The Naoetsu POWs could tell by the guards’ scared faces that something big had happened. They hear rumors of a single bomb blowing up an entire city. A few days later, the city of Nagasaki also disappears, but the guards don’t give the men any information.
Again, Hillenbrand’s narration only devotes a few sentences to the destruction of the city of Nagasaki rather than the destruction of the 40,000 -80,000 civilian lives. By not providing this info to the reader, she makes the dropping of the bomb seem less horrifying and more justifiable, as if only a city disappeared and not its people.
The men fear the Japanese will kill them even if the war is over, either out of vengeance for their dead countrymen or to prevent them from testifying about the guards’ war crimes. A week before the kill-all date, the Bird disappears from the camp and the guards tell the prisoners they will soon march into the mountains.
In the context of WWII, a “march into the mountains” sounds eerily similar to the death marches where Nazis exterminated countless Jewish victims. The POWs fear that the Japanese will march them to an isolated spot, kill them, and then bury their bodies so that the world would never learn of the horrors that they endured. The Japanese would effectively erase the men’s experiences from history – a fate perhaps crueler than death itself.
As Louie gets more and more sick, the Japanese cancel all work in the camp. One of the guards tells a prisoner that the war is over. A few men celebrate the rumor, but Louie worries that the guards will still kill them. Five days before the execution date, the Bird returns. Louie thinks that he looks changed, but cannot pinpoint the difference.
The Bird’s return and his changed appearance is an omen, but of what we don’t yet know. Does the Bird, after learning of Japan’s surrender, feel defeated and disempowered? Or, has the Bird received the kill-all order and is coming to grips with the mass murder of the POWs?
Two days before the day set for their execution, the guards gather the men outside the barracks. A Japanese commander tells them that the war has ended. Speaking to them as if they were old friends, he says he hopes that the men will help Japan in the coming fight against the Soviet Union. As a sign of goodwill, the commander invites them to bathe in the Hokura river.
The commander’s tone of voice illustrates the absurd fickleness of war. One moment, two nations seek each other’s destruction and the next, they are allies, even friends.
As the men bathe silently and in confusion, an American plane flies overhead, flashing Morse code that the war is over. Finally realizing that the war has truly ended, the naked men stampede into the camp, burn down the fences, and celebrate. The guards do nothing to stop them. In his tired mind, Louie thinks to himself, “I’m free!”
Bathing in a river is usually associated with renewal and, in the context of this religious-themed book, baptism. It is apt that the men run from river naked, as if born anew, ready to live their lives as free men.
Watanabe escapes the prison before the men have a chance to take revenge on him. On the day of the announcement, the Bird, knowing that the Allies would charge him with war crimes, stole a bag of rice and slipped out of the camp for good.
Watanabe’ escape deprives him of the possibility for redemption. Without standing trial for his crimes, Watanabe will never free himself from his wartime identity as the “Bird” – the epitome of evil and cruelty.