A handshake and the words "The boy with the fast finish": That's how Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler, presiding over the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, congratulated Louie Zamperini of Torrance, Calif., when the 19-year-old track star from USC stunned the Fuhrer by making up 50 yards in the final lap of the Games' 5,000-meter event.
For most Americans, competing in the Olympics and shaking Adolf Hitler's hand might mark the most historic events of their lives. But for Zamperini -- still mentally sharp and physically spry at 93, and living unassisted at his home in the Hollywood Hills -- those thrilling moments would prove mere precursors to a set of experiences that would test the very limits of humanity, and mark him for life as a survivor in a class by himself.
Though told before, Zamperini's story is receiving fresh attention with the recent publication of the New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller "Unbroken," by Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote "Seabiscuit." Tracking down previously untapped veterans and unpublished documents, Hillenbrand has marshaled mountains of old and new evidence to present Zamperini's incredible life story with fresh and harrowing detail. But his story is not for the squeamish.
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Even before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the United States into World War II, Zamperini had enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the forerunner to the modern Air Force). He was trained to serve as a bombardier aboard the B-24 bomber plane, a fate he and his comrades already dreaded. "We were praying for a B-17, not a B-24," Zamperini told Fox News in a recent interview at his home. "And we waited and waited. Pretty soon, the planes started coming in, and they were all B-24s. Our hearts dropped. There had been so many of them that were just crashing in training. They had a gas leak. You could always smell gasoline."
Among the few pleasures afforded military flight crews in World War II was the decision of what to nickname their plane and how to decorate it with a painting, near the aircraft's nose, that would illustrate that name. These creative names and pictures ranged from the noble to the naughty, with images of nude 1940s-era bathing beauties, members of the Seven Dwarfs, and other cartoon characters of the period. Presciently, Zamperini's plane, helmed by pilot Russell Allen Phillips of Indiana, was tagged "Superman," and featured a rendering of DC Comics' Man of Steel clutching a machine gun.
Based at Hawaii's Hickam Field, Zamperini participated in a series of dangerous campaigns. It was Louie who dropped the bombs that devastated Wake Island ("That was the longest raid in the history of the war," he noted proudly, "round trip from Midway to Wake and back"), and also a phosphate plant on Nauru Island.
The plant was critical to the Japanese supply of fertilizer and fuel. So spectacular was the damage from this mission that photographs of it ran in the July 5, 1943 edition of LIFE magazine.
"We were told to flatten it," Zamperini said of the plant. Flying at 8,000 feet, the "Superman" crew became the first in the war to dive-bomb a four-engine bomber. "I bombed the runway and the bombers and the factory, and then I had one alternate bomb. And I dropped it on a shack which I thought was probably the radio shack and it wasn't -- it was the fuel supply. And a cloud of smoke shot in the air as high as we were: 8,000 feet"
Suddenly, though, "Superman" was being pursued by nine Japanese fighter planes. The ensuing duel over the skies of the South Pacific was intense and deadly.
"They came in so close to us they couldn't miss us, and they were so close that we couldn't miss them," Zamperini recalled. The American tailgunners fired furiously at the approaching enemy planes -- and suffered their own casualties. "We took on 600 bullet holes, five cannon holes, right tail shot off, left tire flattened ... Blood all over the plane ... We had seven men seriously injured, got 'em back alive; one died." A photograph from the period shows Zamperini with a sickened look on his face, his hand pawing through a hole in the side of the plane as big as a basketball.
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Zamperini had narrowly escaped with his life. But shortly thereafter, in May 1943, he and his crew, along with some men with whom he had not previously flown, were ordered to undertake a search-and-rescue mission. With "Superman" still in need of extensive repair, the men were further ordered to fly a notoriously faulty B-24, nicknamed after another superhero of the era. Louie and Phillips, the quiet, steady "Superman" pilot who was a minister's son, had other ideas.
