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Olympian, Pilot, Lost at Sea Survivor and POW: The story of Hero

Updated on January 15, 2013

Learning forgiveness even after being tortured!

It is said that every person has an interesting story to tell, yet the story of Louis Zamperini is almost unbelievable. He was an Olympic Athlete, a WWII bomber, record holder for the most time spent on a life raft when his plane was shot down, and then a POW for 4 years in Japan. This is an individual who never found an obstacle he could not overcome and a spirit that never failed. This is his amazing story.

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A troubled childhood

Louis Zamperini, the hero of this story, started off as an unlikely hero. Growing up in a poor but good home he got into quite a bit of trouble as child. Besides taking part of minor crimes, he had learned to box from his father and now went around being a bully to others. He talked about how he got addicted to “beating the tar out of every one of them”. Certainly this was not the start to great future, let alone one of a hero. Yet his brother Pete saw something in Louis, or perhaps it was just brotherly love, and decided he just needed direction. Pete started to get Louis running competitively. Not that Louis was onboard with this new direction in the beginning; in fact he preferred to run away from home. Upon telling his parents, his father gave him what little money he had, his mother gave him some food and watched their son walk out the door with tears in their eyes. Trying to hitch a ride on a train, getting quite hurt doing so, losing all their money they had for food, filthy and decrepit, he and his buddy looked through a window at people dining at a table with china and fine food. That is when he realized he wanted to and needed to change.

Returning home he began to train with Pete. Before running was a chore or a way to avoid the police, soon it became a release from life. He relished in it and started to win competitions. Not just winning competitions he started to set records for his races. Considering how late of a start he got in training, it caught the world off guard how strong of a runner he became. Gaining a scholarship to University of Southern California was just the beginning; he was soon qualifying for the Olympics after training for a short period of time. At 19 he was the youngest qualifier to ever qualify for the 5000 meter Olympic event.

The beginnings of a sports hero

The remarkable thing about Louis was in essence he woke up one day and decided to run in the Olympics. In roughly a year he trained and qualified for an event that most train for at least 5 - 8 years to compete in. There was no way to qualify for the 1 mile sprint so he completely changed to the 5000 meter event and tied with the world record holder in qualifying rounds. The world was fascinated with this runner who seemed unstoppable and continued to break records.

While he did not win in those Berlin Olympics he actually ran faster at the end of the race then he did at the beginning and caught the attention of Adolf Hitler who insisted that they meet. Later, Louis reverted to his troublemaking old ways slightly by running up to a building while in Berlin, climbing a flagpole and stealing a Nazi flag. While he was caught by soldiers, he was able to talk himself out of it by saying it was a moment of admiration, rather than destruction. Having set a series of records for 1500 meter and 5000 meter races, he was gearing himself up for his next chance at the Olympics in 4 years. Alas, it was not to be.

A Soldier in the Making

With the outbreak of war, like many others Louis joined up to become a bombardier in the Air Force. Ironically enough while not a huge fan of planes as a child, he had now signed up to spend his time in the military locked in one as they went on bombing missions in the Pacific. His job was to take his B-24 into diving runs and releasing bombs at just the right time to hit their targets. Working closely with his crew they built a tight relationship living together, flying together and relieving stress together. Mission after mission they flew together seeing and trusting each other as brothers, not to mention their plane the Super Man that they flew virtually every day. During one fateful mission they faced devastating attacks and had much of their plane was destroyed around them. So extensive was the destruction they were literally splicing the wires running through the plane that controlled key components while flying. Several of the crewmembers were critically hurt defending their plane from enemy fighters which ultimately allowed them to return home alive. Tragically one crew member did not survive the return. The superman (their B-24) which had gone on so many successful runs was now permanently grounded with such extensive damage, never to be flown again.

