Louis Zamperini: The Man who Refused to be Broken

Louie Zamperini road to Berlin | Courtesy of Runner's World

Louis Zamperini walked limply to the starting line as he was at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, moments away from taking part in a 5,000-meter race at the impressive age of nineteen. Boom! The starting gun went off as he began his stride to the middle of the surrounding runners. Louis was in the second group as he glanced to see where the two leaders of the race were. He wanted to make a move to the front but couldn’t as his body had felt heavy and stiff. As the pack of men began to thin out, Louis noticed he was in twelfth place. Tired, Louis began to remember how he got here and how his brother always told him, “A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain,” and with that he took off, passing multiple runners, and finished eighth place. Even without a medal, he left his mark on that track, running his last lap in 56 seconds.1

Louis Zamperini was a peculiar boy brought into the world January 26, 1917, in Olean, New York. His parents were Italian immigrants and were very young when they had Louis, and his older brother Pete. Louis was the odd man out as a kid. He was skinny and weak looking, and as an Italian during this time, he was bullied a lot for his ethnicity. He would get consistently beat up and taunted for his abnormalities, and simply decided to not weep or run during the torment. As he began his teens, his behavior began to become violent and mischievous. He would steal things, physically fight boys and girls, and messed with authority figures. His parents were at a loss for his corrupt behavior. When Louis found a passion for running, his life began to turn around. His brother was the first one to push Louis to train, but it was not until Louis started running for himself that he saw improvement. He would run miles and miles in his neighborhood and would build stamina by diving in the public pool and holding his breath until he could be underwater for up to four minutes. His training paid off when the track season began, and he was breaking mile times left and right every meet, each time coming in under five minutes. Louis was attracting attention from media such as Los Angeles Times, as he was known to be the fastest high school miler in American history. Louis’s next ambitious step was to make it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics; and he got to the final Olympic trials by running one of the fastest 5,000-meter race at the Compton Open in May of 1936. Through an intense race in Manhattan, with the weather exceeding 100 degrees, and bodies dropping mid-race due to heat exhaustion, Louis managed to win first place in a very close race with the claimed “unbeatable” Don Lash. This led to Zamperini going off to Germany to the 1936 Berlin Olympics as the youngest distance runner to qualify and make the team.2

Adolf Hitler sitting in his box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics | Courtesy of Time Magazine
The idea of the 1936 Olympics being in Germany happened when the Olympic Congress met in the auditorium of Berlin University. Two men, Theodor Lewald and Carl Diem, who were a part of the German Organizing Committee, pushed to make the Olympics happen in Berlin as they were passionate in sports and sports history. Shortly after, the games were awarded to Germany in March 1931 by the International Olympic Committee. The road to getting Berlin ready for the Olympics was a daunting task. The Nazi administration spent a staggering 42 million Reichsmarks, and built a 325-acre complex that consisted of swimming pools, hockey pitches, and indoor institutions. The central area consisted of the huge bowl-shaped Olympic stadium made from stone, which held up to 100,000 people. This was the most controversial Olympics in history as Hitler made it clear he would have no Jew, no dogs, and no negroes attending this event. This presented a problem for American athletes, and only finalized the decision to go when the proposal made by Hitler was voted down by the Amateur Athletic Union. The Berlin Olympics was a success as it was one of the largest turnouts, one of the first Olympics to be broadcast on television, and most tourists and athletes left satisfied. This was a win for Germany as they were perceived as more respectable and powerful during a time where this was needed, as war was approaching.3

