At the University of Southern California, Louie along with his best friend and fellow Olympic runner Payton Jordan train for the next Games. Louie befriends a Japanese immigrant named Kunichi “Jimmie” Sasaki, a fellow student who also loves track. But Jimmie is not what he seems. Actually nearly forty-years-old and with a family, Jimmie only pretends to be a student.
For a minor character, Jimmie is at the center of the War and Identity theme. A man of mystery, Jimmie hides his true identity. As the story unfolds, his identity will remain an unknown, revealing the limitations of what can and cannot be known about the motivations and intentions of others.
Louie continues to train, trying to be the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. During the 1938 NCAA Championship race, Louie brags to the other runners about his fast running times. Louie’s boastfulness prompts the runners to sharpen their cleats and slash his shins and feet during the race. Despite their malicious attempts, he wins the race and sets a new speed record at the NCAA.
The racers’ aggression towards Louie foreshadows how Louie’s pride and self-confidence will, later and more devastatingly, spur the anger of his prison guards. Once again, Louie shows his resilience, winning the race despite the others’ attempt to incapacitate him.
As Louie trains, Germany invades Poland and Japan invades China. As a result of these aggressions, the Olympics Commission suspends the Games. Without the prospect of the Games to look forward to, Louie becomes depressed, loses race after race, and drops out of college despite only having a few credits left to earn. Aware that war was coming and that those who enlisted prior to being drafted could choose their service branch, Louie, feeling a pull to the sky, joins the Army Air Corps in 1941.
Louie’s resilience falters. Hillenbrand isn’t clear why Louie relies on running to keep him from slipping back into delinquency, but it is possible that what Pete calls the “glory” of victory gives Louie the self-worth necessary to reach new heights. Putting it more broadly, Louie thrives when he has a challenge to face, and loses motivation when that challenge disappears. Louie’s urge towards the sky metaphorically illustrates this desire for the glory of overcoming obstacles and limitations.
While Louie trains to be a bombardier, the FBI investigates Jimmie Sasaki for espionage. The U.S. government suspected him of relaying information about the U.S. military to Japanese officials and raising money for Japan’s war effort. But Jimmie also gave Japanese military secrets to a U.S. congressmen.
Jimmie’s true allegiances remain unknown, providing a contrast to the other characters – whereas war will bring out their true natures, Jimmie manages to keep his concealed.
In December 1941, 180 Japanese fighter planes attack the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor. At a training base in Texas, Louie finds out that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor while watching a movie. Louie would long remember sitting in the theater with eyes wide and his mind struggling to comprehend the news: America was at war.
Louie’s inability to comprehend the enormity of war shows just how inconceivable WWII really was. A global conflict that will involve almost every nation on the planet, the war will alter the world and its citizens.