An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive

by Laura Hillenbrand

Louie Zamperini was not the best child. He would streak across town. Louie started drinking at the age of three. He had stashes of stolen goods across town and he robbed a bakery. After he ate until he was stuffed he threw the rest at the police. His parents got him out of jail with legal action. Louie realized that he needed to stop and start doing right things, so he even cleaned the kitchen floor. His mother thought it was his brother.

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Louie heard a locksmith say that there is 1 in 50 chance that a key would work. He used a key to start sneaking people into the gym through a backdoor. Louie finally got in trouble by the principal but his brother got him out of it and said that he just did it for attention. Pete got Louie to do track to get out of trouble. Louie did not like it, but did it for the girls. He would just hide under the bleachers at practice. Pete started training him harder and beat him with the stick as he was running. Louie quit and ran away from home he got all the way to Los Angeles. Louie got home and of that summer he prepared himself for track. The next season Louie started winning all of his races. Pete told him that he should do a 2 mile instead of 1 mile and he was beating people by one lap. Louie Zamperini became the best 2 mile runner in state.

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Louie Zamperini beat the high school record for the mile. When Louie graduated high school he started training for the Olympics. He had only seven months to train. Two weeks before the tryouts for the Summer Olympics Louie was still not fast enough. Pete said try the 5000. Louie went to a 5000 race and got second. His invitation for the tryouts came. Louie tied for first and went to the 1936 Olympics. Louie got on a ship with all the other Olympic athletes.

Louie got on the ship to go to the Olympics. By the time that Louie got off the ship he gained 12 pounds. On the last lap everyone was cheering for Louie and he placed seventh. On the last lap he ran in 56 seconds. A good runner could run the last lap in 70 seconds. The world was astonished by Louie's speed. Even on the 2 mile race that lap was wonderful. Louie wanted a souvenir before he left the Olympics. Louie stole a German flag. Louie was already preparing for the next Olympics.

After the 1936 Olympics, Louie started training for the 1940 Olympics. Louie was trying to beat the four-minute mile and no one believed that he could do it. Late one night Louie got some news that the coaches wanted Louie out of the race and during the race the next day Louie got beat up and trapped. Once he broke free he rain in four minutes, eight seconds which was the fourth fastest outside mile ever run at that time. Louie became a factory welder and enlisted in the Army. Early one Sunday morning the Japanese bombed Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor attack scene HD

Louie started to train to be a bomber. Louie's team after training was the best team in the 372nd Battalion Bombers. Louie went back home before he shipped out. His whole family was there to take a picture and spend the last moments with Louie. The team named their plane Superman because it was so trustworthy.

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Because of all the malfunctions in the planes, almost all the people in Luis’ barracks died. The B-24 bombers weren’t very reliable planes. There were fuel leaks, engine malfunctions, and it would just blow up in mid air. The landing strip was too short and the planes would fly into the water.

They finally got a mission to Nauru where the Japanese enslaved the locals to mine. Superman led the mission and was the first to drop the bomb. When they turned back the Zero fighters came and shot their plane up. Superman got 594 bullet holes in it. One of the worst problems was a hydraulic line was shot. They had no brakes, no landing gear, and no rear rudder, and they were struggling to keep the plane from rolling over. They had to find a way to stop the plane once they got to the island, so they tied parachutes together and got ready to throw them out the windows. They had to land with a flat tire. After they landed they first kissed the runway.

They landed Superman on Funafuti. Some of the locals went into the church. A soldier got them all out before the building blew up. That night that Japanese bombed Funafuti. People hid under trucks, ditches, and even in the ocean. The bombing went on for about three hours. Almost all of the planes blew up besides Superman with 594 holes. The crew went back to Hawaii and never saw Superman again. They got a new crew, but did not have a plane.

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Superman theme song

Louie was in the best shape of his life. He ran a mile in four minutes and twelve seconds and it was a dazzling time being in sand. Even though they didn’t have a plane the lieutenant got Louie and his crew to go on a rescue mission. The only plane they could fly was the Green Hornet, which the mechanics took parts off of. They had to drop their altitude because of the clouds to 800 feet. The last engine went out when they tried to start it again and another motor went out. They spiraled down to the ocean, and they weren’t able to send for help before they crashed.

