Louie learns from a guard that the Japanese executed the nine marines whose names were carved into his cage. Given tiny amounts of food and water, Louie gets sick with dysentery. He is beaten daily, usually for not understanding what the Japanese guards want of him.
According to the Geneva Convention, it is a war crime to beat, starve, or execute POWs, but Japan breaks these laws and more. While the sharks seemed like violent monsters, the Japanese prison guards appear to be the true monsters because they, unlike the sharks, are not simply acting out of hunger but are choosing to harm, even kill, their captives.
Louie feels that his will to survive beginning to fray. Although the conditions on the raft were harsh, at least there he was able to maintain his dignity. Putting him in the cage, the Japanese guards treat him like an animal. They throw rice balls at him and taunt him when he picks up the bits of rice. They prod him with sticks and laugh at his pain. These ceaseless humiliations chip away at Louie, threatening his will to live by making him feel like a lesser human being.
These humiliations foreground the theme of Dignity. The Japanese considered being captured by the enemy as being without dignity. Since they saw the POWs as having no dignity, the Japanese guards treated them as subhuman. Hillenbrand makes clear that in this context, preserving one’s dignity is akin to insisting on one’s humanity and that, without their humanity, people lose their capacity for survival.
One day, a Christian Japanese guard named Kawamura offers kindness and compassion to Louie, which restores some of his self-respect. They talk as equals and the guard protects Louie from some of the most abusive guards. Hillenbrand writes that dignity is as important to survival as food or shelter, speculating Kawamura’s kindness may have restored Louie’s self-respect and his will to live.
The theme of Dignity continues. Kawamura’s compassion restores Louie’s dignity, providing him the psychological fortitude to survive the ordeal. As Hillenbrand details, fortifying his mental resilience by treating him with dignity was as important for survival as shielding his physical body from the beatings.
Three weeks after arriving on the island, Japanese doctors experiment on Louie and Phil. They inject them with a murky solution that gives them a rash and made them nauseous. In many Japanese POW camps, prisoners became test subjects for Japanese experiments in biological and chemical warfare. Louie and Phil were lucky not to be among the thousands who died as a result of the experiments.
From slavery in the American South to genocide in the Holocaust, perpetrators of such violence dehumanize their victims so that they can better carry out the atrocities. By experimenting on the men as if they were lab rats, the guards deprive them of their dignity. Put another way, dehumanizing one’s victims is a kind of psychological defense-mechanism; but of course refusing to treat anyone that way would be a true show of dignity.
After spending forty-two days on Execution Island, Louie and Phil board a Japanese ship on its way to what they hope will be an official POW camp at Yokohama in mainland Japan. Louie won’t learn for a long time why he and Phil were spared from execution.
Hillenbrand ends this chapter on a cliffhanger, leaving it a mystery why Louie and Phil were spared. For religious readers, this ambiguity may reinforce the idea that God was looking out for Louie, guiding him to survival.