This week, I want to focus on a particular veteran, one who has had an enormous impact on the world and me personally. His name is Louis Zamperini. Many people may already be familiar with this name, having either known him personally, read his books, attended his lectures, seen the movies and documentaries, or seen his incredible running records. His story, as Laura Hillenbrand wrote in his biography, is one of survival, resilience, and redemption. This man has arguably lived two or three lifetimes as you will soon read. Though he has passed away, his story is one that needs to be heard as it has already inspired so many and I see it as my personal mission to ensure that such stories never die. I will make a shameless plug right off the bat: I cannot recommend the books about him or by him highly enough; “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, “Devil at my Heels” and “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In” by Louis Zamperini. Please find these and read more about the incredible man whose story I can merely outline here.
Louie was born January 26, 1917, to Italian immigrant parents and lived an ostentatious childhood filled with petty theft. He was the boy terror of Torrance, California. A one boy insurgency. If it was edible, he stole it. He was smoking by age five and drinking by age eight. He was constantly in trouble or hurt and thrilled by crashing boundaries and seeing what he could get away with. It is a testament to the type of life he lead, as a young, Depression era kid, that each of his stories seemed to end with, “And then I ran like mad!”
In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him (page 7).
His brother Pete, who always saw the best in him, started rehabilitating him, to save him from himself. He saw potential in Louie’s getaway speed and began to hone it. He joined the track team and began to see that he could earn recognition, not through punishment and crime, but through excelling in something. For him, it was running. He gave up drinking and smoking to expand his lung capacity. He broke every mile record and set many other records in other distances. He became the youngest distance runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics at 19. Instead of running the 1,500 meter, as the mile was not yet an Olympic distance race, he raced in the 5,000 meter, a race he had only run four times in his life before the Olympics. (It’s a long story as to why, so again, read the book.) Where the mile is four laps of the track, the 5,000 meter is well over twelve laps, what Louie would describe as a “fifteen minute torture chamber.”
Louie Zamperini was on his way to Germany to compete in the Olympics in an event that he had only contested four times. He was the youngest distance runner to ever make the team” (page 28) Though he didn’t win, he did run the fastest final lap ever recorded which earned him honor and fame to bring home as well as a handshake from Hitler himself. “In distance running in the 1930s, it was exceptionally rare for a man to run a last lap in one minute. This rule held even in the comparatively short hop of a mile: In the three fastest miles ever run, the winner’s final lap had been clocked at 61.2, 58.9, and 59.1 seconds, respectively. No lap in those three historic performances had been faster than 58.9. In the 5,000, well over three miles, turning a final lap in less than 70 seconds was a monumental feat. In his 1932 Olympic 5,000 victory, in which he clocked a record breaking final time, Lehtinen [of Finland] spun his last lap in 69.2 seconds. Louie had run his last lap in 56 seconds (page 36).
Louie felt as though Berlin were just his warm-up, his introduction to competing against the best in the world. So, he hadn’t expected to win. He shaped his aspirations around the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. He and his brother both thought he was capable of taking gold with a few more years of experience. He would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile, had the world not erupted into war in 1939.
Louie had an interest in airplanes and had heard that if he joined the military before the draft was enacted, he could choose his branch of service, and so, in 1940, he was commissioned into the Army Air Corp as a lieutenant after Officers Candidate School. He was assigned to a B-24 Consolidated Liberator as a bombardier and his records place him as one of the best in the service. After nearly a year and a half of training in Texas, Washington, and California, he and his crew, including his good friend and pilot Russell Allen Phillips, whom Louie called “Phil,” were stationed in Hawaii. They flew several successful combat missions over the Pacific Ocean, once bringing their plane, Superman, back so badly shot up, that the ground crew counted 594 holes, some of the worst damage yet seen on a plane that had miraculously returned safely to base. They would never fly in Superman again.
There are some truly stunning statistics about flying during WWII:
In World War II, 35,933 AAF (Army Air Force) planes were lost in combat and accidents. The surprise of the attrition rate is that only a fraction of the ill-fated planes were lost in combat. In 1943 in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater in which Phil’s crew served, for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents. Over time, combat took a greater toll, but combat losses never overtook non combat losses.
