While following an order to pick up rations from Tokyo, Louie sees Japanese graffiti on the wall of a building: B Niju Ku, which he translates as B-29. Louie doesn’t realize that Ku means nine as well as “fear, calamity, affliction.” At the time Louie saw the graffiti, the new B-29 American bomber was becoming the terror of the Japanese skies, raining bombs down all over the country.
Perhaps one limitation of the book is that we only see the war through the eyes of the Allied POWs, but this graffiti provides a glimpse into the Japanese’s perception of the war. Hillenbrand does not give the full scope of the Allied destruction of Japan: from 1944-1945, the B-29 firebombing raids resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people, most of whom were civilians.
In the days after Louie saw the graffiti, a B-29 bomber flies over the camp on its way to Tokyo. The Japanese look up at the plane in fear. One of the POWs says that the plane is our Messiah.
The B-29 is an ambiguous symbol. For the Americans, it’s an angel of salvation but, for the Japanese, it’s a demon of destruction. The meanings of symbols are relative in wartime – what means salvation for one nation is destruction for another.
The appearance of the bomber makes the Bird even more vicious. On one occasion, the Bird runs into the barracks, calling for everyone to come to attention. He claims Louie came to attention last and then hits him across the head with his his belt. Louie falls to the floor bleeding. In a soothing voice, the Bird offers Louie a cloth to wipe the blood. Right after Louie dabs his ear with the cloth, the Bird hits him again, causing him to go deaf in that ear for several weeks.
For a man like the Bird so concerned with maintaining and exerting power, the bombers are a real fear that threaten to disempower his nation and, by extension, himself. To reclaim this power, he ramps up the torture and dehumanization of the prisoners.
One day in mid-November, Japanese producers from Radio Tokyo offer Louie the opportunity to broadcast a message on the radio so that his family would know that he was alive. Fearing they would make him read propaganda, Louie agrees after they let him compose the message himself. They bring him to the Radio Tokyo studio where he broadcasts the message.
For the first time, Louie gets the chance to announce his survival to the world. With this message, Louie affirms his identity and his connection to the outside world – aspects of himself that the prison guards tried to take from him.
In the U.S., a woman from a California suburb calls the Zamperini family with the news that she heard Louie’s message on her radio. Later, the U.S. military sends the family a telegram saying they’ve intercepted his message, confirming that he is most likely alive. Hearing this news, Louise and Sylvia dissolve into tears and shouts of joy. Pete calls Louie’s friend Payton Jordon and shouts into the phone: “Payt! He’s alive!”
The family finally reaps the fruits of their belief. They now have hard evidence to confirm what they always knew to be true: Louie is alive. Their belief has served them well, giving them the strength to bear their lack of info about Louie’s condition until the info, at long last, arrives.