The Zamperini Story
This story starts in Torrance, California. Louis Silvie Zamperini is a young Italian-American boy who, to put it mildly, is rebellious and incorrigible. He was a smoker at age five and a drinker three years later. Others often picked on him due to his Italian ethnicity. His brother Peter sees how fast Louis can run and decides to train him to be a runner. Louis begins to learn discipline and transforms from child delinquent to prodigious athlete. He became a distance runner, earning the nickname “The Torrance Tornado”.
Picture Credit: “File:Louis Zamperini at announcement of 2015 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal.JPG” by Floatjon is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Louis finished eighth in the 5,000-metre race at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic and set a record in the final lap, after which he was congratulated by Adolf Hitler, who shook his hand. Louis grabbed the headlines by stealing a Nazi flag.
Fast forward to a May afternoon in 1943. Louis is a bombardier on a United States Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator bomber and crew who are sent on a search-and-rescue mission with a plane previously used for spare parts. One engine fails, and the aircraft ultimately crashes in the ocean. Louis survives alongside two other crew members, floating on two inflatable rafts. After twenty-seven days adrift they attract the attention of a Japanese plane, which strafes and damages the rafts but misses them. On the forty-seventh day, Japanese sailors capture Louis and one other crew member (Phil). As prisoners of war, Louis and Phil are imprisoned on Kwajalein Atoll. The two American airmen are interrogated for information about newer bombers and the Norden bombsight. Louis says that they flew older models and draws a rendition of a Philco radio. They are dragged out to disrobe and kneel on planks. Instead of being executed, they are crudely washed and shipped to Japan. Upon arrival, the two are separated and sent to different POW camps.
Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini’s destiny, whether triumph or tragedy, depends on the strength of his will and his determination to survive. At camp Ōmori, in Tokyo, Louis and his fellow POWs are the responsibility of Japanese corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe who is especially tough on Louis, beating him often.
Louis is given an opportunity to broadcast a message home saying he is alive after learning that the US government classified him as being killed in action. When he refuses to broadcast another message laden with anti-American propaganda, however, he is sent back to camp, where Watanabe orders each prisoner in turn to punch Louis.
Louis Zamperini. U.S. Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Louis_Zamperini_%28U.S._Army_Air_Forces%29.jpg
At the end of the war, Louis and the other prisoners in the camp are liberated when the Americans occupy Japan just as a bomber flew over them and confirmed that the war is over. Louis tried to find Watanabe in his quarters but realised he had already fled. Louis sits down and stares at a picture of Watanabe as a child alongside his father. Louis returned home to America, where Louis kissed the ground on arriving home to his family. He initially struggled to overcome his ordeal following the war.
The Film: ‘Unbroken – A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption’
Unbroken is a 2014 American war film produced and directed by Angelina Jolie and written by the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson. It is based on the 2010 non-fiction book authored by Laura Hillenbrand.
The film was followed by a sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, in 2018. This sequel chronicles Louis Zamperini following his return from World War II, his personal struggles to adjust back to civilian life and his eventual conversion to evangelical Christianity after attending one of Billy Graham’s church revivals.
Louis Zamperini survived 47 days on a life raft in shark-infested waters and then endured two years as a Japanese prisoner of war. He was liberated in time to attend the second running of the invitational mile race that had been named in his memory when everyone thought he had been killed in action.
The film stars Jack O’Connell as USA Olympian, army officer Louis Zamperini and Miyavi as IJA corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe. The picture below is a screenshot from the trailer to the film – you can watch it here. At the end of the film, there is a slideshow of the real Louis and the events in his life following the war. Louis married and had two children. Phil also survived and married. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe went into hiding and evaded prosecution despite being placed on the top 40 most wanted Japanese war criminals list by General Douglas MacArthur. Louis lived out his promise to convert to Christianity, devote his life to God and forgive his war-time captors, meeting with many of them. Many years later, however, Watanabe still refused to meet with Louis.
Louis had an opportunity to relive his time as an Olympian when he ran a leg of the Olympic Torch relay for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He was four days short of his 81st birthday. The closing titles reveal Louis Zamperini died on 2nd July 2014, at the age of 97, after a 40-day battle with pneumonia.
The Book: ‘Unbroken’
Laura Hillenbrand, the book’s author, said:
“In a life of almost unimaginable drama, [Louis Zamperini] experienced supreme triumphs, but also brutal hardship, incomprehensible suffering, and the cruelty of his fellow man. But Louis 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.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Book: Devil at My Heels A Heroic Olympians Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II: Louis Zamperini: Trade Paperback: 9780060934217: Powell’s Books”. www.powells.com
- Book: Unbreakable: Survival, Resilience, Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Unbroken-Laura-Hillenbrand/dp/0007580576/
- YouTube Video The Great Zamperini, at: https://youtu.be/aEGL-wyz1yk
- YouTube Video Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrjJbl7kRrI