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U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini’s plane goes down in the Pacific

U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini’s plane goes down in the Pacific


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On May 27, 1943, a B-24 carrying U.S. airman and former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini crashes into the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps. His story of survival was featured in the 2010 best-selling book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, where he was frequently in trouble with the law. As a teen, he channeled his energy into athletics and became a champion distance runner. At age 19, Zamperini competed for the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. He ran the 5,000-meter race and finished in eighth place; however, his fast final lap caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who later asked to shake Zamperini’s hand. After the Olympics, he was a record-setting standout on the University of Southern California’s track team.

In the fall of 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was eventually stationed in Hawaii. In May 1943, he was serving as the bombardier on a B-24 that was searching for a missing plane when his own aircraft developed mechanical problems and went down in the Pacific. Of the 11 people onboard, only the 26-year-old Zamperini, along with the pilot and the tail gunner survived the initial crash. The three men stayed alive in their small raft by drinking rainwater and eating the occasional seabirds and fish they were able to catch, all while facing strafing from Japanese bombers and the ever-present threat of shark attacks. After a month at sea, Francis McNamara, the tail gunner, perished. On their 47th day in the raft, Zamperini and fellow survivor Russell Allen Phillips, having drifted some 2,000 miles since the crash, were picked up by Japanese sailors.

For more than two years, the two men were held in a series of prison camps, where they were repeatedly beaten and starved. As an ex-Olympian, Zamperini was considered a propaganda tool by the Japanese and saved from execution; at the same time, however, he was singled out for particularly vicious forms of torture. The defiant American managed to survive and was released after the war ended in 1945.

Back home in California, Zamperini drank heavily and was haunted by his experiences in captivity. Then, after being inspired by evangelist Billy Graham to convert to Christianity in 1949, Zamperini went on to become an inspirational speaker, forgive his captors and publish an autobiography, Devil at my Heels. A wider audience learned about his life with the publication of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the 2001 best-seller Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about the Depression-era champion racehorse.

Zamperini died in July 2014, in Los Angeles. He was 97.

READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About Louis Zamperini


Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini was a World War II veteran and Olympic distance runner. Zamperini competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was set to compete again in the 1940 games in Tokyo, which were canceled when World War II broke out. A bombardier in the Army Air Corps, Zamperini was in a plane that went down, and when he arrived on shore in Japan 47 days later, he was taken as a prisoner of war and tortured for two years. After his release, Zamperini became an inspirational figure, and his life served as the basis for the 2014 biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.


Louis Zamperini memorial held in Torrance

TORRANCE, Calif. (KABC) -- Louis Zamperini, an Olympic star and World War II hero profiled in the book and film "Unbroken," was celebrated by thousands at a memorial service on Thursday.

Torrance High School's Louis Zamperini Stadium hosted the tribute to its namesake. The service featured a military fly-over and a ceremonial run by the Torrance High track team.

Zamperini's son, Luke, told the crowd that the turnout was overwhelming.

"Wow! What an honor and a privilege to be here with you," he said.

Zamperini's life story is one of survival and renewal.

"Everything happened to him: beauty and terror. He just kept going," said chaplain Dan Hudson.

Back in the 1930s, Zamperini set a national record for running the mile while a student at Torrance High School.

He'd go on to USC where he was such a standout, he earned a spot in the 1936 Olympic games in Munich.

Zamperini ran so quickly, the host of the games asked to meet him. Then, Zamperini was taken to shake the hand of Adolf Hitler.

Afterwards, Zamperini stole a Nazi flag.

Four years later, Zamperini didn't have the chance to return to Olympic competition. He was fighting in World War II instead.

Zamperini's plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. Somehow, Zamperini survived on the open water with few supplies for 47 days.

The U.S. military believed Zamperini was dead. President Franklin D. Roosevelt informed his parents that he'd died in the war.

They didn't know that Zamperini was alive but very weak. He was found by the Japanese and captured. The Japanese held him in a prisoner of war camp for two years.

Bill Sanchez was held alongside Zamperini as a POW. He said Zamperini was targeted for extra torture because of his Olympic star status.

"People will never know what Louis went through, he suffered a lot," Sanchez said.

Eventually, Zamperini would return to the United States as a war hero. But, he struggled to cope with his new life and became an alcoholic.

Zamperini said his life turned around when he became a born again Christian. The teachings of Billy Graham were especially influential.

Zamperini would go on to support Victory Boys camp, a place where young addicts can receive treatment.

Kyle Gauthier said attending the camp six months ago changed his life.

"Without Louis, I don't think I would have ever gone to that school and I would either be in jail, rehab or a mental institution," he said.

Zamperini's life story was featured in the best-selling book "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. Angelina Jolie is now turning the story into a movie.

During the filming process, Jolie and Zamperini developed a close relationship.

"Angelina, she's our angel. And she was an angel to our father," said Zamperini's daughter, Cynthia Zamperini-Garris. "She has a vision and passion that I don't think we could find in any other director."

The film is set to open on Christmas Day. Zamperini's family is disappointed he won't be able to walk down the red carpet at the premiere.

Zamperini was also set to serve as grand marshal for the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena on New Year's Day. Parade officials said they will not name a new grand marshal, but will honor Zamperini on January 1.

Zamperini's family is still devastated by his loss but grateful for all the support from the community at the memorial.

"To see this turn out, it means everything to my dad and my family," said Zamperini-Garris.


Unbroken (2014)

Yes. The Unbroken true story reveals that, like in the movie, the real Louis Zamperini had a knack for getting into trouble when he was growing up. Some of his early antics included jumping from the caboose of a train when his family was on their way to California. He also had a penchant for stealing and fighting. He started smoking at age five, picking up discarded cigarette butts while walking to kindergarten. He began drinking when he was eight, hiding under the dinner table sipping glasses of wine. -Unbroken book

His brother Pete thought that getting Louis involved in the high school track team would be a good way for him to embrace something other than mischief. "Pete told me I had to quit drinking and smoking if I wanted to do well," Louis told Running Times Magazine, "and that I had to run, run, run." Pete was already a star on the team. "I decided that summer to go all out. Overnight I became fanatical. I wouldn't even have a milkshake."

Did Louis Zamperini meet Adolf Hitler?

Did Louie's brother really tell him, "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory"?

Yes. However, unlike the movie, Louie's brother Pete told him this as they sat on their bed years earlier, not right before Louie left for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Louie did remember Pete's words during his race, which helped him to achieve the 56-second final lap in the men's 5000-meter event. The book states the phrase as, "A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain."

Exactly how many men died when the B-24 bomber Louie was on crashed?

The B-24 Liberator bomber Louie was on, nicknamed The Green Hornet, had a history of mechanical issues. "The plane was used for salvaging parts from it," Louie said in a CBN interview. "We were reluctant to take it, but they said it passed inspection and it should be alright." On May 27, 1943, while on a search mission for a lost aircraft and crew, the bomber succumbed to its mechanical woes. Its two left engines cut out, and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean 850 miles south of Oahu, Hawaii, killing eight of the eleven men on board. In addition to Zamperini, pilot Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips and tail gunner Francis "Mac" McNamara survived the crash. -Unbroken book

Did one of the crash survivors really eat all of the chocolate?

Yes. Our investigation into the Unbroken true story confirmed that, in an act of panic, tail gunner Francis "Mac" McNamara ate all of the chocolate bars (approximately 6) as the other men slept in the two rafts during the first night. This ruined Louie's plan to allot each man one square of chocolate in the morning and one in the evening, which would last them a few days. Mac had been at his wits end the day before, and Louie had to slap him across the face with the back of his hand to stop him from wailing, "We're going to die!" Louie was disappointed in Mac over the chocolate but figured they would be rescued soon anyway. -Unbroken book

Did they really spot a rescue plane the day after the crash?