"The operations officer comes out in a jeep and says, 'Hold it, hold It! We just got a report that a B-25 has gone 200 miles north of Palmyra. Would you guys go look for him?' Well," Zamperini recalled, "that's really a command. 'We got two days off.' 'Well, yeah,' (the officer replied) but you're the only guys here.' We said, 'Well, we can't take Superman, because he's being serviced.' And they say, 'Well, we got the Green Hornet.' Well, that was a lemon plane. We used it for the cabbage run, flying between Hawaii and the Big Island to pick up lettuce and steaks and stuff! But it was a lemon, and it was actually scavenged for parts for other planes. But it always passed inspection."
It wasn't long -- only a few hundred miles -- before the number one engine on "The Green Hornet" started to fail, followed swiftly by the others. The plane started going down, and crashed violently into the South Pacific. Louie found himself underwater, pinned to the wreckage by a coil of wires.
"I find myself under the tripod of the machine gun mount wedged securely in. I couldn't move anything," he recalled. "This was a hopeless situation. I knew this was it. I'm dead. And so I started to sink with the plane. My ears popped. I knew I was down 20 feet, because I did a lot of free diving. Then as I sank deeper, I felt a tremendous pain in my forehead, so I figured I was down maybe seventy or eighty feet -- and then I lost consciousness.
"The next thing I knew I was conscious again -- freed and loosened, no wires, no nothing. And I began to reach around in the darkness with my hand, trying to find a way to get out of the plane. And my University of Southern California ring, which happened to be on this finger, which still has a white scar -- that caught onto the waist window in such a way I couldn't let go."
Cutting his finger to free himself, Louie inflated his life jacket and headed topside to find the area around him littered with wreckage from the plane. "I started taking in a little oil and brake fluid and gasoline and blood, and when I got to the surface I just threw it all up," he said. "Then I heard, 'Help, help!' I looked over and there was the pilot and tailgunner, hanging on to the gas tank."
The pilot was Phillips, a close friend of Zamperini's, and the tailgunner was a relative stranger, Sgt. Francis ("Mac") McNamara. Before he could connect with the two of them, however, Zamperini eyed their lone chance at survival: He managed to grab hold of the cord attached to a pair of flimsy, inflatable life rafts, just before they drifted out of reach across the ocean surface.
Though conscious and alert, Phillips was badly injured, having sustained a gaping, bleeding head wound. Zamperini used what he had on hand to dress Phillips's wound -- and the trio was officially adrift at sea. That Zamperini retained his presence of mind, despite the trauma of the crash, he would later credit to a Dr. Webster, who had taught a psychology course Louie had attended at USC. The mind is like a muscle, the professor had said, and it will atrophy if you don't use it. Louie took the words to heart as he settled in for what he knew what be a prolonged ordeal.
McNamara, however, panicked almost immediately. "The first half-hour," Zamperini said, "he got on his knees and started screaming, 'We're going to die! We're all going to die!' Just like a movie. I said, 'Mac, settle down. Nobody is going to die. They're out looking for us. We'll be picked up this afternoon or tomorrow.' And he kept screaming. So I tried a little psychology on him. I took a course at 'SC. And that didn't work. So I threatened him. I said, 'We're going to be picked up today or tomorrow, and I'm going to make a report to the commander, and you'll be in real trouble.' He kept screaming. And so I just turned my back on him and came back with the back of my hand and cracked him across his face, and knocked him back on his fanny. And he (was) completely content. Laid there quietly. And it was the best thing I could have done."
But McNamara panicked again the following morning, when -- while the other two men lay sleeping -- he wolfed down the small ration of chocolate that had been sown into the raft, the only food provisions they had. Starving, injured, sick, wasting away, the men would drift for some 2,000 miles across the Pacific.
