Editor's note: Louis Zamperini, the American Olympian who spent 47 days lost at sea and two more years as a Prisoner of War, has died at the age of 97, his family reports in a statement. In this archive piece from July 2011, Zamperini describes what only can be described as the acts of an American hero.
Adrift upon the face of an endless Pacific, Louis Zamperini and his pilot clung to the tatters of a life raft as days blurred together in relentless hallucination. Sun and salt water transformed their skin into a crust of sores and fissures. Sporadic rainsqualls dropped just enough water for occasional sips while birds and small sharks they caught bare-handed provided meager sustenance.
Zamperini, a California track star, had been a favorite to clock the world’s first 4-minute mile at the 1940 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Then history intervened: As global warfare erupted, the 1940 Games were canceled, and the Army Air Corps trained Zamperini as a bombardier stationed on Oahu.
A 1943 raid on Wake Island introduced Zamperini to combat; the B-24 limped home with 594 shrapnel holes, one flier died and everyone except Zamperini and two others got shot up.
Hoping for the ’44 or ’48 Olympics, Zamperini stayed fit; in May 1943 he ran an unofficial 4:12 mile. But within days of that feat, Zamperini’s aircraft crashed at sea on a search-and-rescue mission. He was one of three crewmen who made it to a life raft.
So began a harrowing ordeal. In 47 days at sea, Zamperini and his pilot dropped 60 percent of their body weight; the third man died.
Occasionally the men saw aircraft aloft, but only a Japanese bomber came near, swooping in on strafing runs to riddle the life raft with 48 bullet holes. Ocean currents carried the two survivors 2,000 miles west until a Japanese patrol boat sighted the men, who became prisoners on Kwajalein.
Then things got bad. Zamperini describes his 43 days on “Execution Island” as “much worse than the raft”: a waking nightmare of an outhouse-like cell, frequent beatings, intense hunger and thirst.
Life as a ward of the Empire was literally a world away from Zamperini’s previous experience. It nearly broke him.
As a teenager back home, Zamperini had caroused with petty thieves who lived to top one another’s exploits. An older brother whom Zamperini adored inspired an abrupt turnaround: “I got locked up and Pete came to the jail. Pete asked the police chief how we ought to channel my energy. The chief said ‘Well, your little brother is one hell of a runner! What about track?’ ”
So Zamperini threw himself into training full-bore. With his natural ability, the effort paid dividends as Zamperini set California and U.S. high-school records. “That roar from the crowd tasted good,” he recalls intently. He gave up impressing small-time thugs in dark alleys in favor of showcasing his speed for a public audience. Instead of farmers chasing Zamperini with shotgun blasts of rock salt, he became popular with girls.
At 19, Zamperini earned a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team, enjoying unimagined luxuries heading for the Berlin Games aboard the ocean liner Manhattan. “We could only train up in first class, making loops inside the rail, hopping over the legs of millionaires and movie stars.” He gained 12 pounds devouring shipboard fare, alertly spotting a service window featuring ever-present cold beer.
The highlight of Zamperini’s Atlantic voyage? Dancing with swimmer Eleanor Holm, who paid a price for late-night partying: “That was a gold medal for me! But Eleanor got kicked off the team before we arrived in Europe—what a raw deal! So Eleanor shot dice and had some champagne? She was invited! We drank our share of beer—nobody got bombed, but we liked that little window.”
Of Berlin, Zamperini recalls “Storm troopers were everywhere. Only a fool would have missed it—Germany was gearing up for something big.” He pauses. “For war.”
Finishing eigth in the 5-kilometer run, Zamperini turned a blistering 56-second final lap that generated stadium buzz nearly as frenzied as the crowd’s reaction to an entrance by Hitler. “They always went berserk when Hitler arrived,” says Zamperini, who shook der Führer’s hand at the Nazi leader’s request but regarded him as a “dangerous comedian.”
