Military history

Chapter Twenty-seven
Falling Down

AT OMORI, LIFE BECAME IMMEASURABLY BETTER. PRIVATE Kano quietly took over the camp, working with Watanabe’s replacement, Sergeant Oguri, a humane, fair-minded man. The Bird’s rules were abolished. Someone got into the Bird’s office and found a pile of mail sent to the POWs by their families. Some of the letters had been in his office for nine months. The letters were delivered, and the POWs were finally allowed to write home. “Trust you’re all in good health and in the highest of spirits, not the kind that comes in bottles,” Louie wrote in one letter to his family. “Tell Pete,” he wrote in another, “that when I’m 50, I’ll have more hair on my head than he had at 20.” The letters, like so many others, languished in the glacial mail system, and wouldn’t make it to America until long after the war’s end.

Two weeks into 1945, a group of men, tattered and bent, trudged over the bamboo bridge and into Omori. Louie knew their faces: These were Ofuna men. Commander Fitzgerald was with them. The Omori prisoners told him that he was the luckiest man in Japan. A vicious tyrant called the Bird had just left.

Among the new POWs, Louie spotted Bill Harris, and his heart fell. Harris was a wreck. When Louie greeted him, his old friend looked at him vaguely. He was hazy and distant, his mind struggling for purchase on his thoughts.

The beating the Quack had delivered to Harris in September 1944 hadn’t been the last. On November 6, apparently after Harris was caught speaking, the Quack had pounced on him again, joining several guards in clubbing him into unconsciousness. Two months later, Harris had been beaten once more, for stealing nails to repair his torn shoes, which he was trying to nurse through a frigid winter. He had asked the Japanese to give him some, but they had refused.

The Omori POW doctor examined Harris gravely. He told Louie that he thought the marine was dying.

That same day, Oguri opened the storehouse and had the Red Cross boxes handed out. Giving his box to Harris was, Louie would say, the hardest and easiest thing he ever did. Harris rallied.

Since his refusal to become a propaganda prisoner, Louie had been waiting to be shipped to punishment camp. While the Bird had badgered him, he had awaited his fate with equanimity. Now that the Bird was gone, and Harris was here with Louie’s other friends, Louie wanted to stay. He met every day with dread, awaiting his transfer.


The B-29s kept coming. Sirens sounded several times a day. Rumors eddied around camp: Manila had been captured, Germany had fallen, the Americans were about to charge the Japanese beaches. Louie, like a lot of POWs, was worried. Frightened by the bombing, the guards were increasingly jumpy and angry. Even guards who had once been amiable were now hostile, lashing out without reason. As the assaults on Japan intensified and the probability of invasion rose, the Japanese seemed to view the POWs as threatening.

Among the American forces, a horrifying piece of news had just surfaced. One hundred and fifty American POWs had long been held on Palawan Island, in the Philippines, where they’d been used as slaves to construct an airfield. In December, after American planes bombed the field, the POWs were ordered to dig shelters. They were told to build the entrances only one man wide.

On December 14, an American convoy was spotted near Palawan. The commander of the Japanese 2nd Air Division was apparently sure that the Americans intended to invade. It was the scenario for which the kill-all order had been written. That night, the commander sent a radio message to Palawan: “Annihilate the 150 prisoners.”

A B-29 over the Omori POW camp. Raymond Halloran

On December 15 on Palawan, the guards suddenly began screaming that there were enemy planes coming. The POWs crawled into the shelters and sat there, hearing no planes. Then liquid began to rain onto them. It was gasoline. The guards tossed in torches, then hand grenades. The shelters, and the men inside, erupted in flames.

As the guards cheered, the POWs fought to escape, some clawing their own fingertips off. Nearly all of those who broke out were bayoneted, machine-gunned, or beaten to death. Only eleven men escaped. They swam across a nearby bay and were discovered by inmates at a penal colony. The inmates delivered them to Filipino guerrillas, who brought them to American forces.

That night, the Japanese threw a party to celebrate the massacre. Their anticipation of an American landing turned out to be mistaken.


Sleet was falling over Omori as February 16 dawned. At seven-fifteen, Louie and the other POWs had just finished a breakfast of barley and soup when the sirens piped up. Commander Fitzgerald looked at his friends. He knew that this would probably not be B-29s, which would have had to fly all night to reach Japan so early. It was probably carrier aircraft: His navy must be near. A few seconds later, the room was shaking. The men bolted for the doors.

