On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that made him a track star first at Torrance high school and later at UCLA.
He smashed collegiate, state and finally national records for the mile. At age just 19 he muddled his way into the US Olympic team for the ‘wrong’ event, the 5,000m, at the very last opportunity, and within days was on a steamer heading for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was a cheerful and charismatic mixed-up kid who couldn’t resist stealing ashtrays from the bar. He came eighth in the Berlin Olympics final, and even met with Adolf Hitler. He went home determined to win Olympic gold for the mile at Tokyo in 1940. No one doubted it was possible. He was generally considered to be the first to break the four-minute mile barrier.
Then however came WW2 and Zamperini’s life turned a completely different direction…
Zamperini was drafted into the air force as a bombardier and started flying missions over the Pacific from his base in Hawaii. He still kept up his training, however, and on 27 May 1943, running alone on sand in Hawaii, he clocked 4:12. He knew he could go much faster, but it was to be his last run for many years.
That same day his plane, a rickety B-24 called the Green Hornet, was searching for lost airmen over the ocean. It crashed and immediately sank.
This is where Zamperini’s amazing and surreal survival story of over 2 years started…
Of the 11 men on board, only three — Zamperini; the pilot, Russell Allen Phillips; and the tail gunner, Francis McNamara — survived, clinging to a canvas-and-rubber raft left amid the wreckage.
Quickly facing starvation, the men saved themselves by eating unwary albatrosses that used the raft as a perch and, with Zamperini tying improvised hooks to his hands to create a claw, by catching an occasional fish. They cut up fabric from a second raft to protect themselves from the scorching equatorial sun. Storms slaked their desperate thirst. Throughout, sharks floated expectantly alongside and beneath them, rubbing their backs against the raft and, sometimes, lunging up into it. The men beat them off with oars and even managed to kill a couple — and eat their livers.
On their 33rd day at sea McNamara died. Others in similar straits had resorted to cannibalism; after Zamperini uttered some lines remembered from the movies, he and Phillips simply cast McNamara overboard. The two men passed the days, and maintained their sanity, by peppering each other with questions, cooking imaginary meals, singing “White Christmas.” Finally on the 46th day being adrift in a simple canvas raft they spotted land: the Marshall Islands. Not knowing which islands they had found, and not knowing if they were occupied by the Japanese they tried to sneak on land after 47 days and over 2000-miles adrift in the Pacific, longer than anyone had ever survived before in a life raft before!
Their luck of having found land quickly turned into hell for the two survivors. They were spotted by Japanese sailors and immediately captured. The Red Cross, however, was never informed and the two were declared dead shortly afterwards.
For the next 2 years Zamperini and Phillips would be in Japanese prison camps enduring the hardest of tortures, mainly cause they were ‘dead’ for the rest of the world. While only one in 100 Americans captured in Europe died, nearly one in three perished in Japanese captivity. But Zamperini and Phillips miraculously survived.
Zamperini had a special status: as a former Olympian, he was a valuable propaganda tool, too precious to kill. But his celebrity also made him very tempting to torture. First in the Pacific and later in Japan, he was subjected to an unrelenting regime of assaults: humiliation, starvation, medical experiments, slave labor and disease. A succession of sadistic guards topped by a psychopathic sadist named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka the Bird, derived a special, almost orgiastic pleasure from beating him. Just because he was a famous former Olympian. Occasionally he was made to run against Japanese to prove their superiority. If he won, he was beaten into unconsciousness. Dysentery and beri-beri wore him down, as did the guard’s sadistic attacks. By the end of the war, his life was hanging by a thread.
After over 2 years, looking skyward — where American bombers could be spotted with increasing frequency — the G.I.’s knew the war would soon end. But that was a mixed blessing: the Japanese had repeatedly vowed to kill all P.O.W.’s rather than hand them over, and surely would have if the Americans had invaded Japan. Zamperini and his fellow prisoners were effectively saved by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On his return to the USA Zamperini (logically) became a national hero, after all he was a former Olympian, declared dead 2 years ago, who survived the war!
The book describing this uncredible story was published under the name ‘Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption’. It is one of those non-fiction books that reads as a novel telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.
In 2014 Zamperini’s story will hit the movie screens worldwide under the same title ‘Unbroken’ directed by Angelina Jolie.