Louie would remember that moment when he saw the Bird as the darkest of his life. But the Bird is overjoyed to see him, thinking that Louie is his friend. The guards march Louie and the other prisoners to the barracks on the edge of a cliff that dropped straight down to the Hokura river. The other prisoners are emaciated and poorly clothed for the weather. They are even worse off than the ones at Omori. Of all the terrible places Louie had known in the war, Naoetsu is the worst.
With less food and worse weather, internment in Naoetsu will push Louie’s ability to survive to the limit. Here Hillenbrand’s description of the camp ratchets up the question of whether his defiant spirit and resilient nature be enough to overcome this new obstacle or will the Bird finally break him? (Though the book’s title may give away the answer to that one…)
Watanabe had specifically requested that the Omori camp officials transfer Louie to Naoetsu so that he could continue the abuse. Watanabe forces Louie and the rest of the officers to work on a nearby farm while the other prisoners work in much worse conditions at a factory. When the the Japanese guard charged with overseeing the officers complains to the Bird that the officers are lazy, he punishes the men, making them carry tons of coal onto boats.
For Watanabe, breaking Louie holds the key for reclaiming his dignity. The Bird hopes that by dehumanizing the proud and famous Olympian, he will feel superior to Louie, and thus regain the dignity he lost as a result of his humiliation. But this is simply a delusion. By needlessly hurting others, the Bird furthers himself from reclaiming his human dignity, becoming more like a monster or savage animal than a man of honor. Bird seems to have confused “dignity” or “self-worth” with “feeling powerful,” which is a bit like taking drugs and believing that temporary high to be happiness.
The slave labor at Naoetsu nearly swallows the prisoner’s souls, but the prisoners find ways to score small victories like stealing from the guards and teaching them the wrong English words for things.
Like in the previous camps, the POWs keep their spirits up by defying the guards. Defiance makes the prisoners feel like soldiers again, not cattle waiting for slaughter.
Disaster strikes one day in spring when a guard pushes Louie while he’s carrying a heavy load, causing him to injure his leg. The guards take him off work detail and cut his rations in half. Without full rations and suffering from dysentery, Louie fears he will starve. Desperate, he asks the Bird for work. Savoring the request, the Bird makes him clean out the pig sty with his bare hands. Of all the vile and demoralizing things the Bird inflicted on him, cleaning out the pig sty is the worst. Only the faint hope that the war would soon end gives him the strength to keep going.
This is the lowest point to which Louie will sink in the war. Though we as readers may not judge Louie for losing his defiant spirit, he might experience this moment as evidence of his faltering self-respect. Once so proud and defiant, Louie loses his self-respect by having to go to the Bird, his nemesis, for help, thereby acknowledging the man’s power over him, and then doing the pointless and demeaning work that Bird tells him to do. Nonetheless, his struggle to maintain his dignity is remarkable in the face of such daily, demeaning tasks.