How long did Louis Zamperini spend stranded at sea on the raft?

After his plane went down in the Pacific Ocean on May 27, 1943, the real Louis Zamperini spent 47 days stranded at sea on the life raft. Like in the movie, tail gunner Francis McNamara survived 33 days on the raft, eventually succumbing to dehydration and starvation. Zamperini and pilot Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips were picked up by the Japanese on July 13, 1943 (approx.), just before reaching an atoll in the Marshall Islands. They had drifted approximately 2,000 miles. -Unbroken book

Did they really catch and eat an albatross raw?

Yes. According to the Unbroken movie true story, the men first killed an albatross that landed on the raft. They cut it open but the stench was so bad they couldn't get the meat into their mouths without gagging. Instead, they used it as bait to catch small fish. "The next thing you know another albatross landed," said Louie, "and I told the guys, 'We got to try to eat it.' So this one, we devoured it like a hot fudge sundae, you know, it was just delicious" (CBN). In Laura Hillenbrand's book, Louie says that the second albatross didn't smell as bad when they cut it open, but they did have to force the meat down.

Were Louis Zamperini and his fellow survivors bombarded by sharks?

Yes. Starting the first day on the raft, sharks were a constant nuisance. They were so close at times that the men would only have to reach out their hands to touch them. Louie described them as varying between six feet and more than twenty feet long (the latter being a great white shark). The three men could feel tremors from the predators rubbing their backs along the bottom of the rafts. The sharks slapped the rafts with their tails, rammed into them, splashed water onto the men, and even jumped at them. The men smacked the sharks away with oars or their bare hands.

Like in the movie, they caught a small shark and killed it, cutting it open with the edge of a mirror and eating the liver for food (the only edible part). They were able to do this twice, after which no more small sharks came around. -Unbroken book

Did a Japanese bomber really shoot at the life raft?

Had Louis Zamperini really been declared KIA?

Yes. First he was declared missing at sea, and then on May 28, 1944, a year and a day after his plane crashed, he was mistakenly declared KIA (killed in action). The following month Louie's parents received a death certificate signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"In grateful memory of First Lieutenant Louis S. Zamperini, A.S. No. 0-663341, who died in the service of his country in the Central Pacific Area, May 28, 1944. He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives -- in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men." -The New York Times

How much did Louie weigh at the end of the 47 days stranded on the raft?

Both Louis Zamperini and pilot Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips lost half their body weight or more. Prior to crashing at sea, Louie's last recorded body weight was 155 pounds. Upon their capture by the Japanese, Louie weighed 67, 79.5, or 87 pounds, depending on the source. "When they first put us in a cell, I just looked down at my knees, my bones, and my skin, and I just started crying. Now, here I'm an athlete, I remember myself when I was a powerful, physical athlete, and now I'm just skin and bone and a skeleton, that's all, and that brought tears to my eyes." -60 Minutes

Were Louie and Phil really taken to "Execution Island"?

Yes. The Unbroken movie true story verifies that they were taken to the atoll of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. It was nicknamed "Execution Island" due to the fact that nine marines had already been beheaded there. "They took great joy in telling us we were going to be executed," Zamperini told 60 Minutes, "and they'd always go through the motion, you know, samurai sword [swipes hand across neck] and so forth. . Every morning we woke up and we expected, well this is the day, this is the day they're going to kill us."

Were conditions in the POW cells really as bad as in the movie?

Yes. In a lot of ways, the real-life experiences were much worse. "The worst part I think about being in the cell was [Japanese] submarines," Louie revealed in a CBN interview. "A submarine came in and of course, they never see prisoners. So, they can't wait, so they line up in front of your cell, 75, 80 men lined up like going to a movie premiere. And every one of them is either swearing at ya, throwing rocks at ya, or jabbing ya with sticks, spitting on ya. You know, and here you are 65 pounds, you got constant diarrhea, your starved, they throw a rice ball, they don't give it to ya. It falls on the floor. You have to spend hours picking up every grain of rice mixed in with the dirt. It just seemed like that line would never end."

On three occasions, Louie was injected and used as a guinea pig for medical experiments. He had to describe to his captors what the injection was doing to his body. Louie said that he experienced dizziness and prickly spots all over his body. They only stopped when he told them that he was on the verge of passing out. -CBN

Was the Japanese prison guard known as "The Bird" based on a real person?

Yes. Louis Zamperini met Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka "The Bird") at the Omori POW camp located on an island in Tokyo Bay. When Watanabe was transferred to Naoetsu, the most hellish POW camp in Japan, Louis Zamperini was eventually transferred there too as punishment for not doing the Radio Tokyo propaganda broadcast. Prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe was so relentless in his torture of the POWs that it left Louis with nightmares and constant dread.

"I wasn't given military orders," said the real Mutsuhiro Watanabe in a 1998 interview. "Because of my own personal feelings, I treated the prisoners strictly as enemies of Japan. Zamperini was well known to me. If he says he was beaten by Watanabe, then such a thing probably occurred at the camp, if you consider my personal feelings at the time." -CBS Sports

Coming from a wealthy Japanese family of high pedigree, Corporal Watanabe, who had a privileged upbringing, felt humiliated and disgraced when his application to become an officer was rejected. This infuriated him and made him bitterly jealous of officers, including Louis Zamperini. It is believed that this was part of the reason for his cruelty. In 1945, Mutsuhiro Watanabe was ranked number 23 on General Douglas MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. However, he went into hiding for seven years and never ended up being prosecuted. -Unbroken book

Was "The Bird" really as deranged as he is in the movie?

Yes. Japanese prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka "The Bird") would beat a POW for hours and then moments later he would hug him and give the POW beer, handfuls of candy, and cigarettes. Watanabe would then cry and promise to never mistreat another prisoner. Hours later, he would return to club the POWs. The camp accountant, Yuicho Hatto, stated that Watanabe was a sexual sadist who freely admitted that beating prisoners satisfied his sexual desires. -Unbroken book

As the book states, "Watanabe beat POWs every day, fracturing their windpipes, rupturing their eardrums, shattering their teeth, tearing one man's ear half off, leaving men unconscious. . He ordered one man to report to him to be punched in the face every night for three weeks. He practiced judo on an appendectomy patient." As he unleashed his madness, Watanabe would howl, drool and sometimes cry. Just before he went into a violent rage, his right eyelid would sag.

Did the Japanese really tear Commander Fitzgerald's fingernails off?

Was Louie really forced to race at the POW camp?

Yes, and like in the Unbroken movie, Louie was trounced in his race against a Japanese runner who had been brought in to the camp. The guards mocked Louie and his own frailty scared him. However, this wasn't his only race at the camp. The following spring a Japanese civilian was brought in and Louie beat him as his fellow captives cheered. He was clubbed in the head for winning but said it was worth it. He threw a third race against yet another Japanese runner, only after the runner told him in English that he wanted to impress his girlfriend who had come to watch. He promised Louie a rice ball and ended up giving him two. -Unbroken book

Was Louie defiant like in the movie?

Yes, and like in the Unbroken movie, the true story confirms that this infuriated guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka "The Bird"), who gave Louie daily beatings. Louie was eventually knocked down by The Bird, but only because, as depicted in the movie, The Bird cracked Louie so hard in the left temple with a belt buckle that Louie's legs collapsed underneath him. The beatings left Louie deaf in his left ear for several weeks. -Unbroken book

Did Louie really refuse to read a propaganda message on Radio Tokyo?

Yes. Like in the movie, the real Louis Zamperini was at first allowed to read his own message on Radio Tokyo, in which he included information about fellow POWs so that their families would know they were still alive too. Louie's message is read near verbatim in the movie by actor Jack O'Connell, "Hello mother and father, relatives and friends. This is your Louie talking. . I am now interned in the Tokyo prisoners' camp and am being treated as well as can be expected under war time conditions. " The latter, of course, was a lie.