Celebrating in the German capital after his big race, every biergarten liter amplified the hilarity of an inside joke: popping off with “Heil Hitler!” to anybody in uniform and triggering robotic salutes. Earlier Zamperini had swiped a “Do Not Disturb” sign from teammate Jesse Owens, but when he pulled a much crazier stunt, his Olympic sweater probably saved his life. Zamperini stole a Nazi flag—naturally, grabbing that souvenir right off the front of Hitler’s chancellery. “A rifle went ‘crack!’ and a guy hollered ‘Halten Sie!’ I knew what that meant.” The fleet Zamperini could also talk fast, telling dumbstruck guards “It’s just to remember your wonderful German hospitality!”
Zamperini still owns that flag—and the sign from Jesse Owens’ door, too.
After returning home, Zamperini attended USC on a track scholarship. The cancellation of the 1940 Summer Olympics hit him hard: “That really hurt! People don’t understand—you train four years for one event. Disappointed? You bet!” He ponders a moment, musing: “The Olympics exist to help stop war, but only war can stop the Olympics.”
Disappointment about being unable to compete soon was eclipsed by the cruel realities of life as a prisoner of war on Kwajalein. Most Japanese guards behaved savagely; American prisoners interned by the Japanese died at 37 times the rate of Americans held by German and Italian captors. One guard spoke enough English to stop by and belt Zamperini with a cheery “Thump on the head for a biscuit?” Complaints of thirst brought scalding water thrown in his face.
Zamperini hoped that transfer to another prison might offer more humane treatment—a right mandated under the Geneva Convention—but he was wrong. In a camp called Omori, a maniacally cruel guard nicknamed the Bird delighted in starving and assaulting captives. Despised by fellow guards and prisoners alike, the Bird singled out Zamperini for sadistic brutality. “He was a psychopath,” Zamperini says.
Before he and his fellow captives could enact a plan to kill the Bird, the Empire surrendered. The Bird disappeared. A 40-person arrest warrant for war criminals signed by Douglas MacArthur named Prime Minister Hideki Tojo Japan’s most-wanted man. Although a lowly corporal most of the war, the Bird’s 84-count indictment ranked him number 23.
After Zamperini’s lengthy recuperation in Hawaiian hospitals, the Bird stalked his dreams; the demon ruined sleep. Back home in California, Zamperini settled down with a beautiful bride named Cynthia. But trying for a normal life was rough sledding. Legions of repatriated servicemen rendered jobs and housing scarce. With an incomplete degree from USC, Zamperini was at a disadvantage. He chose not to seek full-time work, wasting money in shaky ventures.
After resolutely experiencing overseas hell, Zamperini underwent an excruciating stateside psychological collapse. His greatest shame? Taking Cynthia along a miserable spiral down to the brink of divorce. He awoke from nightmares strangling the Bird with his hands locked around Cynthia’s neck. Liquor became a mistress to blot out the Bird’s specter. Secretly Zamperini decided to return to Japan and murder his captor.
Then Cynthia dragged Zamperini to hear the Rev. Billy Graham, at whom Zamperini initially sneered… until something clicked, as he recalled a survival prayer offered while adrift in the Pacific. Zamperini went home to jettison his supply of cigarettes and alcohol. Even the Bird disappeared: “I accepted Christ and my bad dreams ended.”
Zamperini had once commented that with foreknowledge in 1943 of what lay ahead in Japanese hands, he would have committed suicide. “But that’s just what I felt at the time,” he says quietly.
With renewed spirit, he founded the Victory Boys camp for wayward youth. The Zamperinis raised two daughters, living comfortably if not lavishly; Roger Banister ran the 4-minute mile in 1954; Mutsuhiro Watanabe, otherwise known as the Bird, emerged from hiding after a 1952 amnesty declaration and died a wealthy man in 2003.
If Zamperini could talk with the Bird now, “I would forgive him,” he says firmly.
Today Zamperini maintains an active calendar as a lecturer. A jolly demeanor and quick wit belie his 94 years. The erstwhile world-class runner has hardly lost a cognitive step. The New York Times best-seller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand chronicles his life, and a movie is in the works.
After outliving not only his Olympic teammates, but his former tormentors and most of his friends and family, what of the man himself and his comrades-in-arms?
“Well, I’m not keen on that Brokaw ‘Greatest Generation’ stuff,” Zamperini states flatly. “We did what we had to. Call us the Hardy Generation.”