Louie is taken outside to a compound that is bordered by a high fence with barbed wire at the top. One of the prisoners there informs Louie about the place, telling him that this is Ofuna, a secret interrogation center where captured men are tortured and where no one is allowed to talk to anyone else. Louie becomes accustomed to the discipline of this place, with its solitary cells, intense labor, and daily beatings. The captives suffer starvation and disease, including scurvy and beriberi.
While Louie retains some hope of Allied rescue, Hillenbrand offers background information about the beheadings and other killings of Allied soldiers at other POW camps. She explains the Japanese “kill-all” rule that mandated Japanese guards to kill all POWs in the event of an Allied invasion.
Chapter Eighteen presents a progression of suffering reminiscent of Dante’s journey through the nine circles of hell in Inferno. Here, Louie and Phil are the pilgrims on the journey. Unlike Dante, Louie and Phil are experiencing the punishment and are not simply observers of it. Similar to Dante, though, Louie and Phil are undergoing an education and a transformation. While the “architect” of Dante’s Inferno is “divine justice,” or God, in this landscape the architect can be viewed as “war,” evil, or some other vice. On a secular level, this chapter offers the idea that, just when you think you have reached the lowest point, you might find that things can get much worse. The suffering seems bottomless as it worsens. The experiences at Execution Island are, unbelievably, more terrible than those on the boat.
Hillenbrand conveys in detail the capacity of humans to show indifference, cruelty, and even sadism toward others. This includes the seeming indifference of Jimmie Sasaki, Louie’s former friend. It also extends to the guards, some of whom likely had mental disorders. Hillenbrand also adds cultural context to explain the brutality of the Japanese guards. Guards were taught to believe in the superiority of their culture, and to consider Allied soldiers to be “Anglo-Saxon devils.” She also explains the contempt the Japanese had for soldiers who were captured or who surrendered, since they were taught to see these acts as shameful. The Japanese valued dignity so highly, which was why the guards tried to take dignity away from their prisoners. Guards who showed compassion towards the prisoners suffered great consequences for it. This information allows Hillenbrand to begin to build some important chords within her work, as she emphasizes the value of human self-respect and the tragedy of dehumanization.
While presenting the punishing landscape that will become the new norm for Louie and Phil, Hillenbrand also injects other important elements into her storytelling. One of these elements is the presence of hope, which in mythological terms was also found in Pandora’s Box. At the same time as Louie experiences hell, he also experiences hope and perhaps divine support. Hillenbrand presents the possibility of an angelic presence that Louie senses in the singing he hears when he feels close to death.
Louie’s discovery of Jimmie Sasaki’s role in the Japanese interrogation network sheds new light on Louie’s pre-war experience at USC, when Sasaki was Louie’s friend. This calls to mind Hillenbrand’s symbolic imagery of Chapter One, when the German zeppelin cast a shadow over Louie’s hometown of Torrance. The dark forces of this war were already present in Louie’s life before he even realized they were there. That image, of course, also served as foreshadowing for what was to come in the story, when war historically did block the light for the families who were hoping for the survival of their family members.