Repeatedly, they were set upon by ravenous sharks, monstrous sea creatures that grew more sophisticated over time in the manner in which they circled and lunged at their prey. From above, a Japanese fighter plane took several circling runs in the sky, strafing the rafts and their occupants with bullet fire. Incredibly, despite the aircraft pumping 48 bullet holes into the rafts, none of the three men was shot. "A miracle!" Zamperini would later say. They struggled to re-inflate the vessels with a small pump and sewing kit included with their meager provisions.
They ate only sporadically, occasionally catching an albatross and fashioning its bones into a set of fake claws, which Louie fastened to his hand and used to clutch at the odd fish swimming just beneath the surface. "Then another week went by, another albatross landed on my head, and I grabbed him," Zamperini told Fox News. "And I'll tell you, that bird tasted like hot fudge sundae with nuts and whipped cream on it! We were laying back like the kings did, in the movies ... living high off the hog."
But salt from the ocean exacerbated their wounds, and the absence of food and potable water took its toll. The men's lips became so distended that they extended to their noses and chins. Over a month's time, each man lost half his body weight, thinning out to about 80 pounds.
At one point in the odyssey, they lost a raft, forcing all three men to share the remaining one. McNamara would redeem his early failings, saving the others' lives at one point by springing to life with an oar and beating back an attack in which two sharks actually took turns lunging at them from opposite sides of the raft.
But on the 33rd day, Mac, who had been ebbing in spirit and vitality, died. A few hours earlier, sensing the end was near, he spoke meekly to Zamperini. "Louie, do you think I'm going to die?" he asked. "Mac, I think you're going to die tonight," Louie recalled telling his comrade. "I believe in telling people the truth. ... He accepted it. And during the night I felt a jolt, and reached over and touched his pulse. And we didn't do anything -- just went back to sleep. And in the morning we got up, did a eulogy, and put him overboard and he just sank. Skin and bone."
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A full two weeks after Mac's death, Louie and Phillips, who had calculated their location to be near the Gilbert Islands, were finally rescued by a Japanese military vessel. But their ordeal had only just begun. The first place they were sent was Kwajalein Island, which Zamperini would come to regard as the worst time of his life. Confined to small hut-like cell, he observed the names of nine U.S. Marines carved into the wall; when he asked what had become of him, he was told they had all been decapitated. "That's what they do to all prisoners who come here," matter-of-factly explained a Japanese guard who spoke English. "Execution Island" was how Kwajalein came to be known to American soldiers.
From the outset, the guards and even visiting Japanese submarine crews freely beat, punched, poked, kicked, burned with lit cigarettes, threw rocks at, and otherwise tortured Zamperini and Phillips. Sometimes a whole crew of eighty men would take turns inflicting bodily harm on the prisoners, a ritual that would go on for hours. A day's food ration, tossed into the cell like a rubber ball, would be a fistful of inedible rice. The cells were infested with mosquitoes and flies. "You could reach out with your hand and go like that," Louie recalled, grabbing at the air in his Hollywood home, "and see nothing but blood....I used to lay in this cell and (think) I'd rather be in the raft and die out there, where everything is clean and nice and no tormenting."
The chief difference between the ordeal at sea and the POW camp, of course, was that at sea, Louie and his comrades mostly had to confront only the cruelties of the sun and the monsoon-like rains, the limits of hunger and thirst, the temptations of dementia and the ever-circling sharks. In the hands of the Japanese, however, it was the Americans' dignity that was assaulted, and they were forced to confront the ugly fact that man's cruelty to his fellow man far exceeds anything seen amongst the animals of the jungle or the creatures of the sea.
Only fleetingly did the prisoners glimpse humanity amongst their captors. On one occasion at Kwajalein, when Zamperini had twice been jabbed by a guard with a stick that twice bloodied his face, a different guard -- one who had addressed Zamperini with "You Christian? Me Christian" -- got wind of what happened and took action into his own hands. The next time the brutal guard showed up, he was sporting bandages on his forehead and lip. "He actually beat him up for me," Zamperini marveled.