Louie was then asked to do a second broadcast. Unlike the movie, this did not happen immediately following the first broadcast. He was sent back to the camp for a period of time before they invited him back to the radio station. He wrote his own message again, but at the last minute, they gave him a prewritten one filled with propaganda. Like in the movie, Louis Zamperini refused to read it, and he had finally realized why he had never been killed earlier. The Japanese saw an American Olympian as a valuable asset. They just needed to weaken him a bit first. It explained why he wasn't beheaded on "Execution Island" and why he was sent to Omori under the ruthless guard Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe.

Similar to the movie, Louie was given a tasty American-style meal. He was also introduced to a group of American and Australian POWs, who were obeying the Japanese and working as propagandists. Louie tried to shake their hands, but they were too ashamed to make eye contact with him.

Did Zamperini's fellow POWs take turns punching him in the face?

Did Louie's tormentor really force him to hold a beam in the air?

Yes. First, Mutsuhiro Watanabe tried to pin a goat's death on Louis Zamperini, then he set out to punish Louis for going to the camp doctor without permission for severe dysentery. He made Louis hold a six-foot long wooden beam above his head, telling another guard to hit Louis with his gun if he lowered his arms. This differs from the movie, which has Watanabe telling the guard to shoot Louis if he drops the beam. At first, Watanabe mocked Louis and laughed, but as time ticked by, he realized that his punishment had turned into a moment of defiance for Louis. After holding the beam aloft for 37 minutes, Watanabe charged Louis and punched him in the stomach. The beam fell and struck Louis in the head, momentarily knocking him out. This differs from the movie, in which Watanabe continues to beat Louis after the beam falls. -Unbroken book

Did Louie really promise to dedicate his whole life to God if he survived?

Did Japanese Nationalists really ask for Unbroken to be banned from their country?

Yes. Japanese nationalists were upset over the way Unbroken portrays the Japanese guards as being ruthless and abusive, saying, "This movie has no credibility and is immoral." However, there is plenty of documentation and forensic evidence to back up the movie. Earlier this year, The Railway Man also depicted the horrors endured by POWs who were held by the Japanese, with one Japanese guard spending a lifetime atoning for his actions during WWII. -EW.com

Did Louis Zamperini ever meet his tormentor "The Bird" again?

No. The real Louis Zamperini was in Japan in 1998 to carry the Olympic torch in Nagano to celebrate the start of the Winter Games. He requested to meet with Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka "The Bird"), but his former tormentor declined the meeting. Zamperini had even prepared a letter to give to Watanabe, which in part stated, ". I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, 'Forgive your enemies and pray for them.'" -Unbroken book

This outcome differs from British POW Eric Lomax's story told in The Railway Man movie, which finds Lomax confronting his former Japanese tormentor years later. However, in that case, Lomax's tormentor had already spent years atoning for his actions.

Dive deeper into the Unbroken true story with the interviews below, including a candid Louis Zamperini interview and a short documentary that features the rare Mutsuhiro Watanabe interview.

In this Louis Zamperini interview, the Olympian/POW recalls meeting Adolf Hitler, surviving at sea, and becoming a POW. The interview follows the events in the movie. Zamperini also discusses life after he returned home, including turning to drinking and discovering Christ, the moment his ongoing nightmares of his tormentor, the Bird, ended.

This CBS Sports documentary on Louis Zamperini features the rare Mutsuhiro Watanabe interview (aka "The Bird"). It was produced by CBS Sports as part of their coverage of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Zamperini and his story are featured first. The Bird interview starts at the 30:20 mark.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics in February, a special trailer for Unbroken aired, which splices together footage from the movie with pictures and interview clips of the real Olympian and prisoner of war survivor Louis Zamperini. Director Angelina Jolie is also featured.

Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's book of the same name and directed by Angelina Jolie from a script by the Coen brothers, Unbroken tells the story of Olympian and WWII hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini, whose B-24 suffered mechanical difficulties and went down over the Pacific Ocean, leaving him stranded at sea. He was captured by the Japanese and held in an internment camp until the end of the war. Louis Zamperini died on July 2, 2014 at age 97.

This is the Unbroken Trailer 2 for the movie that chronicles the life of Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell). Along with two other crewmen, Zamperini survived in a life raft for 47 days after a plane crash in World War II&mdashonly to be picked up by the Japanese Navy and put in a prisoner-of-war camp.


Zamperini, WWII hero and Olympian, dies

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Seventy years ago, the world was convinced that Louis Zamperini was dead. There had been no word of the track star and former Olympian since his World War II bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The military told his parents he was dead, and an annual collegiate track competition named one of its races in his memory.

But Zamperini was alive, and very much so. After surviving 47 days in a life raft in shark-infested waters and enduring two years as a Japanese prisoner of war, Zamperini was liberated in time to attend the second running of the invitational mile that had been named in his memory. It was a story fitting for a man who lived a life on the edge of endurance, an ordinary man who did extraordinary things - all while sustained by a hope and strength that at times seemed superhuman.

Zamperini, a war hero, Olympian and the subject of a celebrated book and upcoming movie on his harrowing story of survival against all odds, died after a long battle with pneumonia, his family said Thursday in a statement. He was 97.

Zamperini outlived almost all of those who watched him weave his way through his remarkable life, but the outpouring from those who came to know and love the man in his later years was as immediate and intense as the life he lived.

Zamperini is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling bookUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which is being made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and is scheduled for a December release by Universal.

Hillenbrand said over countless hours of interviews Zamperini became a surrogate grandfather and beloved friend who helped her cope with her own debilitating illness, chronic fatigue syndrome.

"In a life of almost unimaginable drama, he experienced supreme triumphs, but also brutal hardship, incomprehensible suffering, and the cruelty of his fellow man. But Louie greeted every challenge of his long journey with singular resilience, determination and ingenuity, with a ferocious will to survive and prevail, and with hope that knew no master," said Hillenbrand.

"His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow."

Jolie echoed those sentiments Thursday.

"It is a loss impossible to describe," she said in a statement. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly."

Born on Jan. 26, 1917, Zamperini's larger-than-life story began with a blue-collar upbringing in Olean, a city in western New York. When he was 2, the family moved to Southern California, where he spent a rebellious childhood before channeling his energy and tenacity into sports. He started with boxing, to defend himself from bullies, but quickly became a world-class runner after joining his high school track team.

In 1934, Zamperini - nicknamed the "Torrance Tornado" for his hometown of Torrance, California - broke the 18-year-old interscholastic record for the mile in 4:21.2, a mark that would stand for 20 years.

A track star at the University of Southern California, Zamperini competed in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished eighth but caught attention by running the final lap in 56 seconds - and grabbed headlines by stealing a Nazi flag.

But it was Zamperini's incredible World War II story that captured the imagination of millions back home.

He was a bombardier on a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean during a reconnaissance mission. He and one of the other surviving crew members drifted for 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters, drinking rain water and eating fish and birds they caught with their bare hands, before being captured by Japanese forces. A third man died before they reached land.

"Forty-seven days in a raft, you learn the value of water more than anything in the world," he told the AP in a 2003 interview. "We prayed for rain to have something to drink. When you're hungry, you eat anything. We caught a shark. We caught an albatross that tasted like a hot fudge sundae."

When he and his surviving raft-mate, pilot Russell Allen Phillips, reached land on the Marshall Islands, they were captured by the Japanese, who had also strafed their raft from the air and riddled it with bullet holes.

"I thought to myself, 'Six weeks ago, I was a world-class athlete,'" he said in that interview. "And then, for the first time in my life, I cried."

