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Staying Alive

The limits of endurance in enemy hands.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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The Japanese specialized in mental, as well as in physical, torture, and as an officer, athlete, and celebrity of sorts, Louie came in for special abuse. Horribly ill, he asked for a physician—who came, looked at him, laughed at him softly, and then walked away. He begged for water and a guard threw a cup of it, scalding hot, in his face. He was forced “to stand up and dance .  .  . whistle and sing,” pelted as he ate with fistfuls of gravel, and made to crawl on the floor after tiny rice fragments while guards outside poked him with sticks. When they fell under the sway of The Bird (Mutsuhiro Watanabe), described correctly as “monstrous,” the torments increased. A psychotic even by prison camp standards, The Bird would beat POWs daily, breaking their windpipes and teeth, making one officer sit in a shack wearing only his underwear for four days in winter. The Bird brought men to his office to show them letters from home, and then burned the letters; he made men guess how he wanted them to address him, and then beat those who gave the wrong answer; he “ordered men to violate camp policies, then attacked them for breaking the rules.” Now and then he would woo prisoners with gestures of friendship, then beat them ferociously. Many felt he took a sensual pleasure in the infliction of pain upon others: “When gripped in the ecstasy of an assault, he wailed and howled .  .  . sometimes sobbing, tears running down his cheeks.”

Singly and together, the prisoners made ferocious attempts to hang on to their dignity, sabotaging whatever they could: “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,” Hillenbrand tells us. “They threw fistfuls of dirt into gas tanks, and broke anything mechanical that passed through their hands,” and built things designed to not work or break easily. They “accidentally” dropped fragile items; shredded clothes; drenched them in mud; packed them again into boxes with notes signed “Winston Churchill,” drank gallons of tea and then “peed profusely” into the bags of rice they loaded; found ingenious ways to steal foodstuffs; and blocked a canal by sinking a barge they were loading by hurling heavy objects into its hold. In the camps, they communicated in code, addressed guards (in English) in cooing tones while delivering insults couched in obscenities.

Stunts kept their spirits alive in the torment and in their captivity, allowing them to believe they were still free agents and soldiers and not merely victims of fate. Reserved, quiet Phil, “so recessive that he could be in a room for a long time” before anyone noticed him, survived “with a calm, adaptive acceptance” that allowed him to absorb and endure any indignity. The more flamboyant and outgoing Louie could not: A born rebel, a near-delinquent before he found his real outlet in running, he found powerlessness and degradation unendurable, which was both his weakness and strength. His pride (and celebrity) aroused further rage in The Bird, which increased Louie’s will to defy him still further.

From earliest childhood, Louie had regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness, and his determination to rebel. The result had been a mutinous youth. .  .  . Now, as he was cast into extremity, despair and death became the focus of his defiance. The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance were sustaining him in the greatest struggle of his life.

They were close to the end of their tethers in August 1945, when word began to leak through of a strange new bomb that had destroyed a whole city. Soon after that, they were free.

For many, however, the war was not done: “The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity. [Diseases] were rampant. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings. .  .  . Others had gone blind.” Equally bad were the psychic disorders: “Flashbacks .  .  . were common. Intense nightmares were almost ubiquitous. Men walked in their sleep .  .  . and woke screaming, sobbing, or lashing out. Some slept on their floors .  .  . ducked in terror when airliners flew over, or hoarded food.” One “was dogged by urges to scavenge in garbage cans.” Others went “feral with rage.”

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