The cruelty took new forms. One day they were sent for and marched up to a set of doctors in lab coats joined by their interns. The prisoners were to be guinea pigs for medical experiments. The doctors filled their syringes with a weird green serum of unknown composition. "And they had stopwatches and they said, 'We're going to inject you; you must tell us exactly how you feel,'" Zamperini recalled. "So they started the watch after they injected us and I said, 'Well, I'm getting dizzy.' And they kept writing it down. And then I said, 'Now I feel itchy all over my body.' They wrote that down, and the time. And then I said, 'Now I'm going to pass out.' And then they stopped. Well, they did that three times. I went back to my cell. I couldn't sleep that night because of red pimples all over my body. Itchy....Three times (in total), we were injected."
Back home, Louie had been declared missing in action, and later, after the set period of time had elapsed, killed in action. His parents and siblings in Torrance, however, never wavered in believing their beloved Olympian was still alive. In fact, his execution date at Kwajalein was set. "And we know we're going to be executed," Zamperini remembered. As if on cue, a new Japanese officer showed up, informed his colleagues of Zamperini's Olympic past, and suggested that instead of being executed, he and Phillips be transferred to another camp, from which they could be prevailed upon to make radio broadcasts, feeding propaganda to the mainland United States. "So that saved our lives," Louie said.
Now commenced a series of visits to different hellholes manned by guards trained from birth to believe that to be captured in war was a singular disgrace, and that those so disgraced were sub-human, worthy only of continual degradation and abuse. By September 1944, Zamperini found himself at the Omori POW camp off Tokyo Bay. Here he would encounter one of the most sadistic of all the Japanese camp personnel later charged as war criminals: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "The Bird."
Similar in age to Louie, the Bird was among the less distinguished members of an affluent Japanese family. The Japanese accountant at the camp, tracked down by Hillenbrand decades later, told her Watanabe's extreme sadism toward the prisoners under his command provided him with a form of sexual gratification. And according to Unbroken, the Bird fixed upon Zamperini with singular fury, regarding him as "Prisoner Number One" and subjecting him to viciousness unmatched even by his brutal treatment of the other captives.
"I had nightmares on this Bird guy," Zamperini told Fox News. "If I looked away from his eyes, he punched me out for looking away. If I stared at his eyes, he punched me for staring at his eyes. ... Every day he did something to me ... and it was a brutal life. ... He hit me over the head with a big, probably two-pound steel buckle, cracked my skull and I'm down on the ground bleeding. And he hands me a piece of toilet paper to wipe the blood. And he says, 'Awww,' like 'I'm sorry.' And I thought, 'Well, he can't be so bad after all.' So I wiped the blood off, I stood up, I wiped it and I looked at it, and he hit me again."
This was just one of countless similar incidents. The mind reels at the thought of the human body absorbing the punishment doled out to Zamperini. On another occasion, the Bird forced the other inmates to line up and take turns punching Zamperini, and others, in the face -- as hard as they could. Attempts to soften the blows were instantly detected by the Bird and met with the demand that the prisoners put their full weight behind their punches. They would apologize as they filed past, while Louie muttered to just get it over with. Hillenbrand wrote:
For the first few punches, Louie stayed on his feet. But his legs soon began to waver, and he collapsed. He pulled himself upright, but fell again with the next punch, and then the next. Eventually, he blacked out. When he came to, the Bird forced the men to resume punching him, screaming, "Next! Next! Next!... "
The sun sank. The beating went on for some two hours, the Bird watching with fierce and erotic pleasure. When every enlisted man had done his punching, the Bird ordered the guards to club each (prisoner) twice in the head with a kendo stick.
The victims had to be carried to the barracks. Louie's face was so swollen that for several days he could barely open his mouth. By one estimate, each man had been punched in the face 220 times.