As planes went, so went men. In the air corps, 35,946 personnel died in nonbattle situations, the vast majority of them in accidental crashes. Even in combat, airmen appear to have been more likely to die from accidents than combat itself. A report issued by the AAF surgeon general suggests that in the Fifteenth Air Force, between November 1, 1943, and May 25, 1945, 70 percent of men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action (page 84).
On May 27, 1943, Louie and his crew were called to perform a routine search and rescue mission for a B-24 that had gone down the night before. Since they did not have a plane, they were assigned to the Green Hornet, a plane that was notorious for having issues and had been stripped of many parts to use on other, better planes. It was still certified to fly, but the crew did an extra inspection to ensure the survival gear and rafts were on board. En route to their search coordinates, they experienced engine failure and crashed, leaving only three out of eleven survivors. Incredibly, Louie survived the crash, even though he had been thrown into the gun mount, snarled in wires, and dragged down with the plane most likely close to 100 feet below the surface. He blacked out at about 30 feet, but when he woke, he was inexplicably untangled and able to swim out of the fuselage toward the surface, cutting his hand and back badly on the way out. He did not know it at the time, but he was hurt much more seriously than that. When he had been thrown into the gun mount, he had broken all his ribs. When he made it to the surface, found the other survivors, Phil and a man called “Mac,” and the rafts, he took stock of the supplies: Several Ration D chocolate bars, which Mac ate all of on the first night in an act of panic while the others slept, a few half-pint tins of water, a brass mirror, a flare gun, sea dye, a set of fishhooks and spool of fishing line, air pumps, and a patch kit. That was it. Later in the war, this would be revised, but it made no difference for them. The loss of the chocolate bars was only mildly worrying at first, because they hoped to be rescued later that same day of the crash or the next, however, the search and rescue rate was abysmal at best, boasting perhaps 13% rescue of all men that had gone down at sea. Louie and Phil survived 47 days at sea with grossly inadequate supplies. Mac lasted 33 days before passing away at sea. What survival ultimately came down to were the men’s attitudes. Louie and Phil would quiz each other to keep their minds sharp. Mac usually sat in silence.
Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling (page 155).
Louie and Phil hold the record for survival in an inflatable life raft with little to no provisions at sea. They drifted some 2,000 miles. Not only that, but they were surrounded by sharks all day and night and were even strafed by a Japanese plane in an act of sadism. They had no food and no water after the third day. They were able to fish and, miraculously, when they prayed for water, it rained. Every time.
They spotted land on the forty-sixth day and drifted closer; they had little strength for much else and knew that the islands they drifted towards were controlled by Japan. By the forty-seventh day, they were paddling slowly closer to an uninhabited island and had almost reached it, when they were spotted by a Japanese ship and taken captive. They were weighed before being sent to Kwajalein (which had earned a reputation to Allied soldiers as “Execution Island.”) The Japanese were infamously horrific and sadistic, performing some of the most brutal war crimes in history (though interestingly enough, much of this is left out of history books. My first exposure to it was this book which is a crime in and of itself. The men of the Pacific Theatre were forgotten during the war, we cannot let what they suffered be forgotten even after.) The Japanese POW camp network would resonate across history as a supreme example of cruelty. Louie had previously weighed about 155 lbs. According to different accounts, 5’10” Louie now weighed 67 lbs, 79.5 lbs, or 87 lbs. Whatever the exact number, he had lost about half of his body weight or more.
First, Louie suffered on Kwajalein, where he was subjected to beatings, humiliation, interrogation, and medical experimentation. His execution date had been set, but because of his fame as an Olympic runner, they decided to use him instead for propaganda, though he was unaware of this at the time and for many months into his captivity. He was shipped to a POW camp in Tokyo and was interned at several, Ofuna, Omori, and Naoetsu, under many brutal guards, but one guard would stand out amongst the rest for his sadistic, obsessive, aggression toward Louie: Mutsuhiro Watanabe. They called him “the Bird.” He was renowned for his brutality and erratic behavior. This man would dedicate himself to shattering Louie. He tortured and tormented him relentlessly, beating him with his fists, feet, clubs, and belts. The Bird always knew where to find Louie, no matter where he tried to conceal himself; he would come flying at him from out of nowhere or track him down in a crowd and find some excuse to beat him. Louie was being driven to madness, his nerves shot, as he always wondered when the Bird would pounce and attack him. He could not even escape him in his dreams. He had constant nightmares that would plague him for years.
