At a U.S. military base far out in the Pacific, a Japanese bomber raid catches the marines at Wake Atoll unaware. Although it should have been an easy victory for the Japanese, it took three days of bombing and a large invasion force to conquer the island. Instead of registering the ninety-eight captured American soldiers with the Red Cross as POWs, the Japanese enslave them all.
This is the first indication of Japan’s wartime atrocities. During WWII, Japan defied the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Prisoners of War, which established the basic humans rights of the POWs. Louie will learn firsthand of how the Japanese violate these basic rights.
While in military training, Louie becomes a superbly accurate bombardier. After graduating from training, he drives to Torrance to say goodbye to his family. Pete, a navy chief petty officer in San Diego, comes home to see his brother off. In a picture the family takes, Louie and Louise, on the verge of tears, squint and look slightly away from camera, as if blinded by the glare of what lay before them.
With the Olympics no longer a feasible goal, Louie finds a new challenge in military training: becoming the best bombardier possible. Focusing on overcoming this obstacle helps Louie pulls himself out of depression, possibly providing him that sense of “glory” or self-worth that he had derived from running. Hillenbrand’s description of the photo also foreshadows the trials and challenges that both Louie and Louise will face in the coming years.
At an airbase in Ephrata, Washington, Louie, now an officer, meets his pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips. A quiet man, Phil is always cool under pressure and deeply in love with his hometown sweet heart and fiancé, Cecy Perry. Another eight men make up the crew of their B-24 Liberator. Ugly, accident-prone, and hard to fly, the B-24 feels like a death sentence to the crew. One of crewmen calls it “The Flying Coffin.”
A deathtrap, his plane is another external obstacle Louie must overcome. The plane also contrasts with the popular image of the WWII airplane. Today, we might imagine the brave flyboy’s plane as a majestic thing of beauty. But, in reality, their plane is a hunk of junk, a source of fear and embarrassment.
In time, the hundreds of hours of intense training make the crewmen love their plane as their home. They choose the name “Super Man” for the plane and soon receive orders to fly to Oahu’s Hickam Field in the Pacific Ocean to continue their training and prepare for their first combat mission.
The plane’s name change from the “The Flying Coffin” to the invincible superhero “Super Man” reflects Louie’s own transformation. Louie’s unpromising beginnings could have led him to an early grave, but he’ll ultimately prove be a resilient, seemingly indestructible hero.