For forty-seven days Louis Zamperini drifted idly in the Pacific Ocean. Armed with a few small tins of drinking water, a flare gun, some fishing line, and a couple of Hershey D-Ration candy bars, Zamperini and two other soldiers struggled to stay alive. Their struggle was exacerbated by vicious sharks, blistering heat, treacherous swells, and Japanese fighter pilots. For most people, this experience would undoubtedly be the most challenging of their lives. For Zamperini, it was not even the most difficult of the war.
Louis Zamperini was always exceptional. After getting into trouble as a child, Zamperini found an outlet in track and field. In a time when the four-minute mile was one of the most elusive goals in sports, Zamperini pushed the limits. Zamperini set the national high school record for the mile in 1934 with a time of 4:21.3. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California and began training for the 1936 Olympics. At the Berlin Olympics, Zamperini finished eighth in the 5000-meter race, but ran the fastest final lap of all the competitors in an unprecedented 56 seconds. His final push even grabbed the attention of Adolf Hitler who personally congratulated Zamperini after the race. Zamperini turned his attention to the 1940 Olympics.
By early 1940, Zamperini had dropped his mile time to 4:07.9. Yet as Zamperini came closer to the four-minute mile, the United States came closer to war. There would be no Olympics in 1940. Zamperini was forced to forego running for a career in the military. He joined the Army Air Corps in November 1941 and was trained as a bombardier. Zamperini flew in B-24s in the Pacific War Theater and went on a number of bombing raids. In May 1943, Zamperini went out on a mission to search for a missing plane when his plane had trouble of its own. Zamperini and the crew went down; eight men died on impact, three survived.
Zamperini and the surviving crewmembers, Francis “Mac” MacNamara and Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, were in dire straits. They quickly ran out of food and drinkable water. They passed the time by telling stories and pretending to cook meals. About thirty-three days into their survival, Mac passed away. The two surviving crew members faced typhoon sized waves, angry sharks, and were shot at by Japanese pilots. Their bullet-riddled raft, faded from the blistering sun, barely supported their emaciated bodies. Finally, on July 15, the two men were picked up by Japanese soldiers. To say they were saved would be inaccurate.
Zamperini and Phillips were modestly nursed back to health before they were transferred to a prisoner of war camp. The Japanese POW camps were notoriously cruel. Over one-third of all allied POWs died in the camps and the Japanese had plans to kill all POWs by the war’s end. Zamperini was separated from Phillips and transferred to a number of different camps throughout the war. Always on the brink of starvation, Zamperini was treated especially cruelly because of his running fame. Zamperini was forced to clean up the latrines, shovel coal, and was beaten relentlessly. Due to the harsh treatment, cold weather, and severe malnutrition, Zamperini developed beriberi, a deadly disease caused by vitamin deficiency. He was on the brink of death.
On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Less than a month later Japan surrendered. Allied planes began dropping food, cigarettes, and news of victory to the famished POWs. Zamperini gradually regained his health and celebrated with his peers. He was officially released on September 5, 1945, more than two years after his plane crash. By that time the United States had declared Zamperini dead and his parents had received his Purple Heart “posthumously.” Most of his family and friends had long assumed he had died. The few that held out hope were still amazed to see Zamperini walk through the door on October 5, 1945.
Throughout his life Zamperini physically pushed his body to the limit. Yet it is truly his passion for life and mental vitality that continues to impress people around the world. His story is the inspiration for the bestselling book, Unbroken and now a major motion picture by the same name. Zamperini passed away in July of 2014; he was 97 years old.
The pictures above are all from NARA’s Still Pictures Division. Much of this blog was based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.