Zamperini would spend more than two years as a prisoner of war being shuttled among Japanese prison camps, where he survived beatings, starvation, debilitating illnesses and psychological torture designed to break him down and make an example of the famous Olympian-turned-war hero.

When he was liberated at the end of the war, he was a changed man and wrestled with rage, depression and alcoholism that almost cost him his marriage.

"Pain never bothered me," told the AP in 2003. "Destroying my dignity stuck with me."

Several years after his return, Zamperini attended one of Billy Graham's early revivals in Los Angeles and embraced Christianity - a faith that would sustain him for the rest of his life.

Years later, Zamperini wrote a letter of forgiveness to one of his most horrific tormentors, a guard the other prisoners nicknamed "The Bird."

In 1998, he went back to Japan to run a leg of the torch relay at the Nagano Olympics and ran past the former camps where he had been imprisoned.

"Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness," Hillenbrand, his biographer, said Thursday.

In May, Zamperini was named grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, which on next New Year's Day will feature the theme "Inspiring Stories."

In accepting the honor, Zamperini, wearing a USC cap, recalled that Hillenbrand, in researching the book, asked to interview his friends from college and the Army.

"And now after the book was finished all of my college buddies are dead, all of my war buddies are dead. It's sad to realize that you've lost all your friends," he said. "But I think I made up for it. I made a new friend - Angelina Jolie. And the gal really loves me, she hugs me and kisses me, so I can't complain."

He was a guest of Jolie last year when she was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A group in Olean, Zamperini's birthplace, is raising funds to place a granite marker in Zamperini's honor in War Veterans Park in August.

Zamperini Field, a city-owned public airport in Torrance, is also named in his honor. A stadium at Torrance High School and the entrance plaza at USC's track and field stadium both bear his name.

His wife, Cynthia Applewhite, whom he married in 1946, died in 2001. His survivors include daughter Cynthia, son Luke and grandchildren.


Contents

Inspired by the story Come on SeaBiscuit in childhood, as an adult Hillenbrand wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001). While researching that novel, Hillenbrand came across a 1938 newspaper article about Louis Zamperini. The discovery led Hillenbrand to tell the story of Louis Zamperini's experience as a prisoner of war (POW) during World War II. “Unbroken” (2010) became a New York Times Bestseller [ citation needed ] and formed the basis for a feature film.

Louis Zamperini grows up in a strict Christian home. In his youth he is a troublemaker in his hometown of Torrance, California. Louis steals and stashes food, liquor, and cigarettes. Louis is also bullied for his Italian background.

Louis is caught by law enforcement and returned to his family. Although his father disciplines him with beatings, Louis’ behavior does not improve.

Louis is led to pursue running by his older brother, Pete. Pete rides a bicycle alongside Louis as he runs home from school, ringing the bike bell as encouragement. This positive reinforcement changes Louis.

Louis joins his high school track team, begins to win races, and becomes known as the Torrance Tornado. Training at a college track facility, Louis becomes acquainted with James Sasaki, a man he presumes to be Japanese-American.

Louis earns a place on the U.S. Olympic Team to compete at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Pete walks Louis to the train station for his departure to Germany. At the station Louis says that this first Olympic Games will just be a “try-out” for the next Olympics 4 years later in Tokyo, Japan. Pete tells Louis to never forget that “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”.

At the Olympics, Louis participates in the opening ceremonies as the Olympic Torch is lit, and notices a Japanese contestant who politely nods at him. Competing in the 5,000 meter race against more experienced athletes, Louis first seems to fall behind. As the second lap bell rings, Louis remembers Pete’s words and rallies to place 8th with a time of 14 minutes, 46.8 seconds.

Louis’ running career ends abruptly as World War II begins. Louis enlists in the United States Army Air Corps where he becomes a bombardier. He is assigned to the Pacific theater to a squadron based in the Hawaiian Islands. Louis and his crew grow close during this time.

When Louis’ plane, the Super-Man, bombs a Japanese target, it is hit over five hundred times. Despite failed brakes, the crew is able to crash land at their air field. All but one of the crew survive the ordeal.

As he awaits his next mission, Louis continues to train, trying to beat his own record. His crew’s aircraft is replaced with a less reliable plane, the Green Hornet. While Louis’ crew understands that the Green Hornet is an unreliable plane, his superiors insist that it is flight worthy.

When his crew is assigned a search mission, Louis observes that their mission involves “a lot of ocean”. The Green Hornet crashes due to mechanical difficulties 850 miles (1,370 km) south of Oahu, killing eight of the 11 men aboard.

The survivors, Louis, Phil, and Mac, are wounded and face a grave future. Phil becomes seriously depressed. Mac goes through various mental breakdowns and eats all the chocolate rations.

The survivors also become creative, devising ways to obtain fresh water and food. After the first day at sea, they attempt to signal a plane with no luck. The men are able to capture an albatross. When they attempt to eat it, they become ill. Instead, they use the meat of the bird for fish bait. When they catch and eat a fish raw, Phil remarks that the Japanese eat their fish raw.

Aware of past records for survival at sea, the survivors carefully track the passage of time. Phil recalls that another air crew that was stranded at sea for 24 days. To pass time and maintain sanity, Louis talks about his mother’s cooking.

By Day 18, Louis and Phil both seriously question their unfortunate fate. During a terrible storm, Louis prays, promising God that he will dedicate his life to Him.

On their 28th day at sea, the survivors signal a plane. The enemy plane makes two strafing runs, damaging both life rafts. Louis and Phil manage to repair a life raft. Mac dies soon after.

Louie and Phil survive 46 days at sea and are captured by the Japanese. They are first taken to what is a small base camp, given an insufficient meal, and subjected to interrogation.

After a few days, both men are made to strip. Their guards hose them down and shave their hair in preparation for transfer to POW camps. Phil and Louis are separated. Placed on a bus blindfolded, Louis speaks to another POW named Tinker, Louis asks “Is this Tokyo, I’ve always wanted to go to Tokyo”. Tinker replies “Be careful what you wish for”.

At the POW camp, a camp leader nicknamed “The Bird” introduces himself to the new arrivals. The Bird states that the POWs are enemies of Japan and shall be treated accordingly. Louis glances at the Bird who then orders Louis to look at him but beats Louis whenever he does so.

In their barracks, the other POWs recognizes the wounds on Louis as the work of the Bird. The POWs explain that the nickname “The Bird” refers to their tormentor’s way of constantly watching and listening.

During one of their morning “trainings”, the Bird calls out Louis as an Olympic athlete and forces him to race against one of the camp guards. When the weakened Louis loses, he is beaten and called a failure in order to demoralize him.

In a talk with a senior POW, Louis expresses that he would rather be killed than watch others be tortured. The reply is that “the only way to beat them would be to make it out alive”.

Japanese officers tell Louis that everyone in America thinks he is dead. Louis is offered deal: in return for speaking on the radio to announce that he is alive and well, Louis could spend a day outside the camp. During this time Louis recognizes one of the Japanese officers as none other than James Sasaki, an acquaintance during training as a track athlete at a college in the USA.

After Louis goes through with the initial broadcast, the Japanese offer him an opportunity to take part in propaganda broadcasts in exchange for a more comfortable life outside of the camp. Louis experiences profound discomfort at the sight of other clean and well-dressed American personnel taking part in this kind of collaboration with the Japanese.

When Louis declines, he is sent back to the camp. The Bird sets out to punish Louis. One punishment involves other prisoners punching Louis in the face.

When the camp comes under attack, the prisoners are moved to a coal production facility and told to work or be killed. Louis spends weeks at the camp, but when he rests briefly, he is taken away to be punished.

The Bird orders Louis to hold a large beam over his head under threat of death. Louis endures for hours and stares down the Bird until the Bird snaps and severely beats Louis.