Louie Zamperini enlisted in the US Army Air Force | Courtesy of MyHero.com
After having more success with track, Louis decided to enlist in the army, joining the Army Air Corps. This marked one of the most critical events in Louis’s life, when he was assigned bombardier on a bomber named Superman. In continuation, the bomber failed, injuring many, and surviving crewmates were transferred to Hawaii and given another bomber named The Green Hornet to go on a mission in search of lost aircraft and crew. On the search, due to technical difficulties, the plane crashed, landing in the ocean, killing eight out of the eleven that were on board the plane. Louis had remarkably survived. As he regained his consciousness, he tried to maneuver through blood, gasoline, and bundles of crushed bomber parts. Voices began to emerge from the distance, and Louis swam his way towards it and found two of his crewmates, pilot Russell Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara. Luckily, they were able to find rafts that contained survival materials. After the first couple of days, once there was no more fresh water to drink, Mac aka Francis became hysterical, screaming that they were going to die, shaking in fear. He was so irrational that he ate all the chocolate that was in the survival kit, which was the only food that they had. These men spent days with little to no food, and when they did get a chance to eat, it was raw small fish that they caught by killing and eating birds that would land on their raft, and using it for fish bait. The only “fresh” water they rarely got a chance to drink was from the occasional rainfall. To top it all off, they were surrounded by sharks and frequently had to fight them off with the oars. By Day 33, Mac had unfortunately died, and Russel (Phil) and Louis had dropped their body weight to where you could see their skeleton; their skin and lips were dry and sunburned, they were no longer hungry and their last days seemed near. The only way these two kept their sanity was through constant communication and stimulation of the brain. They would tell stories, quiz each other, and every night even though Louis wasn’t religious, he prayed to God for help. On the 47th day the sky was different, flocks of birds were flying, the sound of planes were near, and they could see islands ahead. As they analyzed that the island was on enemy territory, they tried to row their way to shore before being spotted. Unsuccessful, they were soon captured by the Japanese navy.4

Louie Zamperini and his two crewmates stranded in the ocean | Courtesy of Thinglink.com
Louis and his surviving crewmate Phil were surprisingly treated well by the Japanese navy as they received copious amounts of nutritious food, comfortable sleeping arrangements, and health benefits. This soon changed when a freighter arrived on the island, and Louie and Phil were kept in cells while starving and severely dehydrated. After enduring several days of this, they were passed around multiple Japanese prisoner of war camps.5 These camps consisted of about 140,000 white prisoners and more than a third of them died of starvation, intense working conditions, disease, and harsh punishment. Treaties, such as the Geneva Convention that were instilled to protect wounded and sick soldiers during the war, were completely ignored by Japanese commanders. Prisoners lived in barracks and slept on thin mats, ate about 500 calories per day, consuming food very low in fat content, and they had to work all day on railroads, fields, and factories. Most guards didn’t speak English, so prisoners were required to successfully communicate with them or punishment was given. Camps were surrounded by barb wire or fencing and any attempt to escape, an execution would be held for the runaway and other innocent prisoners.6 There was nothing that could be done but hope that you would survive one day at a time until a miracle occurred.

Louie Zamperini and other victims suffering the harsh conditions of prison war camps in Japan | Courtesy of Youtube.com
Not only did Louis have to endure the jarring conditions of the Japanese prison camps but he also had to experience the selective torment of the head prison guard Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe. Once he stepped foot into Naoetsu, the last Japanese prison camp he would see, “The Bird” was at him with brutal beatings for no real reason other than to satisfy his sadist ways. He was a complete animal afflicting pain and bringing fear to all prisoners and other prison guards with a sick smirk on his face. Out of the many punishments that Watanabe gave Louis, there was one retribution that stood out. After a frail Louis failed an impossible task given by “The Bird,” he sent him to the compound. Lying on the ground was a six-foot-long heavy beam, and “The Bird” ordered Louis to hold it above his head, and if his arms dropped even the slightest, he would be struck by a guard. Louis picked up the beam in the blazing sun, staring daggers into “The Bird” as he watched amused. Minutes passed and with eyes still locked on “The Bird.” As he mocked him, Louis could feel the beam become more and more difficult to hold up. More time passed, and his arms began to quiver, tipping the beam, and immediately he was struck by the guard and he stood back up. He began to feel dizzy and his mind began to fog. He was on the brink of collapsing, until something inside him got fired up and he stood with the beam over his head just staring at “The Bird.” In rage, “The Bird” tackled him to the ground and the beam landed on Louis’s head, knocking him out. When he woke, he couldn’t remember the last moments before he blacked out or how long he was standing. It was estimated that Louis was holding the beam for thirty-seven minutes, far longer than his body should have been able to do this. Through all the beatings and torment “The Bird” tried to break Louis, but he would not allow it. On August 20, 1945, it was announced that the war was officially over. An American plane hovered over the prisoners as they bathed in the river and they began violently cheering and crying out in pure joy as their hell was finally over. Some prisoners were destroying the camp fences and even setting it on fire as the Japanese surrendered. After Louis had gotten his wounds tended and strength back, he finally returned home, as his concerned family welcomed him back with relieved and open arms.7

