hiding the POWs who arrived fall-down drunk after chugging down any alcohol that they couldn’t smuggle. The drunken men were shuffled into the center of the lineup, their shoulders pinched between the shoulders of sober men, so that they wouldn’t pitch face forward into the guards.

When the men were safely in the barracks, Louie watched them unpack themselves. Under the men’s clothes, sugar-filled socks hung from necks or arms, dangled under armpits and down pant legs, in the necks of turtleneck sweaters, in false pockets, under hats. Two-foot-long salmon would emerge from under shirts. Louie once saw a thief pull three cans of oysters from a single boot. Legs would be swaddled in tobacco leaves. One American built a secret compartment in his canteen, filling the bottom with stolen alcohol while the top, upon inspection, yielded only water.

Men were caught all the time, and when they were, all the men of the work party were beaten with fists, bats, and rifle butts. But the men were fed so little and worked so hard that they felt they had to steal to survive. They set up a “University of Thievery,” in which “professors”—the most adept thieves—taught the art of stealing. The final exam was a heist. When men were caught stealing, POW officers suggested that the culprits be transferred to sites that didn’t carry food. The Japanese agreed, and the POW officers then replaced the inept thieves with University of Thievery alumni.

Though Louie, as an officer, had no opportunity to steal, he was quickly integrated into the thieving system, rolling tobacco leaves for drying and putting them up in secret “wall safes” to cure. Once the leaves were properly aged, Louie would return to shave them into smokable shreds.

Thanks to the stealing, a black market with a remarkable diversity of goods flourished in camp. One group stole all the ingredients for a cake, only to discover, upon baking it, that the flour was actually cement. Because there were so many men, there wasn’t a lot of loot to go around, but everyone benefited in some way. Whenever the thieves had something extra, they gave it to Louie, who still wasn’t managing to gain weight. A few times, they even smuggled him smoked oysters. Louie devoured them and tiptoed to the fence to pitch the cans into Tokyo Bay.

Stolen food, especially the Scots’ sugar, was the camp currency, and the “sugar barons” became the rich men of Omori, even hiring assistants to do their laundry. The Scots drove hard bargains, but they also donated one-quarter of the loot to sick POWs. One night, when he found Frank Tinker deathly ill, Louie waited for the guards to pass, snuck to the Scots’ barracks, and told them that Tinker was in trouble. The Scots sent Louie back to Tinker with a load of sugar, no charge. Tinker would later say that Louie’s sugar run “saved my soul.” According to Martindale, Tinker wasn’t the only man saved. Deaths from illness and malnutrition had once been commonplace, but after the thievery school was created, only two POWs died, one from a burst appendix. And in a place predicated on degradation, stealing from the enemy won back the men’s dignity.


As the weeks passed, the Bird didn’t relent in his attacks on Louie. The corporal sprang upon him randomly, every day, pounding his face and head. Any resistance from Louie, even shielding his face, would inspire the Bird to more violence. Louie could do nothing but stand there, staggering, as the Bird struck him. He couldn’t understand the corporal’s fixation on him, and was desperate for someone to save him.

During one of the Bird’s attacks, Louie saw the camp commander, Kaname Sakaba, step out of his office and look toward him. Louie felt relief, thinking that now that Sakaba had seen this abuse of a POW by a lowly corporal, here at a show camp, he’d put a stop to it. But Sakaba watched indifferently, then walked back inside. Subsequent beatings, of Louie and of others, were no different. Other Japanese officers watched, some looking on approvingly, others looking dismayed. Sometimes, when they issued orders, they allowed the Bird, a mere corporal, to overrule them right to their faces.

According to camp accountant Yuichi Hatto, this strange situation was the result of a wrinkle in rank. Sakaba was ravenous for promotion. The appearance of order in his camp and the productivity of its slaves furthered his interests, and Watanabe’s brutality was his instrument. While it is unknown whether Sakaba ordered Watanabe to abuse POWs, he obviously approved. According to Hatto, some camp employees were offended by Watanabe’s treatment of POWs, but because those acts pleased Sakaba, the Bird was untouchable, even by those who outranked him. In consequence, the Bird flaunted his impunity and virtually ran the camp. He viewed the POWs as his possessions, and he sometimes attacked other Japanese who interacted with them. Watanabe was, said Hatto, “not a mere guard, but an absolute monarch of POWs at Omori.”