Louie ran out into a crashing, tumbling world. The entire sky was swarming with hundreds of fighters, American and Japanese, rising and falling, streaming bullets at one another. Over Tokyo, lines of dive-bombers bellied down like waves slapping a beach, slamming bombs into the aircraft works and airport. As they rose, quills of fire came up under them. Louie was standing directly underneath the largest air battle yet fought over Japan.

The guards fixed their bayonets and ordered the POWs back inside. Louie and the others filed into the barracks, waited for the guards to rush off to censure someone else, then stole out. They ran behind a barracks, climbed the camp fence, and hung there, resting their elbows on the top. The view was electrifying. Planes were sweeping over every corner of the sky, and all around, fighters were dropping into the water.

One dogfight riveted Louie’s attention. An American Hellcat hooked up with a Japanese fighter and began chasing it. The Japanese fighter turned toward the city and dove low over the bay, the Hellcat right behind it. The two planes streaked past the camp, the Japanese fighter racing flat out, the Hellcat’s guns firing. Several hundred POWs watched from the camp fence, their eyes pressed to knotholes or their heads poking over the top, hearts leaping, ears roaring. The fighters were so close that Louie could see both pilots’ faces. The Japanese fighter crossed over the coast, and the Hellcat broke away.

All told, fifteen hundred American planes and several hundred Japanese planes flew over the POWs that day. That night, the city was bathed in red fires. The following day, back the planes came. By the end of February 17, more than five hundred Japanese planes, both on the ground and in the air, had been lost, and Japan’s aircraft works had been badly hit. The Americans had lost eighty planes.

Seven days later, the hammer fell. At seven in the morning, during a heavy snowstorm, sixteen hundred carrier-based planes flew past Omori and bombed Tokyo. Then came B-29s, 229 of them, carrying incendiary bombs. Encountering almost no resistance, they sped for the industrial district and let their bombs fall. The POWs could see fire dancing over the skyline.


On the last day of February, Louie and the other officers were called into the compound. Fifteen names were called, among them Zamperini, Wade, Tinker, Mead, and Fitzgerald. They were told that they were being transferred to a camp called 4B, also known as Naoetsu. Louie greeted the news with bright spirits. Wherever he was going, he would be joined by almost all of his friends.

On the evening of March 1, the chosen men gathered their belongings and donned overcoats that had been distributed the day before. Louie said good-bye to Harris. He would never see him again.

The Naoetsu-bound men climbed aboard a truck, which bore them into Tokyo. Watching the air battle over the city had been exhilarating, but when the men saw the consequences, they were shocked. Whole neighborhoods had been reduced to charred ruins, row after row of homes now nothing but black bones. In the rubble, Louie noticed something shining. Standing in the remains of many houses were large industrial machines. What Louie was seeing was a small fragment of a giant cottage industry, war production farmed out to innumerable private homes, schools, and small “shadow factories.”

Louie and the other transferring POWs were driven to the railway station and put on a train. They rode all night, moving west, into a snowy landscape. As they rode on, the snow became deeper and deeper.

At about nine A.M. on March 2, the train drew up to Naoetsu, a seaside village on the west coast of Japan. Led to the front of the station, the POWs stared in amazement; the snow rose up some fourteen feet overhead. Climbing up a stairway cut into the drifts, they found themselves in a blindingly white world, standing atop a snow mountain that buried the entire village. “It was as if a giant frosted cake were sitting in the town,” Wade wrote. The snow was so deep that residents had dug vertical tunnels to get in and out of their homes. The contrast to fire-blackened Tokyo was jarring.

Pulling their baggage along on sleighs, the POWs began the mile-and-a-quarter walk to camp. It was windy and bitterly cold. Fitzgerald, who had a badly infected foot, had the most difficulty. His crutches poked deep in the snow and wouldn’t hold his weight.

The prisoners crossed a bridge and saw the Sea of Japan. Just short of it, cornered against the Ara and Hokura rivers, was the Naoetsu POW camp, almost entirely obscured by snow. Louie and the others trudged into the compound and stopped before a shack, where they were told to stand at attention. They waited for some time, the wind frisking their clothes.

At last, a door thumped open. A man rushed out and snapped to a halt, screaming “Keirei!

It was the Bird.

Louie’s legs folded, the snow reared up at him, and down he went.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!