"I'd rather do slave labor than be under him," Zamperini said he thought at the time. "Because the guy beat me almost every day. And when they'd ask him why he beat me, he kept saying something about orders. So I think what they did (was) they tried to make my life so hard by daily beatings that when I was offered a chance to broadcast (propaganda), and live in a beautiful room and eat good food, that I would accept. But there was no way I could do it." Indeed, Zamperini did make one broadcast -- in which he was permitted to alert his family that he was still alive -- but he steadfastly refused subsequent Japanese demands that he make additional broadcasts that called for him to denigrate the United States.
Zamperini received a brief respite from the Bird when the commandant was transferred to another camp; but within months that respite ended, when Zamperini was himself transferred, to a site about 35 miles north of Nagano. He recalled: "Walked in over 10 feet of snow to a prison camp. And then we were told to stand at attention and face the guard shack. ... Pretty soon, the door opened, and out stepped Sgt. Watanabe, the Bird. I never thought my knees would buckle, but my knees buckled, and I almost fell down to the ground. I couldn't believe it. So my troubles were starting all over again. And then he threatened to kill me."
Through all the beatings, torture, disease, starvation, and humiliation -- including being forced to do push-ups atop a mound of human waste -- Zamperini survived. Pushed beyond all reason, he and fellow prisoners devised a plan to kill Watanabe -- a plot aborted only when the Bird failed to observe his usual routine.
Shortly after that, with American warplanes becoming a more frequent sight and both captors and captives alike reconciled to the imminent prospect of Allied victory, Watanabe skipped out. Though he would be named as a war criminal and become the object of a nationwide postwar manhunt, he eluded capture. Aside from an interview with CBS News in the 1990s, he lived quietly until his death in 2003.
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Louie and the other POWs were rescued and repatriated. In his hometown of Torrance, Calif., he was seen as a figure risen from the dead. He became a national hero, publishing his memoir "Devil At My Heels" (later reissuing it in an updated version), and marrying a beautiful young socialite named Cynthia Applewhite. But his nightmares about Watanabe persisted, a lingering form of torture from the Bird. Louie grew combative and turned to drink, descending into unmistakable alcoholism. Cynthia readied herself for a divorce. "We were falling apart," Louie recalled.
Then, just as he was hitting a new low, Louie begrudgingly acceded to Cynthia's insistence that he attend a religious revival meeting being held in a tent in Los Angeles by a dynamic young Christian preacher. The date was October 1949; the speaker was the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham. At first, Louie remained resistant to Graham's fiery preaching style. But during his second session with Graham -- "For all those who have sinned, come show their glory of God!" he thundered -- Zamperini experienced an epiphany. He remembered a long-forgotten moment aboard the life raft, when he had looked to the heavens and vowed, if he survived that ordeal, to devote the rest of his life to serving God.
"I realized what a heel I was," he told Fox News. "Turned my back on God. ... I went to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ and just my whole life was revolutionized in a moment. ... And that was the turning point in my life, the final change."
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In the six decades since then, Louie mentored troubled youth; carried the torch at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles; returned to Japan twice (once to forgive his guards, in the 1950s, and again, in 1998, to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games); wrote a letter of forgiveness to the Bird, imploring him to become a Christian (he never learned whether Watanabe received the letter); and continued to speak about his experiences and his faith across the country. He spent seven years working with Hillenbrand on "Unbroken," patiently fielding questions from her no fewer than 75 times.
"One day she called me on the phone," he told Fox News, "and said, 'Louie, I want to do your biography.' I said, 'Laura, I've milked it dry. I've done the research; there's nothin' left!' She said: 'But I must do it.' I said, 'Okay. I'll help you, but you're spinning your wheels.' Exact words. And then she started in and -- oh! I had no idea what this woman could do."
When a Fox News producer asked Zamperini if he considered himself a hero, he bristled, explaining that men who return home from war missing a limb -- or more -- are the real heroes. After seeing just these kinds of men during a visit to a Veterans Affairs hospital, Louie returned home and made a decisive gesture. "I took all my medals and I put 'em in a drawer, and shoved 'em away, and I haven't seen 'em since!"
Fox News' Matt Silverstein contributed to this report.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).