As the war comes to an end, the camp guards scatter and American planes drop food and other supplies to the POWs. Eventually, Louis returns to the United States. Upon his return to the United States, Louis kisses the ground.

Louis is reunited with his family. He meets Cynthia Applewhite they marry after knowing each other for two months. They have a daughter. However, traumatized by his wartime ordeal, without a career, and unable to pursue his love of running, Louis becomes an alcoholic. Cynthia seeks a divorce.

When evangelist Billy Graham comes to town, Cynthia convinces Louis to attend a revival meeting. There Louis recalls his bargain while lost at sea and the bargain that he made with God. Louis is inspired to turn his life around, which saves his marriage.

Over time, Louis forgives all who wronged him during WWII. Louis returns to Japan where he locates and makes peace with many of his former tormentors. When the Bird refuses to meet him, Louis sends him a letter to express his forgiveness.

Louis takes part in the torch relay for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Kyoto. As a gesture of reconciliation and resilience, Louis carries the torch past one of the locations where he was once imprisoned.

Louis Zamperini: Olympic middle distance runner (1936) who becomes a POW during World War II.

Pete Zamperini: Louis Zamperini's older brother, his role model and first running coach.

Louise Zamperini: Louis’ mother, who refuses to give up on Louis for dead.

Anthony Zamperini: Louis’ father, depicted as a disciplinarian.

Sylvia Zamperini: One of Louis’ two sisters.

Virginia Zamperini: One of Louis’ two sisters.

Glenn Cunningham: An athlete who serves as one of Louis’ biggest role models.

James Kunichi Sasaki: Sasaki is a Japanese man who becomes friends with Louis in the United States long before his POW capture. Dasani reappears at the Ofuna camp, as a head interrogator.

Russell Allen Phillips: Russell / “Phil”, a survivor of the Green Hornet crash alongside Louis and one of Louis’ best friends. Initially they were both imprisoned at Ofuna but Phil was relocated. He survives the war and marries.

Francis McNamara: Francis / “Mac”, the third survivor of the crash of the Green Hornet, buried at sea.

Gaga: Gaga was a pet duck of the Ofuna POWs killed by the guards.

The Quack: An unnamed Japanese officer who beats Bill Harris for creating a map of the camp and a Japanese-English dictionary.

William Harris: William / Bill, one of the first people Louis meets at Ofuna camp, known for his photographic memory and language skills.

Mutsuhiro Watanabe: known as “The Bird”, a sadistic guard at Ofuna, intent on breaking Louis down.

Cynthia Applewhite Zamperini: Louis’ wife, who meets Louis in Miami Beach after the war and marries him against the wishes of her parents after two months. Cynthia leads Louis to seek spiritual guidance when he succumbs to alcoholism.

Billy Graham: the evangelist who inspires Louis’ post-war spiritual reawakening that lifts him out of alcoholism and despair.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption was officially published on November 16, 2010 by Random House Publishing Group. Soon after its publication, the book was praised on the New York Times Bestseller list and remained on the list for a consecutive 160 weeks To this day the book has sold well over 4 million copies.

  • 2010 Publishers Weekly "Top 10 Best Books" [2]
  • 2010 The New York Times Best Seller list (Nonfiction) [3]
  • 2010 Time magazine's "Top 10 Nonfiction Books" (#1) [4]
  • 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist (Biography) [5]
  • 2011 Indies Choice Book Awards (Adult Non-Fiction) [6]
  • 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize shortlist [7]
  • 2012 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction longlist [8]

A feature film based on the book was adapted by Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures. Angelina Jolie directed this film while the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson wrote the screenplay. [9] Jack O'Connell portrays Louis Zamperini [10] and the film had its general release on Christmas, 2014. [11] [12]

A subsequent movie, Unbroken: Path to Redemption was made as a sequel in 2018 to this first movie, to less success than the first one.


More On This.

Zamperini enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor and was a pilot in World War II. He and his crew were searching for a downed B-25 when their plane crashed into the Pacific, killing eight of the 11 men.

He and one of the other surviving crew members drifted for 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters before being captured by Japanese forces. He spent more than two years as a prisoner of war, surviving torture.

Before joining the military, Zamperini was a runner at the University of Southern California. He ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, placing eighth in the mile, but caught attention by running the final lap in 56 seconds.

His story was told in "Unbroken," Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-seller, and is the subject of an Angelina Jolie-directed film by the same name being released in December.

"We are so profoundly sad at this moment and all of our thoughts and prayers are with the Zamperini family. Louis was truly one of a kind. He lived the most remarkable life, not because of the many unbelievable incidents that marked his near-century's worth of years, but because of the spirit with which he faced every one of them," Universal Pictures said in a statement.

"Confronting challenges that would cause most of us to surrender, Louie always persevered and always prevailed, and he spent the better part of his lifetime sharing the message that you could do the same," the statement said.


Olympian Runner, Hero of WWII is Honored Anew

A handshake and the words "The boy with the fast finish": That's how Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler, presiding over the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, congratulated Louie Zamperini of Torrance, Calif., when the 19-year-old track star from USC stunned the Fuhrer by making up 50 yards in the final lap of the Games' 5,000-meter event.

For most Americans, competing in the Olympics and shaking Adolf Hitler's hand might mark the most historic events of their lives. But for Zamperini -- still mentally sharp and physically spry at 93, and living unassisted at his home in the Hollywood Hills -- those thrilling moments would prove mere precursors to a set of experiences that would test the very limits of humanity, and mark him for life as a survivor in a class by himself.

Though told before, Zamperini's story is receiving fresh attention with the recent publication of the New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller "Unbroken," by Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote "Seabiscuit." Tracking down previously untapped veterans and unpublished documents, Hillenbrand has marshaled mountains of old and new evidence to present Zamperini's incredible life story with fresh and harrowing detail. But his story is not for the squeamish.

Even before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the United States into World War II, Zamperini had enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the forerunner to the modern Air Force). He was trained to serve as a bombardier aboard the B-24 bomber plane, a fate he and his comrades already dreaded. "We were praying for a B-17, not a B-24," Zamperini told Fox News in a recent interview at his home. "And we waited and waited. Pretty soon, the planes started coming in, and they were all B-24s. Our hearts dropped. There had been so many of them that were just crashing in training. They had a gas leak. You could always smell gasoline."

Among the few pleasures afforded military flight crews in World War II was the decision of what to nickname their plane and how to decorate it with a painting, near the aircraft's nose, that would illustrate that name. These creative names and pictures ranged from the noble to the naughty, with images of nude 1940s-era bathing beauties, members of the Seven Dwarfs, and other cartoon characters of the period. Presciently, Zamperini's plane, helmed by pilot Russell Allen Phillips of Indiana, was tagged "Superman," and featured a rendering of DC Comics' Man of Steel clutching a machine gun.

Based at Hawaii's Hickam Field, Zamperini participated in a series of dangerous campaigns. It was Louie who dropped the bombs that devastated Wake Island ("That was the longest raid in the history of the war," he noted proudly, "round trip from Midway to Wake and back"), and also a phosphate plant on Nauru Island.

The plant was critical to the Japanese supply of fertilizer and fuel. So spectacular was the damage from this mission that photographs of it ran in the July 5, 1943 edition of LIFE magazine.

"We were told to flatten it," Zamperini said of the plant. Flying at 8,000 feet, the "Superman" crew became the first in the war to dive-bomb a four-engine bomber. "I bombed the runway and the bombers and the factory, and then I had one alternate bomb. And I dropped it on a shack which I thought was probably the radio shack and it wasn't -- it was the fuel supply. And a cloud of smoke shot in the air as high as we were: 8,000 feet"

Suddenly, though, "Superman" was being pursued by nine Japanese fighter planes. The ensuing duel over the skies of the South Pacific was intense and deadly.

