In May 1945, a B-29 bomber targets a steel mill near Naoetsu. Realizing that a bomber would only attack such insignificant targets if the Americans were close to winning the war, the men become hopeful that the war will soon end. Their hopes increase further when new arrivals to the camp inform the men that Germany has surrendered.
News of victory revives the men’s spirits, giving them the strength to keep fighting the slow, ever-present erosion of their resilience and dignity.
By June, Louie’s leg heals enough to bear his weight, allowing him to go back to shoveling coal and salt. One day on duty, the Japanese foreman accuses the prisoners of stealing a fish from the galley. Louie and the others convince the thief to confess in order to spare the others punishment.
The men’s attitude towards the theft shows how war alters conventional morality. Most men (though perhaps not Louie when he was a teenager) would have probably found fault with stealing back home, but they see stealing from the Japanese is only wrong if you get caught and let your fellow prisoners suffer the consequences. But this is not the only change in morals that occurs during war. Murder, the number one prohibition in a society during peacetime, becomes a heroic duty in war.
When the men return to camp, the Bird claims that the officers must have been involved in the theft. As punishment, he makes the two hundred other prisoners strike the thief, Louie, and the other officers one time in the face. The guards beat anyone who refuses or punches too lightly. For two hours, prisoners punch Louie and the others while the Bird watches with erotic pleasure.
This punishment reinforces the idea that violence is reciprocal, that it may be more damaging to those who inflict pain than those who take it. Having to hurt their friends, each man performs a betrayal and, as we have seen with Mac and the propaganda prisoners, betraying one’s brothers-in-arms is an action that quickly exhausts one’s self-respect. The officers’ bruises will heal, but betrayal will leave psychological scars that only some kind of redemption can erase.
As more bombers pass overhead, the situation in the camp worsens. There is less food and the prisoners doubt they’ll survive the coming winter. They also believe that an Allied invasion of Japan’s mainland is inevitable. Japan would rather arm its civilians – children, women, and the elderly alike – rather than surrender to the Allies. The men worry that an invasion would mean the announcement of a kill-all order.
Hillenbrand’s claim that Japan would rather sacrifice its own citizens than surrender is a common view in the U.S.. Some historians use this same claim to justify the dropping of the atomic bombs as a necessary evil that averted the U.S. having to invade Japan, thereby saving countless American and Japanese lives. But this isn’t the only opinion. Other historians have argued that dropping the bomb was cruel and unnecessary because Japan, already weakened, was on the verge of surrender.
At Phil’s camp, officials announce that they are transferring the American POWs to a more pleasant camp. The men travel to a remote region and hike for hours up a mountain to an isolated clearing that encloses only a few rickety huts. One prisoner considers their situation and concludes, “This is the place of our extermination.” In Naoetsu, the men learn from a friendly Japanese civilian that a date has been set for their execution: August 22nd, 1945.
In the context of WWII, the word “extermination” carries the weight of human suffering. This is the same word that people use in reference to the Nazi genocide of six million Jews during the Holocaust. The word evokes how the perpetrators of these atrocities saw their victims as vermin without human dignity and in need of destruction.