With crew members hurt and their plane out of commission the team was broken up and paired with new crew members. On one fateful day Louis, his pilot and a temporary crew were ordered to search for a missing plane that failed to return from a mission. Ordered to take a plane that had had several mechanical difficulties previously and was considered a “lemon” they searched for hours. Upon returning home they were faced with their own mechanical failure and led to a violent crash into the ocean. So quickly were they to crash into the ocean, no radio messages were sent, and virtually no time for the crew to get ready. Their plane did not float, rather sunk with tremendous speed. Louis just barely got out, with his pilot and one other crewmember. 8 crew members died in that crash, only three escaped to get into rafts.

The Longest Trip at Sea

In those days life rafts and emergency supplies on planes were woefully deficient. In just a couple of years transponders, food, water, emergency supplies even a much needed cover for the raft to shield the occupants from the sun would be added, but for Louis and the two other crew members none of this was present. They were able to get two life rafts out of the plane, each barely large enough for 2 people. Supplies were limited to a patch kit for the raft, a small amount of food and a couple of small tools. This was all they had while in the middle of the largest ocean in the world and no one knew where they were. Louis, ever the survivor knew that the mind was just as important as the body and forced his good friend and pilot Allen and the other crew member Mac to talk all day. They tried to remember recipes of food they had cooked, childhood memories and anything else to keep their brain active. Every day they drifted in the ocean, constantly surrounded by sharks that were notorious for attacking plane crews that fell into the ocean, starving for food and water they did not had, yet related recipes each day. They would soon know each other's recipes so well that if one made a mistake the others would correct him and get him to start from the beginning.

One day a bird landed in the raft and while caught offered little food for the crew, they instead used the bones and meat to catch some small fish. In this way they were managing to find barely enough food to survive. When it rained they collected as much as they could as their only source of water, while at the same time trying to bail out the raft. Completely exposed to the elements including the sun all day took a tremendous toll on their bodies and mind. Once by some miracle they saw a plane and signaled with all their might. Yet it turned out to be Japanese bomber who did the unthinkable, it took multiple strafing runs on the raft forcing Louis out of the raft causing him to literally punch sharks as they attacked him. While no one was hurt on the strafing runs, the rafts took some serious hits and while patching helped, it was now a new constant battle to keep it inflated.

In fact the elements not only took a toll on the people but also on the rafts, which were actually disintegrating around them. One raft was lost, forcing all three into one raft that was only made for 2. After 33 days alone on the sea, Mac died in the raft. While not always the most communicative of raft mates, he saved Louis' life when sharks were attacking him. For another 15 days they floated until they actually traveled almost 3000 miles to the Marshall Islands. Trying to avoid capture, alas after so much time and in their wasted condition was not possible, and the Japanese navy quickly captured them. 47 days was longer than almost anyone had ever spent a drift in a raft and still found alive. Louis was still breaking records.

The adventure was not even close to ending

While the captain of the Japanese ship that picked them up showed mercy, providing them with medical care and food, this was not to last. They were being sent to a prison island that was notorious for being a place where no prisoner left or was even heard from again. Sure enough from the moment they arrived the torture began. The brutality was almost unimaginable and indescribable. Imagine two soldiers having eaten nothing for almost 2 months who survived alone floating on a raft through the ocean now being daily beaten in the head and chest, locked in cells with almost no food and physically and verbally abused in every way conceivable. For an unknown reason after being held on this death island they were kept alive and sent to a larger prison camp.

While larger they were still unregistered as POWs and thus not only were their families not told they were alive (in fact after a year the US government actually declared them both presumed dead) all prisoners in this camp were unregistered and thus not allowed to send or receive mail or get any Red Cross care packages. They lived on barely subsistence rations of rotting food and made to work for the Japanese industries. Sometimes that work included shoveling coal from barges to small transfer boats, other times loading or unloading train cars. The work was backbreaking especially considering how weak all the prisoners were surviving on almost no food. Injuries and death were not unusual. This began their life for just under 4 years of trying to survive some of the worlds most horrific prisoner camps ever imagined.