"They came in so close to us they couldn't miss us, and they were so close that we couldn't miss them," Zamperini recalled. The American tailgunners fired furiously at the approaching enemy planes -- and suffered their own casualties. "We took on 600 bullet holes, five cannon holes, right tail shot off, left tire flattened . Blood all over the plane . We had seven men seriously injured, got 'em back alive one died." A photograph from the period shows Zamperini with a sickened look on his face, his hand pawing through a hole in the side of the plane as big as a basketball.

Zamperini had narrowly escaped with his life. But shortly thereafter, in May 1943, he and his crew, along with some men with whom he had not previously flown, were ordered to undertake a search-and-rescue mission. With "Superman" still in need of extensive repair, the men were further ordered to fly a notoriously faulty B-24, nicknamed after another superhero of the era. Louie and Phillips, the quiet, steady "Superman" pilot who was a minister's son, had other ideas.

"The operations officer comes out in a jeep and says, 'Hold it, hold It! We just got a report that a B-25 has gone 200 miles north of Palmyra. Would you guys go look for him?' Well," Zamperini recalled, "that's really a command. 'We got two days off.' 'Well, yeah,' (the officer replied) but you're the only guys here.' We said, 'Well, we can't take Superman, because he's being serviced.' And they say, 'Well, we got the Green Hornet.' Well, that was a lemon plane. We used it for the cabbage run, flying between Hawaii and the Big Island to pick up lettuce and steaks and stuff! But it was a lemon, and it was actually scavenged for parts for other planes. But it always passed inspection."

It wasn't long -- only a few hundred miles -- before the number one engine on "The Green Hornet" started to fail, followed swiftly by the others. The plane started going down, and crashed violently into the South Pacific. Louie found himself underwater, pinned to the wreckage by a coil of wires.

"I find myself under the tripod of the machine gun mount wedged securely in. I couldn't move anything," he recalled. "This was a hopeless situation. I knew this was it. I'm dead. And so I started to sink with the plane. My ears popped. I knew I was down 20 feet, because I did a lot of free diving. Then as I sank deeper, I felt a tremendous pain in my forehead, so I figured I was down maybe seventy or eighty feet -- and then I lost consciousness.

"The next thing I knew I was conscious again -- freed and loosened, no wires, no nothing. And I began to reach around in the darkness with my hand, trying to find a way to get out of the plane. And my University of Southern California ring, which happened to be on this finger, which still has a white scar -- that caught onto the waist window in such a way I couldn't let go."

Cutting his finger to free himself, Louie inflated his life jacket and headed topside to find the area around him littered with wreckage from the plane. "I started taking in a little oil and brake fluid and gasoline and blood, and when I got to the surface I just threw it all up," he said. "Then I heard, 'Help, help!' I looked over and there was the pilot and tailgunner, hanging on to the gas tank."

The pilot was Phillips, a close friend of Zamperini's, and the tailgunner was a relative stranger, Sgt. Francis ("Mac") McNamara. Before he could connect with the two of them, however, Zamperini eyed their lone chance at survival: He managed to grab hold of the cord attached to a pair of flimsy, inflatable life rafts, just before they drifted out of reach across the ocean surface.

Though conscious and alert, Phillips was badly injured, having sustained a gaping, bleeding head wound. Zamperini used what he had on hand to dress Phillips's wound -- and the trio was officially adrift at sea. That Zamperini retained his presence of mind, despite the trauma of the crash, he would later credit to a Dr. Webster, who had taught a psychology course Louie had attended at USC. The mind is like a muscle, the professor had said, and it will atrophy if you don't use it. Louie took the words to heart as he settled in for what he knew what be a prolonged ordeal.

McNamara, however, panicked almost immediately. "The first half-hour," Zamperini said, "he got on his knees and started screaming, 'We're going to die! We're all going to die!' Just like a movie. I said, 'Mac, settle down. Nobody is going to die. They're out looking for us. We'll be picked up this afternoon or tomorrow.' And he kept screaming. So I tried a little psychology on him. I took a course at 'SC. And that didn't work. So I threatened him. I said, 'We're going to be picked up today or tomorrow, and I'm going to make a report to the commander, and you'll be in real trouble.' He kept screaming. And so I just turned my back on him and came back with the back of my hand and cracked him across his face, and knocked him back on his fanny. And he (was) completely content. Laid there quietly. And it was the best thing I could have done."

But McNamara panicked again the following morning, when -- while the other two men lay sleeping -- he wolfed down the small ration of chocolate that had been sown into the raft, the only food provisions they had. Starving, injured, sick, wasting away, the men would drift for some 2,000 miles across the Pacific.

Repeatedly, they were set upon by ravenous sharks, monstrous sea creatures that grew more sophisticated over time in the manner in which they circled and lunged at their prey. From above, a Japanese fighter plane took several circling runs in the sky, strafing the rafts and their occupants with bullet fire. Incredibly, despite the aircraft pumping 48 bullet holes into the rafts, none of the three men was shot. "A miracle!" Zamperini would later say. They struggled to re-inflate the vessels with a small pump and sewing kit included with their meager provisions.

They ate only sporadically, occasionally catching an albatross and fashioning its bones into a set of fake claws, which Louie fastened to his hand and used to clutch at the odd fish swimming just beneath the surface. "Then another week went by, another albatross landed on my head, and I grabbed him," Zamperini told Fox News. "And I'll tell you, that bird tasted like hot fudge sundae with nuts and whipped cream on it! We were laying back like the kings did, in the movies . living high off the hog."

But salt from the ocean exacerbated their wounds, and the absence of food and potable water took its toll. The men's lips became so distended that they extended to their noses and chins. Over a month's time, each man lost half his body weight, thinning out to about 80 pounds.

At one point in the odyssey, they lost a raft, forcing all three men to share the remaining one. McNamara would redeem his early failings, saving the others' lives at one point by springing to life with an oar and beating back an attack in which two sharks actually took turns lunging at them from opposite sides of the raft.

But on the 33rd day, Mac, who had been ebbing in spirit and vitality, died. A few hours earlier, sensing the end was near, he spoke meekly to Zamperini. "Louie, do you think I'm going to die?" he asked. "Mac, I think you're going to die tonight," Louie recalled telling his comrade. "I believe in telling people the truth. . He accepted it. And during the night I felt a jolt, and reached over and touched his pulse. And we didn't do anything -- just went back to sleep. And in the morning we got up, did a eulogy, and put him overboard and he just sank. Skin and bone."

A full two weeks after Mac's death, Louie and Phillips, who had calculated their location to be near the Gilbert Islands, were finally rescued by a Japanese military vessel. But their ordeal had only just begun. The first place they were sent was Kwajalein Island, which Zamperini would come to regard as the worst time of his life. Confined to small hut-like cell, he observed the names of nine U.S. Marines carved into the wall when he asked what had become of him, he was told they had all been decapitated. "That's what they do to all prisoners who come here," matter-of-factly explained a Japanese guard who spoke English. "Execution Island" was how Kwajalein came to be known to American soldiers.

From the outset, the guards and even visiting Japanese submarine crews freely beat, punched, poked, kicked, burned with lit cigarettes, threw rocks at, and otherwise tortured Zamperini and Phillips. Sometimes a whole crew of eighty men would take turns inflicting bodily harm on the prisoners, a ritual that would go on for hours. A day's food ration, tossed into the cell like a rubber ball, would be a fistful of inedible rice. The cells were infested with mosquitoes and flies. "You could reach out with your hand and go like that," Louie recalled, grabbing at the air in his Hollywood home, "and see nothing but blood. I used to lay in this cell and (think) I'd rather be in the raft and die out there, where everything is clean and nice and no tormenting."