The American family after World War II changed completely after the devastating war that killed almost 300,000 servicemen. Many men on their return home from the war wanted to fall back to the norms of their life, but this would be a harder task than expected. The most common and unspoken repercussions of the war was the intense number of servicemen experiencing psychoneurotic disorder (now known as PTSD). Many soldiers suffered unexpected irrational behavior due to triggers that reminded them of the war. Husbands began drinking heavily, experiencing night terrors and having lingering sadness resulting in depression. This created problems in families as wives had trouble dealing with their husbands, leading to an increase in divorce rates around the end of the war.8

Louie Zamperini’s tormentor Matsuhiro Watanabe while he was in the prison camps in Japan | Courtesy of ThomasWictor.com
Louis Zamperini after the war experienced the same haunting memories of his traumatic experiences affecting his family as he married in 1946. He was obsessed with the idea of getting his revenge on “The Bird,” that he dreamt of killing him multiple times. This led to years of Louie drinking to the point of redundancy, neglecting his wife Cynthia. Cynthia and Louie would get into intense physical fights and Louis continued to go on benders even when his first daughter was born, creating a dangerous atmosphere for the family. Louie’s inability to let go of the torture inflicted by “The Bird” was the main cause of his downfall. It was not until Cynthia encouraged a reluctant Louie to attend a crusade, that he began to turn his life around. The preachings resonated with Louis as he was reminded of his prayers when he was stranded and enslaved. He decided to start reading the Bible, and he gave his life to Christ as he finally forgave his tormentors, finding a new form of peace within himself.9

Eight-one year old Louie holding the Olympic Torch at the Winter Olympics in Japan | Courtesy of Stars and Stripes

In Louis’s later years, before he was about to turn eighty-one years of age, he decided to return to Japan to participate in the Olympic Torch for the Winter Olympics. Knowing that he was going to be near the prisoner of war camp where he was tortured, he decided to write a letter to “The Bird” revealing the affects that he had had on him and how he had forgiven him for all his faults. A meeting was attempted to be set up between Louis and “The Bird,” but Watanabe refused to see him and never replied to Louis’s letter, as no one knew if he had even read it at all. As eighty-one-year-old Louie raised the Olympic torch and began running past the place where he was imprisoned, beaten and humiliated, he was not fazed, for he had overcome the pain and suffering, replacing it with joy and forgiveness.10 Louis Zamperini died July 2, 2014 from pneumonia at the age of ninety-seven. Even with his death, he left a mark on the world with his impressive will to not let the trials of life defeat him. He continued to fight even when hope was lost, bringing life to his saying, “Don’t give up, don’t give in. There’s always an answer to everything.”11

  1. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 22-27.
  2. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 5-22.
  3. Christopher Hilton, Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Troud, Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press 2011), 4-18, 28-41, 178.
  4. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 120-132, 141-152, 156-160, 165-172.
  5. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption. (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 174-188.
  6. “Japanese POW Camps During World War Two,” History on the Net, assessed November 27, 2018, https://www.historyonthenet.com/world-war-two-japanese-pow-camps.
  7. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 277-282, 295-298, 305-308, 325-334.
  8. “Their war ended 70 years ago. Their trauma didn’t,” The Washington Post, assessed November 29,2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-greatest-generations-forgotten trauma/2015/09/11/8978d3b0-46b0-11e5-8ab4-c73967a143d3_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.378bc0ade0e0.
  9. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 362-376.
  10. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (New York, NY: Random House 2010), 396-398.
  11. Steve Chawkins and Keith Thursby, “Louis Zamperini dies at 97; Olympic track star and WWII hero,” Los Angeles Times, July 3 2014.
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1 Comment

  • Your introduction was an excellent way to set the tone of the article. The more you read, the more that the introduction solidifies the article. I was surprised to see the events unfold with him struggling at racing to being put into a Japanese internment camp. The picture showing him go from a strapping lad to a shell of a man is harrowing to say the least.

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