Excerpts from STEVE ONEY

93-year-old Louis Zamperini refuses to concede much to old age. He still works a couple of hours each day in the yard of his Hollywood Hills home, bagging leaves, climbing stairs and, on occasion, trimming trees with a chainsaw. His outlook is upbeat, even rambunctious. “I have a cheerful countenance at all times,” he says. “When you have a good attitude your immune system is fortified.” But as he plunged into “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s 496-page story of his life, the happy trappings of his current existence fell away.

The Courageous Life of Louis Zamperini

“Unbroken” details a life that was tumultuous from the beginning. As a blue-collar kid in Southern California, Mr. Zamperini fell in and out of scrapes with the law. By age 19, he’d redirected his energies into sports, becoming a record-breaking distance runner. He competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where he made headlines, not just on the track (Hitler sought him out for a congratulatory handshake), but by stealing a Nazi flag from the well-guarded Reich Chancellery. The heart of the story, however, is about Mr. Zamperini’s experiences while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

A bombardier on a B-24 flying out of Hawaii in May 1943, the Army Air Corps lieutenant was one of only three members of an 11-man crew to survive a crash into a trackless expanse of ocean. For 47 days, Mr. Zamperini and pilot Russell Allen Phillips (tail gunner Francis McNamara died on day 33) huddled aboard a tiny, poorly provisioned raft, subsisting on little more than rain water and the blood of hapless birds they caught and killed bare-handed. All the while sharks circled, often rubbing their backs against the bottom of the raft. The sole aircraft that sighted them was Japanese. It made two strafing runs, missing its human targets both times. After drifting some 2,000 miles west, the bullet-riddled, badly patched raft washed ashore in the Marshall Islands, where Messrs. Zamperini and Phillips were taken prisoner by the Japanese. The war still had more than two years to go.

For 25 months in such infamous Japanese POW camps as Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu, Mr. Zamperini was physically tortured and subjected to constant psychological abuse. He was beaten. He was starved. He was denied medical care for maladies that included beriberi and chronic bloody diarrhea. His fellow prisoners—among them Mr. Phillips—were treated almost as badly. But Mr. Zamperini was singled out by a sadistic guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known to prisoners as “the Bird,” a handle picked because it had no negative connotations that might bring down his irrational wrath. The Bird intended to make an example of the famous Olympian. He regularly whipped him across the face with a belt buckle and forced him to perform demeaning acts, among them push-ups atop pits of human excrement. The Bird’s goal was to force Mr. Zamperini to broadcast anti-American propaganda over the radio. Mr. Zamperini refused. Following Japan’s surrender, Mr. Watanabe was ranked seventh among its most wanted war criminals (Tojo was first). Because war-crime prosecutions were suspended in the 1950s, he was never brought to justice.

Mr. Zamperini, record-setting miler, 1939 Associated Press

In basic training, pre-WWII helmet, 1941 Louis Zamperini

The 43-year-old Ms. Hillenbrand contracted chronic fatigue syndrome during her sophomore year at Kenyon College. The bewildering disease, thought to originate from a virus, can be enfeebling and is incurable. Ms. Hillenbrand is today essentially a prisoner in her own home. She is so consistently weak and dizzy (vertigo is a side effect) that she recently installed a chair lift to get to the second floor of her house, where she lives with her husband, G. Borden Flanagan, an assistant professor of political philosophy at American University. What to others might seem simple matters are to her subjects of grave consideration. “I skipped my shower today,” she says, “in order to have the strength to do this interview. My illness is excruciating and difficult to cope with. It takes over your entire life and causes more suffering than I can describe.”

 

His damaged B-24 after a mission:, 1943 Louis Zamperini

During her exploration of Mr. Zamperini’s war years, Ms. Hillenbrand was most intrigued by his capacity to endure hardship. “One of the fascinating things about Louie,” she says, “is that he never allowed himself to be a passive participant in his ordeal. It’s why he survived. When he was being tortured, he wasn’t just lying there and getting hit. He was always figuring out ways to escape emotionally or physically.”

Mr. Zamperini with mother at homecoming, 1945Louis Zamperini

Although Mr. Zamperini came back to California in one piece, he was emotionally ruined. At night, his demons descended in the form of vengeful dreams about Mr. Watanabe. He drank heavily. He nearly destroyed his marriage. In 1949, at the urging of his wife, Cynthia, Mr. Zamperini attended a Billy Graham crusade in downtown Los Angeles, where he became a Christian. (The conversion of the war hero helped put the young evangelist on the map.) Ultimately Mr. Zamperini forgave his tormentors and enjoyed a successful career running a center for troubled youth. He even reached out to Mr. Watanabe. “As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment,” Mr. Zamperini wrote his former guard in the 1990s, “my post-war life became a nightmare … but thanks to a confrontation with God … I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you.” A third party promised to deliver the letter to Mr. Watanabe. He did not reply, and it is not known whether he received it. He died in 2003.

Mr. Zamperini still has his purloined Nazi flag. Sally Peterson for The Wall Street Journal

Louie dealt with his ordeal essentially alone. His was a mental struggle.” That struggle, she (Hillenbrand) adds, feels particularly resonant in 2010. “This is a time when people need to be buoyed by something, and Louie blows breath into people by making them realize that they can overcome more than they think.”

 

A rambunctious youth in Torrance, Calif. Louis Zamperini

He has transformed what he learned as a POW into parables (“Hope has to have a reason. Faith has to have an object”) that he feels can reduce stress and are perfect for an anxiety-filled time.

Visiting a prison camp in Japan in 1950 Louis Zamperini

[After reading this story I think the author, Laura Hillenbrand, who perseveres despite her awful sickness, ranks along with her subject as an amazing hero. – Gerda]

 

Advertisements

0 Comments Post your own or leave a trackback: Trackback URL

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: