Farewell to America’s ‘Unbroken’ Hero
11:40 AM, Jul 9, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
Louis Zamperini’s treatment as a brutalized prisoner of war continues to have relevance today because of the ongoing debate in Asia over Japan’s war crimes. Article 2 of the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War reads: “They must at all times be humanly treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against them are prohibited.” The death rates of American POWs held by Nazi Germany and Japan during the Second World War provide a stark contrast. Statistics indicate that only 1,121 of 93,941 U.S. POWs died in Nazi internment camps (a rate of about 1.1 percent) while 13,851 of 36,260 POWs died while in Imperial Japanese custody (a rate of 38.2 percent.) This is evidence not only of abuse and brutality but of clear violations of the Geneva Convention by Imperial Japanese authorities.
Zamperini became aware of these violations from his first days of captivity on Kwajalein. A native islander, who worked for the Japanese, approached him in his cell because of his Olympic notoriety. This person informed him that the nine U.S. Marines who had left messages scrawled in Zamperini’s cell had been summarily executed, “decapitated with a samurai sword.” Zamperini described how his guards taunted him and his crewmate: “they jabbed us with sticks, spit on us, tossed hot tea in our faces. Sometimes they made us sing and dance—as if we could—for their amusement.” He also observed Comfort Women, the current focus of so much historic controversy, while imprisoned on Kwajalein. In his memoirs, he recorded: “on the way I passed two somber young girls, very out of place in a combat zone. They shuffled and stared at the ground.”
Later, on the prison ship transporting him to mainland Japan, guards examined Zamperini’s wallet. There they discovered a Stars and Stripes newspaper clipping regarding his Olympic background and his participation in the Wake Island raid. They were so angered that they broke his nose. He was transferred to a series of POW camps where he spent the next two years as a slave laborer. “Brutal beatings, with fist or club, were the daily rule,” he recorded.
Zamperini made a mental note of guards and officials who were especially brutal and sadistic in their treatment of the POWs. At Camp Ofuna, in the foothills near Yokohama, there was a medic named Kitamura, nicknamed “the Quack,” who sadistically beat POW Marine Bill Harris almost to death for concealing a map of Allied military advances. There was James Sasaki, who had attended USC with Louis Zamperini, undercover as a Japanese spy, and then returned to Japan to become the head interrogator for the prison camp system. Above all, there was Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, who was assigned to Camp Omori, where Louis was transferred, and was nicknamed “the Bird.” Zamperini described him as “deranged, brutal beyond belief.” He took a personal dislike to “Lucky Louie” and tormented him both verbally and with great physical brutality.
“The Bird” disappeared near the war’s end and hid in the mountains of Japan for seven or eight years, until a general amnesty, to escape trial as a war criminal (Watanabe had been classified as a class-A war criminal, number 23 of the top 40 most wanted men, for his crimes against humanity.) When Louis returned to Japan in1998 to carry the torch for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, near the site of his final internment camp, he asked to meet with Watanabe, who had been located by journalists. Louis wanted closure and reconciliation but “the Bird,” in a final act of degradation, refused to meet with him. (Decades earlier, after hearing Reverend Billy Graham preach, Louie had met some of his other captors in Japan and had forgiven them all.)
At that last internment facility, Camp 4-B, near Nagano, where Louis Zamperini would return over a half century later, Louis and his fellow POWs were forced to engage in slave labor for Japanese corporations: “every day, gangs marched to the nearby steel mill, train yard and port. Although we had shoes, most of us walked the two miles to work barefoot in the March snow and ice, our feet wrapped in rags, because the Bird had a rule: whoever had dirty shoes got beaten and had to lick them clean.”
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