The main character Louie has just been put in a Japanese prisoner of war camp where the conditions are barely livable. In this camp, there is rare or no talking because of this strict Japanese guards. This forced the prisoners to make another way of communicating made up of morse code using their hands and quiet whisper noises. Under this silence, Louie meets a marine officer named William Harris who has a photographic memory and is very intelligent. William makes a Japanese to English dictionary and Louie keeps a journal which they have to keep secret from the guards. The only way the prisoners can keep their dignity in this horrible place is to be defiant. One way they do this is saving stomach gases and letting them out when they are forced to bow for the Japanese emperor.
They called this “farting for Hirohito.” Earlier when Louie was in another prisoner of war camp he added his name to a list on the wall which ended up helping another prisoner after him to survive because he heard one of the men survived on the list survived. Later that man met Louie.
Before the war Louie was a runner and went to the olympics and when the guards heard this they brought in a Japanese runner to race Louie. Although Louie was in horrible shape, he still beat the Japanese runner but was then literally beaten by the guards for winning. Louie was later offered a small amount of food to lose the next race which he does.
Later, Phil, Louie’s pilot and friend gets taken away to another camp called Ashio. At home, Louie’s sister falls into a depression and when the family gets a telegram about Louie disappearing it makes it worse. Louie is declared dead on May 28th 1944 but isn’t actually. Luckily, no one believes it.
A fortune teller also tells Phil’s fiancée that he is still alive. Next, in 1944 during the summer Louie, Harris, and Tinker want to escape and think they can steal a plane to get back to allied territory. The only flaw in their plan is they can’t disguise themselves as a Japanese soldier because of the height difference. However, they were going to go through with the plan since they are so desperate but one day before they do, the Japanese say if anyone escapes the camp they will kill everyone else that stayed behind. This forces them to cancel the plan. Instead, they look around in the head guard’s office without him knowing where they find a map.
Harris, the extremely smart one of the group copies what he sees onto a piece of toilet paper. The copy Harris made is discovered by the Japanese and Harris receives a severe beating for it which causes him to lose consciousness and when he wakes up he doesn’t remember who anyone is. Later, in September, Louie and other prisoners are transferred to another camp called Omori. When they get there, they meet a psychopathic corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, and are beaten. The new corporal goes into an angry fit after the slightest issues and for some reason picks Louie to take out most of his anger on. On the other side of his psychotic behavior, Watanabe brings the prisoners candy and cigarettes. In this new camp, the men find new ways to keep their dignity by sabotaging camp.
They do this by stealing sugar, stuffing dirt in gas tanks, and shredding clothes. Some of the guards in the new camp are nice and sneak in blankets and food for the prisoners and allow them to get medical help. “The Bird” as they call Watanabe, continues to bully Louie though and that brings back bad memories from Louie’s childhood of being bullied. Louie also dreams of killing Watanabe. The Japanese propaganda broadcasters create a message from Louie that he doesn’t know about where he is saying he is ok and being treated well.
In South Africa, a man hears the broadcast and mails a card to Louie’s family but the address was wrong and it doesn’t get there for months. Later, a new American bomber is made called the B-29 and it flies over Japan which gives the prisoners hope. This new found hope angers Watanabe he beats Louie for it which makes Louie go almost deaf in one ear.
In November, Louie is taken to another broadcast studio to correct the message the other studio sent without Louie knowing. A woman who went to USC with Louie hears the broadcast and contacts Louie’s parents about it. To prove the broadcast isn’t fake Louie tells his family to take care of his guns because Louie likes to hunt and the Japanese wouldn’t have known that information. Louie’s parents finally know he is still alive.