While the camps themselves were designed to break a person down, a special mention must be made for the Japanese soldiers who worked these camps. Many of these soldiers were those deemed physically or mentally unfit to be in combat units. They took out their anger and sadism on the prisoners they were guarding in every hateful way imaginable. One guard that stood out was Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed "The Bird"). While not an officer he inspired such fear with such veracity that he was feared by Japanese officers along with the prisoners and actually ran the prison camp. Attacking prisoners with baseball bats, rocks or anything else he could find for breaking his rules (real or imaginary) he caused tremendous sufferings. One time he beat a prisoner who had near genius IQ and an identic memory so badly in the head that the prisoner was barely able to talk let alone think and remember with clarity ever again. Later this guard become one of General MacArthur's top 40 war criminals and was hunted when the war was over for many years. The Bird took a special liking to Louis, for Louis would not break in front of this guard. With every beating he would not give in, but had within him a spirit of defiance and survival. His hands would make fists during punishments and while he never fought back, that was enough defiance to send the Bird into tremendous rages. With the support of others in the camp, and the occasional sympathetic prison guards Louis survived long enough to see the Bird transferred to another camp and life slowly became more manageable.

One day Japanese PR officials came to the camp to talk to Louis. They wanted to know if he would be willing to go on the radio to speak about his experiences. Finally it became clear why he was kept alive all these years, as a celebrity he was to be paraded by the Japanese to the world. Initially after talking to his fellow prisoners he agreed as the Japanese had told him he could write his own message to be broadcast. That first time he broadcast he included several hidden messages to his family whom he hoped would hear that would help them verify it was truly Louis and also give some information about other crew members and prisoners he was with at the prison. When they asked him to come a second time for a broadcast and ordered him to read a message they wrote filled with lies and hateful messages he politely refused. No matter how they tried, they could not convince him to read it. As punishment he was sent to a distant prisoner of war camp. Marching in the front gate with fellow prisoners he was faced with the head of the prison, "The Bird".

Yet the war was nearing its end. Waves of the new B-26 bombers were blanketing the sky dropping tons of munitions on Japan. Entire blocks of cities were being destroyed as the allies were trying to get Japan to surrender. Each new attack sent the Bird into a froth that had him attacking his prisoners over and over again. Then finally there was that fateful day when America dropped the first atomic bomb in Japan. While the prisoners were kept in the dark, civilian workers and soldiers walked around in daze muttering words like "atomic" and "mushroom cloud" and over and over the unthinkable, the obliteration of an entire town. While many might think prisoners spirits would be lifted by seeing the war appearing to come to a close, in fact it brought more fear. The Japanese always had a policy of no prisoner being allowed to live to see the end of the war. There was a standing policy that if a camp might be taken by the enemy, every prisoner was to be killed. The prisoners found clues that this final plan was being prepared at their camps and had heard stories of this taking place at other camps further in the Pacific. Thus when Japan surrendered, this was kept from the prisoners for several days while the guards had to figure out if they were to liquidate the camps. Thankfully the camp that Louis was in was spared. Over the next few weeks bombers now brought food and supplies to the prison camps until prisoners could be transported to American ships. The war was over and Louis somehow survived.

A Hero's Life is not always Easy

Louis took his time returning home. First staying in Japan with America forces and then at Hawaii he was enjoying the non-stop celebrations of a world without war and of course the victory that was the Allies. Finally he returned home to his family who had never given up hope that he was alive. While one would hope that this would be the start of a happy ending sadly it is not that easy. First, Louis was wracked with survivor's guilt. The fact that he made it out of the plane and onto a raft when 8 others died, that he survived the raft ride for 47 days and one did not, that he survived the prisoner of war camps when thousands did not including good friends. Why should he have survived when so many other good people did not?

He also faced the stress of trying to conform into a world that was now foreign to him. How could he share the atrocities he faced with his family? How could he explain being forced to work and being 'bathed' in human excrement? How to explain the unbelievable physical and mental torture he faced on a daily basis? Upon returning home he found that his brother Pete was almost in worst physical shape then himself over worry and fear for Louis. He saw signs of how much his family had suffered hoping but never truly knowing about him for 4 years. This was another level of stress that tore at his soul as two very different worlds collided.