The chief difference between the ordeal at sea and the POW camp, of course, was that at sea, Louie and his comrades mostly had to confront only the cruelties of the sun and the monsoon-like rains, the limits of hunger and thirst, the temptations of dementia and the ever-circling sharks. In the hands of the Japanese, however, it was the Americans' dignity that was assaulted, and they were forced to confront the ugly fact that man's cruelty to his fellow man far exceeds anything seen amongst the animals of the jungle or the creatures of the sea.

Only fleetingly did the prisoners glimpse humanity amongst their captors. On one occasion at Kwajalein, when Zamperini had twice been jabbed by a guard with a stick that twice bloodied his face, a different guard -- one who had addressed Zamperini with "You Christian? Me Christian" -- got wind of what happened and took action into his own hands. The next time the brutal guard showed up, he was sporting bandages on his forehead and lip. "He actually beat him up for me," Zamperini marveled.

The cruelty took new forms. One day they were sent for and marched up to a set of doctors in lab coats joined by their interns. The prisoners were to be guinea pigs for medical experiments. The doctors filled their syringes with a weird green serum of unknown composition. "And they had stopwatches and they said, 'We're going to inject you you must tell us exactly how you feel,'" Zamperini recalled. "So they started the watch after they injected us and I said, 'Well, I'm getting dizzy.' And they kept writing it down. And then I said, 'Now I feel itchy all over my body.' They wrote that down, and the time. And then I said, 'Now I'm going to pass out.' And then they stopped. Well, they did that three times. I went back to my cell. I couldn't sleep that night because of red pimples all over my body. Itchy. Three times (in total), we were injected."

Back home, Louie had been declared missing in action, and later, after the set period of time had elapsed, killed in action. His parents and siblings in Torrance, however, never wavered in believing their beloved Olympian was still alive. In fact, his execution date at Kwajalein was set. "And we know we're going to be executed," Zamperini remembered. As if on cue, a new Japanese officer showed up, informed his colleagues of Zamperini's Olympic past, and suggested that instead of being executed, he and Phillips be transferred to another camp, from which they could be prevailed upon to make radio broadcasts, feeding propaganda to the mainland United States. "So that saved our lives," Louie said.

Now commenced a series of visits to different hellholes manned by guards trained from birth to believe that to be captured in war was a singular disgrace, and that those so disgraced were sub-human, worthy only of continual degradation and abuse. By September 1944, Zamperini found himself at the Omori POW camp off Tokyo Bay. Here he would encounter one of the most sadistic of all the Japanese camp personnel later charged as war criminals: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "The Bird."

Similar in age to Louie, the Bird was among the less distinguished members of an affluent Japanese family. The Japanese accountant at the camp, tracked down by Hillenbrand decades later, told her Watanabe's extreme sadism toward the prisoners under his command provided him with a form of sexual gratification. And according to Unbroken, the Bird fixed upon Zamperini with singular fury, regarding him as "Prisoner Number One" and subjecting him to viciousness unmatched even by his brutal treatment of the other captives.

"I had nightmares on this Bird guy," Zamperini told Fox News. "If I looked away from his eyes, he punched me out for looking away. If I stared at his eyes, he punched me for staring at his eyes. . Every day he did something to me . and it was a brutal life. . He hit me over the head with a big, probably two-pound steel buckle, cracked my skull and I'm down on the ground bleeding. And he hands me a piece of toilet paper to wipe the blood. And he says, 'Awww,' like 'I'm sorry.' And I thought, 'Well, he can't be so bad after all.' So I wiped the blood off, I stood up, I wiped it and I looked at it, and he hit me again."

This was just one of countless similar incidents. The mind reels at the thought of the human body absorbing the punishment doled out to Zamperini. On another occasion, the Bird forced the other inmates to line up and take turns punching Zamperini, and others, in the face -- as hard as they could. Attempts to soften the blows were instantly detected by the Bird and met with the demand that the prisoners put their full weight behind their punches. They would apologize as they filed past, while Louie muttered to just get it over with. Hillenbrand wrote:

For the first few punches, Louie stayed on his feet. But his legs soon began to waver, and he collapsed. He pulled himself upright, but fell again with the next punch, and then the next. Eventually, he blacked out. When he came to, the Bird forced the men to resume punching him, screaming, "Next! Next! Next. "

The sun sank. The beating went on for some two hours, the Bird watching with fierce and erotic pleasure. When every enlisted man had done his punching, the Bird ordered the guards to club each (prisoner) twice in the head with a kendo stick.

The victims had to be carried to the barracks. Louie's face was so swollen that for several days he could barely open his mouth. By one estimate, each man had been punched in the face 220 times.

"I'd rather do slave labor than be under him," Zamperini said he thought at the time. "Because the guy beat me almost every day. And when they'd ask him why he beat me, he kept saying something about orders. So I think what they did (was) they tried to make my life so hard by daily beatings that when I was offered a chance to broadcast (propaganda), and live in a beautiful room and eat good food, that I would accept. But there was no way I could do it." Indeed, Zamperini did make one broadcast -- in which he was permitted to alert his family that he was still alive -- but he steadfastly refused subsequent Japanese demands that he make additional broadcasts that called for him to denigrate the United States.

Zamperini received a brief respite from the Bird when the commandant was transferred to another camp but within months that respite ended, when Zamperini was himself transferred, to a site about 35 miles north of Nagano. He recalled: "Walked in over 10 feet of snow to a prison camp. And then we were told to stand at attention and face the guard shack. . Pretty soon, the door opened, and out stepped Sgt. Watanabe, the Bird. I never thought my knees would buckle, but my knees buckled, and I almost fell down to the ground. I couldn't believe it. So my troubles were starting all over again. And then he threatened to kill me."

Through all the beatings, torture, disease, starvation, and humiliation -- including being forced to do push-ups atop a mound of human waste -- Zamperini survived. Pushed beyond all reason, he and fellow prisoners devised a plan to kill Watanabe -- a plot aborted only when the Bird failed to observe his usual routine.

Shortly after that, with American warplanes becoming a more frequent sight and both captors and captives alike reconciled to the imminent prospect of Allied victory, Watanabe skipped out. Though he would be named as a war criminal and become the object of a nationwide postwar manhunt, he eluded capture. Aside from an interview with CBS News in the 1990s, he lived quietly until his death in 2003.

Louie and the other POWs were rescued and repatriated. In his hometown of Torrance, Calif., he was seen as a figure risen from the dead. He became a national hero, publishing his memoir "Devil At My Heels" (later reissuing it in an updated version), and marrying a beautiful young socialite named Cynthia Applewhite. But his nightmares about Watanabe persisted, a lingering form of torture from the Bird. Louie grew combative and turned to drink, descending into unmistakable alcoholism. Cynthia readied herself for a divorce. "We were falling apart," Louie recalled.

Then, just as he was hitting a new low, Louie begrudgingly acceded to Cynthia's insistence that he attend a religious revival meeting being held in a tent in Los Angeles by a dynamic young Christian preacher. The date was October 1949 the speaker was the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham. At first, Louie remained resistant to Graham's fiery preaching style. But during his second session with Graham -- "For all those who have sinned, come show their glory of God!" he thundered -- Zamperini experienced an epiphany. He remembered a long-forgotten moment aboard the life raft, when he had looked to the heavens and vowed, if he survived that ordeal, to devote the rest of his life to serving God.

"I realized what a heel I was," he told Fox News. "Turned my back on God. . I went to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ and just my whole life was revolutionized in a moment. . And that was the turning point in my life, the final change."

In the six decades since then, Louie mentored troubled youth carried the torch at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles returned to Japan twice (once to forgive his guards, in the 1950s, and again, in 1998, to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games) wrote a letter of forgiveness to the Bird, imploring him to become a Christian (he never learned whether Watanabe received the letter) and continued to speak about his experiences and his faith across the country. He spent seven years working with Hillenbrand on "Unbroken," patiently fielding questions from her no fewer than 75 times.