But if physical abuse was not enough, one of the most horrible things about the prison camp was the humiliation. Each man was made to feel less than human and this would leave a lasting impression on them and would affect many of them for the rest of their lives. They were forced into labor, many times working to exhaustion or death. They were given substandard food and water, if any at all. The guards often stole the food rations to eat themselves. Dysentery and beriberi ran rampant throughout the camps. These men were made to suffer some of the most horrific conditions seen in the Second World War. Many did not survive. Those that did were emaciated; living skeletons.
In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are the untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered with the world never learning their fate (pages 320-322).
But the most important part of Louie’s story is not all that he suffered, it is the ending. It is how he survived and even thrived when many other veterans were affected by these abuses for the rest of their lives. When Louie returned to the States, it seemed for all the world that he was unaffected, but there was a darkness behind his eyes. He had been badly injured and his body ravaged by a long war. He could no longer run: that avenue of release had been taken from him. He became famous, not only because he was a known Olympian, but because of his incredible survival story. He was constantly invited to speak for events and regale crowds with his story. No one thought for an instant that he didn’t want to speak about his experiences and all the friends he had watched die, reliving his own personal nightmare every evening. He was suffering from PTSD, which had recently been diagnosed, so it was hard for people to understand what he was going through. He had been humiliated, beaten, starved, and therefore suffered from a number of symptoms including incredibly vivid flashbacks.
While trying to escape the war, he met a young woman, Cynthia, and they married in a haze of forbidden, summer love. They had known each other for less than 6 months. She was marrying a stranger in many very real ways. Louie clung to her promise that her love would make him forget the war. But he was beginning to fall apart. He began drinking, but nothing could dull the nightmares. One night, he dreamed of strangling the Bird and woke to find that he was strangling his newly pregnant wife.
Then, in September of 1949, a young man came to LA. His name was Billy Graham. He had come for a three-week campaign to bring LA to Christ. The campaign started slowly, but then began to gain so much momentum, that they extended their stay. Thousands packed in to hear him speak every night, and he knew the Lord was working.
Louie wanted nothing to do with it. He was angry at God for what had happened in his life and had murderous thoughts of returning to Japan and killing the Bird swirling in his head. He and Cynthia had been having marital issues and she had threatened to leave him…that was until she attended Billy Graham’s conference. She came back glowing with forgiveness and tried to convince Louie to go, knowing it would heal him and change him. Louie eventually gave in and attended one night. And in that night, his whole life was changed. He accepted Christ and instantly, he would no longer struggle with nightmares, flashbacks, or any other symptom of PTSD. For the rest of his years, he worked to improve the lives of those around him. He continued to speak at events, but this time with no fear in his delivery. He had a message to share. He built a camp where delinquent boys would come and learn skills and enjoy hiking, rock climbing, and camping away from the city that was all they had known. In the 1950’s, Louie finally made a trip back to Japan, but not to murder the Bird, as had been his plan before he was saved, but to visit the prison where all the guards were now being held, and many had been executed, for war crimes. He had come to see the faces of these men and see if his healing held. He was able to meet each man….and forgive them—shake their hand. The only man who refused to meet with him was the Bird. He had been on the run until the warrant for his arrest had been lifted. He had even faked his death to escape the consequences of his crimes, which he never owned up to.
Louie’s life, with its athletic feats, air combat, plane crash, shark attacks, strafing, years as a POW, and slavery, and salvation is truly singular. But as unique and dramatic as it is, his story offers lessons that can guide those of us who lead much more ordinary lives. It stands as a testament to the breadth of the realm of possibility, demonstrating that with perseverance, courage, and resourcefulness we can prevail over hardships we imagined were insurmountable. And it demonstrates both the corrosive, life-consuming nature of bitterness and the transcendent liberation and peace that are the gifts of forgiveness. An odyssey of exceptional hardship, pain, trial, and triumph, Louie’s life is like no other, yet it carries lessons that speak to all of us. His legacy has outlived him not only in his children and grandchildren, but in the millions of lives he has touched. He is truly and inspiration.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. Random House, 2010.