And finally there was the very real PTSD he was experiencing. Every night he would have dreams of The Bird standing over him beating him. Reliving some of the worst moments, but more harmful feeling the fear everyday that he experienced in the camp. Louis was being asked to speak at public occasions that were celebrating his survival and of course being interviewed by newspapers. He turned to alcohol as a means of coping. Soon he was using alcohol more than a little as a way to get through the day, yet he kept it hidden from all who were close to him. He appeared to everyone to be the same happy, powerful Louis they all knew. He met a stunning girl on a beach and promptly started to date her and very quickly (over her parents objections due to the speed of their relationship) marrying. Yet his PTSD, his drinking and his inability to manage money caused inordinate stress and turmoil in their relationship. Just when it looked like the worst was yet to come for Louis' life, he found (with the great help of his wife) the revivalist Billy Graham and by extension religion. He found religion and perhaps most importantly for his survival he found forgiveness. He later traveled to Japan to speak about what had happened to him and to meet with many of the guards who had tortured him. Many of these guards were now in their own prisons for what they did, and yet Louis met with them and forgave them. Alas The Bird who had escaped and after being on the run for so many years was later given amnesty along with a general amnesty that was given to all soldiers in Japan, was never to meet Louis again.

This was the re-birth that religion talks about. Louis found new meaning in life and started to publicly speak much more about his experiences but also found new ways to give back to others. He started a camp for at risk kids where his unbelievable strength and fortitude still amazed the campers. He carried Olympic torches, was inducted into Sports Hall of Fames and received honorary degrees. He was finally able to feel good about his life.

My overall review

Wow. Rarely have I encountered a book that sends the reader on more of an emotional roller coaster turns than Unbroken. The emotions that it wrought from exhilaration during his early amazing accomplishments on the track to the unbelievable anger when faced with the utter brutality of the Japanese during the war were ever-present. I will caution readers that trying to find a good place to put this book down to go to sleep or eat a meal will be quite difficult. This story almost seems too unbelievable, too sensational to believed and yet with the extensive validation by multiple sources it is indeed what Louis went through. Hillenbrand did a tremendous job weaving all the sources together to build a compelling and fascinating story. On the surface this is an extremely readable book by any reader; emotionally it is quite advanced. Readers are advised that while I think it is a tremendous book on survival of the spirit it is an emotionally tough book.

What we can learn from this story

Two chapters before the end of this book I was reading in a public venue and I shamed to admit I looked around at those around me and felt anger toward those that appeared to be of Japanese descent. I just spent several hundred pages reading about atrocities committed seemingly pervasively by a population and was angered by it. And yet Louis, after all he actually experienced found forgiveness. As the current Dalai Lama has said on numerous occasions "Forgiveness does not entail Forgetfulness." Thus we have to learn about the past, how else can we hopefully prevent it from happening again. Yet we also need to learn to forgive the past especially those that had no role in those events. We need learn to see past events and believe that people can change, can feel remorse even after doing terrible things.

In my own travels I learned of a person in Ireland who as a child was shot by mistake during a robbery and lost his vision in both eyes. Several years later that child, now an adult with no vision, has not only forgiven the robber but has actually become friends with him. Turning the other cheek is never easy. Forgiveness is never easy. When I asked a religious leader how do you know you have truly forgiven someone he replied, "Forgiveness is found when you stop renting out space in your mind to them." He explained when you stop thinking about what you want to say to them, that is forgiveness. I think there are very few people who have been faced with as much hatred and violence as Louis and yet as a beacon to us all he has learned to forgive. Isn't it time for us to do the same?

Get your own copy

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

A tremendous book that can teach us all a little something about history and a lot about the human spirit.

 

Do you have your own experiences of survival? Would love to hear them, or any thoughts you might have.

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    • GardenerDon profile image

      Gardener Don 4 years ago

      I have read this book, maybe a year or so ago. You have done a very thorough review here - it's a great story

    • Sharon Weaver profile image

      Sharon Weaver 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      This is a wonderful book and Louis is my friend's dad. Very inspiring guy.