"One day she called me on the phone," he told Fox News, "and said, 'Louie, I want to do your biography.' I said, 'Laura, I've milked it dry. I've done the research there's nothin' left!' She said: 'But I must do it.' I said, 'Okay. I'll help you, but you're spinning your wheels.' Exact words. And then she started in and -- oh! I had no idea what this woman could do."

When a Fox News producer asked Zamperini if he considered himself a hero, he bristled, explaining that men who return home from war missing a limb -- or more -- are the real heroes. After seeing just these kinds of men during a visit to a Veterans Affairs hospital, Louie returned home and made a decisive gesture. "I took all my medals and I put 'em in a drawer, and shoved 'em away, and I haven't seen 'em since!"


Louis Zamperini: The Story of a True American Hero

For forty-seven days Louis Zamperini drifted idly in the Pacific Ocean. Armed with a few small tins of drinking water, a flare gun, some fishing line, and a couple of Hershey D-Ration candy bars, Zamperini and two other soldiers struggled to stay alive. Their struggle was exacerbated by vicious sharks, blistering heat, treacherous swells, and Japanese fighter pilots. For most people, this experience would undoubtedly be the most challenging of their lives. For Zamperini, it was not even the most difficult of the war.

Louis Zamperini was always exceptional. After getting into trouble as a child, Zamperini found an outlet in track and field. In a time when the four-minute mile was one of the most elusive goals in sports, Zamperini pushed the limits. Zamperini set the national high school record for the mile in 1934 with a time of 4:21.3. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California and began training for the 1936 Olympics. At the Berlin Olympics, Zamperini finished eighth in the 5000-meter race, but ran the fastest final lap of all the competitors in an unprecedented 56 seconds. His final push even grabbed the attention of Adolf Hitler who personally congratulated Zamperini after the race. Zamperini turned his attention to the 1940 Olympics.

By early 1940, Zamperini had dropped his mile time to 4:07.9. Yet as Zamperini came closer to the four-minute mile, the United States came closer to war. There would be no Olympics in 1940. Zamperini was forced to forego running for a career in the military. He joined the Army Air Corps in November 1941 and was trained as a bombardier. Zamperini flew in B-24s in the Pacific War Theater and went on a number of bombing raids. In May 1943, Zamperini went out on a mission to search for a missing plane when his plane had trouble of its own. Zamperini and the crew went down eight men died on impact, three survived.

Zamperini and the surviving crewmembers, Francis “Mac” MacNamara and Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, were in dire straits. They quickly ran out of food and drinkable water. They passed the time by telling stories and pretending to cook meals. About thirty-three days into their survival, Mac passed away. The two surviving crew members faced typhoon sized waves, angry sharks, and were shot at by Japanese pilots. Their bullet-riddled raft, faded from the blistering sun, barely supported their emaciated bodies. Finally, on July 15, the two men were picked up by Japanese soldiers. To say they were saved would be inaccurate.

Zamperini and Phillips were modestly nursed back to health before they were transferred to a prisoner of war camp. The Japanese POW camps were notoriously cruel. Over one-third of all allied POWs died in the camps and the Japanese had plans to kill all POWs by the war’s end. Zamperini was separated from Phillips and transferred to a number of different camps throughout the war. Always on the brink of starvation, Zamperini was treated especially cruelly because of his running fame. Zamperini was forced to clean up the latrines, shovel coal, and was beaten relentlessly. Due to the harsh treatment, cold weather, and severe malnutrition, Zamperini developed beriberi, a deadly disease caused by vitamin deficiency. He was on the brink of death.

On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Less than a month later Japan surrendered. Allied planes began dropping food, cigarettes, and news of victory to the famished POWs. Zamperini gradually regained his health and celebrated with his peers. He was officially released on September 5, 1945, more than two years after his plane crash. By that time the United States had declared Zamperini dead and his parents had received his Purple Heart “posthumously.” Most of his family and friends had long assumed he had died. The few that held out hope were still amazed to see Zamperini walk through the door on October 5, 1945.

Throughout his life Zamperini physically pushed his body to the limit. Yet it is truly his passion for life and mental vitality that continues to impress people around the world. His story is the inspiration for the bestselling book, Unbroken and now a major motion picture by the same name. Zamperini passed away in July of 2014 he was 97 years old.

The pictures above are all from NARA’s Still Pictures Division. Much of this blog was based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.


'Unbroken' is powerful, inspiring, exhausting

“Unbroken” is an experience more than a movie. It is draining, exhausting and ultimately uplifting. It is a film you should certainly see once, though you probably won’t want to see it again.

And it’s probably the best faith-promoting film in a year that saw many attempts.

By now you are probably familiar with the film’s basic premise: world-class Olympian survives Japanese prison camp during World War II. Thanks to the film’s promotional efforts, your expectations may be set for another inspiring film based on a true story. We all know the guy lives, so no surprises, right?

“Unbroken” is deceptively powerful. Rather than dig in with the gritty interpretation of something like “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” “Unbroken” maintains just enough of a Hollywood sheen to keep you feeling safe.

Early on, the film feels like another story about a World War II bombardier squad, 1990’s “Memphis Belle.” Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the good-looking, de facto leader of his team, dropping the bombs on targets in the Pacific theater and then scrambling around the airplane to help out once his job is done.

But flashbacks show us that Zamperini wasn’t always such a clean-cut American hero. Only the caring influence of his older brother, Pete (Alex Russell), helped turn him from an adolescent troublemaker into a scrappy, determined distance runner who made it all the way to the 1936 Olympics.

It’s brief as character arcs go, but it’s enough to help us understand how Zamperini behaves over the next hour and a half of the film. Once Zamperini is shot down over the Pacific Ocean, the flashbacks stop, and we stay with him as he survives one harrowing ordeal after another, starting with a lifeboat and eventually finishing in a Japanese prison camp where he faces a sadistic captor nicknamed "the Bird" (Takamasa Ishihara).

One of the truly impressive feats of “Unbroken” is that it gets you to feel the exhaustion of Zamperini’s ordeal in a relatively short amount of time. Rather than employ the fast-paced editing of today’s filmmaking, “Unbroken” works with deliberate calculation, not dragging, but not rushing, either. The total film is a little over two hours long, but it feels closer to three.

Keep in mind, that isn’t a criticism.

If Zamperini is the Oskar Schindler of “Unbroken,” then the Bird is its Amon Goeth. Throughout encounters in two different camps, the Bird seems to relish his opportunity to add to Zamperini’s anguish, treating him simultaneously as a confidant and a nemesis. Ishihara doesn’t quite measure up to Ralph Fiennes’ horrifying take on Goeth, but that might be a bar too high.

O’Connell is the actor carrying the real weight here (both literally and figuratively). His performance as Zamperini is admirable, and judging by the results, it appears the actor took the same advice his character heard from Pete: “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”

“Unbroken” was directed by Angelina Jolie, who gets more attention for her adoptions and charity work these days than for her infrequent acting jobs. Her omission from the Golden Globes nominations was reported as a snub, and seeing “Unbroken,” it’s easy to see why.

The screenplay was penned by Joel and Ethan Coen and feels like a departure from the dark comic style they’ve traditionally employed for films such as“Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

It’s not quite as explicit in its moral message as a film like “Heaven is for Real,” but “Unbroken’s” theme of faith and perseverance in the face of adversity probably makes for the most moving religious film of the year. It’s not a preachy film, and that makes its message all the more effective.

“Unbroken” features profanity, violent content and some male nudity. While it isn’t especially graphic or gratuitous, it is definitely too much for younger audiences.

“Unbroken” is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language running time: 157 minutes.


Watch the video: Unbroken: Crash Landing (January 2023).

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