Some Japanese, including Hatto, tried to help POWs behind Watanabe’s back. No one did more than Private Yukichi Kano, the camp interpreter. When sick men were taken off work duty, losing half their rations, Kano found them easy jobs to keep them officially “at work” so they could eat enough to get well. When he saw prisoners violating the rules by eating vegetables in the garden area, or pocketing mussels at low tide outside the camp, he talked the guards into looking the other way. In winter, he hung blankets along the infirmary walls and scrounged up charcoal to heat the rooms. He snuck sick men away from the sadistic Japanese doctor and into the hands of a POW who was a physician. “There was a far braver man than I,” wrote POW Pappy Boyington, winner of the Medal of Honor. Kano’s “heart was being torn out most of the time, a combination of pity for the ignorance and brutality of some of his own countrymen and a complete understanding of the suffering of the prisoners.” But for Louie, the Bird’s pet project, Kano could do nothing.

When Louie saw Red Cross officials being taken on a carefully staged tour of camp, he thought that help had finally arrived. But to his dismay, the Bird tailed the officials and stood by, listening intently, as POWs answered the officials’ questions about life in camp. No POW was foolish enough to answer truthfully, knowing the retribution that would follow. Louie had no choice but to keep his mouth shut.

Louie was on his own. As the attacks continued, he became increasingly angry. His experience in childhood, when bullies had sent him home bloody every day, was repeating itself. His interior world lit up with rage, and he couldn’t hide it.

Each time the Bird lunged for him, Louie found his hands drawing into fists. As each punch struck him, he imagined himself strangling the Bird. The Bird demanded that Louie look him in the face; Louie wouldn’t do it. The Bird tried to knock Louie down; Louie wobbled but wouldn’t fall. In his peripheral vision, he could see the Bird looking furiously at his clenched fists. Other prisoners warned Louie that he had to show deference or the Bird would never stop. Louie couldn’t do it. When he raised his eyes, all that shone in them was hate. To Watanabe, whose life was consumed with forcing men into submission, Louie’s defiance was an intolerable, personal offense.

More and more now, the POWs could hear air-raid sirens echoing across the bay, from Tokyo. They were all false alarms, but they raised the prisoners’ hope. Louie searched the empty sky and hoped that the bombers would come before the Bird put an end to him.


At half past six Greenwich mean time on Wednesday, October 18, 1944, a program called Postman Calls began its evening airing on Radio Tokyo. It was one of twelve propaganda programs conducted in English and broadcast to Allied troops. The broadcasters were POWs known as “propaganda prisoners,” usually working under threat of execution or beating.

This evening, the program made an announcement: “This is the postman calling California and Mrs. Louise Zamperini, 2028 Gramercy Street, Torrance, California. Here is a message from her son, First Lieutenant Louis Silvie Zamperini, now interned in the Tokyo camp. ‘My darling family, I am uninjured and in good health. I miss you all tremendously and dream of you often. Praying that you are all in good health and hope to see you again someday. Love to all relatives and friends. Hold my belongings and money for me. Love, Louis.’ ”

A few miles away at Omori, Louie knew nothing of the broadcast. The Japanese had written it themselves or forced a propaganda prisoner to do so.

The broadcast wasn’t aired in America, but in the town of Claremont, South Africa, a man named E. H. Stephan either picked up the signal on shortwave radio or received a report of it. Stephan worked for a service that monitored broadcasts and sent news of POWs to family members. He filled out a card with information about the broadcast. Louie, the card said, was a POW in an Axis camp.

Stephan stapled a transcript of the radio message to the card. He addressed it using the contact information typed in the message, misunderstood as Louise Vancerini, 2028 Brammersee Street, Terence, California. He dropped the card in the mail.

Thanks to the mistaken address and the severe delays of the wartime mail, the card would wander the world for months. In January 1945, it would turn up in Trona, a crossroads in the California desert. It would be the end of January, nearly three and a half months after the broadcast, when someone in Trona would pick up the letter, scribble try Torrance on the outside, and mail it on.

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