As Louie bent, gasping, over his spent legs, he marveled at the kick that he had forced from his body. It had felt very, very fast. Two coaches hurried up, gaping at their stopwatches, on which they had clocked his final lap. Both watches showed precisely the same time. In distance running in the 1930s, it was exceptionally rare for a man to run a last lap in one minute. This rule held even in the comparatively short hop of a mile: In the three fastest miles ever run, the winner’s final lap had been clocked at 61.2, 58.9, and 59.1 seconds, respectively. No lap in those three historic performances had been faster than 58.9. In the 5,000, well over three miles, turning a final lap in less than 70 seconds was a monumental feat. In his record-breaking 1932 Olympic 5,000, Lehtinen had spun his final lap in 69.2 seconds. Louie had run his last lap in 56 seconds.
In keeping with the American effort to reconcile with Japan, all of them, including those serving life sentences, would soon be paroled. It appears that even Sueharu Kitamura, “the Quack,” was set free, in spite of his death sentence. By 1958, every war criminal who had not been executed would be free, and on December 30 of that year, all would be granted amnesty. Sugamo would be torn down, and the epic ordeals of POWs in Japan would fade from the world’s memory.
Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation.
In the air corps, 35,946 personnel died in nonbattle situations, the vast majority of them in accidental crashes.*1 Even in combat, airmen appear to have been more likely to die from accidents than combat itself. A report issued by the AAF surgeon general suggests that in the Fifteenth Air Force, between November 1, 1943, and May 25, 1945, 70 percent of men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action.
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.
Watanabe beat POWs every day, fracturing their windpipes, rupturing their eardrums, shattering their teeth, tearing one man’s ear half off, leaving men unconscious. He made one officer sit in a shack, wearing only a fundoshi undergarment, for four days in winter. He tied a sixty-five-year-old POW to a tree and left him there for days. He ordered one man to report to him to be punched in the face every night for three weeks. He practiced judo on an appendectomy patient. When gripped in the ecstasy of an assault, he wailed and howled, drooling and frothing, sometimes sobbing, tears running down his cheeks. Men came to know when an outburst was imminent: Watanabe’s right eyelid would sag a moment before he snapped.
As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before. He had thought it as he had watched hunting seabirds, marveling at their ability to adjust their dives to compensate for the refraction of light in water. He had thought it as he had considered the pleasing geometry of the sharks, their gradation of color, their slide through the sea. He even recalled the thought coming to him in his youth, when he had lain on the roof of the cabin in the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, looking up from Zane Grey to watch night settling over the earth. Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil. Joyful and grateful in the midst of slow dying, the two men bathed in that day until sunset brought it, and their time in the doldrums, to an end.