Louie swam to get the life rafts, and tie them together and rode back to stop the bleeding on Phil. They only had a few chocolate bars, fishing supplies, and some water. They only ate and drank a certain amount each day. The nights were freezing cold. Sharks were grazing the bottom of the rafts at night.

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When Louie woke up Mac had eaten all the chocolate. The rescue team sent a search party for the crew. They didn’t have any more water, then it started to rain. Since they saw a bomber in the distance they shot some flares. The plane did not see the flares. The guys saw that Daisy Mae was looking for them and shot four flares, but the crew of the plane did not see them. When the families were notified they were heartbroken. Louie’s mother knew he was not dead.

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On the third day it rained enough to resupply their water needs for a period of time. They were struggling to get food because they had no bait. Louie caught an albatross and used it for bait. The sharks kept on taking the bait. The sharks finally left one hanging and they caught a little fish. When they ran out of hooks, Louie used his finger and put bait on it and started catching fish. It slowly started to stop raining frequently. They had been out there for two weeks now.

The guys saw a bomber in the distance. They decided to shoot flares and put dye in the water. The plane came and started shooting at them and they all went into the water. When they stopped shooting they all got out of the water because of the sharks. The plane came back and started shooting again. Louie was the only one that jumped in the water. Louie started fighting off the sharks. Phil and Mac stayed in the rafts because they did not have enough energy to go in the water again. The Japanese bomber came back seven times to shoot at them. They all lived, but they only had one raft. For the rest of the day they pumped air into it and patched it. They had to pump all night to keep it afloat. In the morning they started patching again and fighting off sharks. Once they patched it they only had to pump it every 15 minutes. They thought they had been out there for 46 or 47 days.

Louie felt a little 4 foot shark and it was very smooth. The shark attacked Louie, but Mac saved Louie’s life. They thought if this shark was going to eat them they were going to eat it. They latched onto its tail and brought it up into the raft and killed the shark and ate its liver. There started to be much bigger sharks. Mac asked Louie if he was going to die. Louie said yes. They went to sleep that night and Mac died. Louie gave Mac a service and put him in the ocean and the sharks left Mac alone. A big great white shark was splashing water on them at every pass. Phil and Louie saw land finally.

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Phil and Louie saw land, but before they could get to it a storm came in. They put water in the raft so they would not flip over. The next morning they found land, but before they could get to it a Japanese boat saw them. Louie and Phil weren’t strong enough to climb aboard the boat. They had to have a rope tied around them to be lifted onto the boat. The crew on the boat tied them up to the mast of the boat. The captain cut them loose and fed them and gave them a nice bed and medical attention. They weren’t even strong enough to walk. The officer came and spoke with them and said we can’t assure your safety anymore, because you’re going to Execution Island. Phil and Louie were thrown in a truck and thrown into cells just big enough for their body.

Phil and Louie only got fed a few rice balls and several cups of tea. Louie got diarrhea and needed medical attention. The prisoner guards would shove sticks in their eyes. A lot of men came to beat Louie and Phil. Louie and Phil were interrogated at separate times with food in front of them to persuade them. They never gave up any information that would be useful. There was a Christian prison guard that gave them candy and protected them. They got sent to Kwajalein. Louie thought it would be a POW camp in Japan.

After a while Louie realized that everyone was talking. They were writing on toilet paper and Morris code and even surrounding a guard with several people and talking. Whenever there was a newspaper they would try to steal it. William Harris could read it to everyone. Once they were done reading the paper they would use it as toilet paper. The prisoners started realizing that the cook was stealing the food and had been selling it in the market as the prisoners were starving during the winter. The prisoners saw hope because America was winning. One of the prisoners found a duck that had a broken leg and put a splint on it and named the duck Gaga. The duck went everywhere with them. Louie was forced to race Japanese runners. The first time Louie raced he lost. If Louie did not eat some more food he would die. All of the prisoners realized that and gave him more food. Louie started strengthening his legs for the next race. Louie won the next race and got beaten by the prisoner guards. Louie said it was worth it.

Space Jam Theme Song

Louie’s family believed that he was still alive. After 13 months of Louie and Phil being gone the military sent a telegram that Louie was dead.

Louie and a few others were looking to steal a Japanese plane but then they didn’t know where the planes were. They managed to steal a map that had all the docks and fueling areas. That showed information of harbors and ports. So they were going to steal a boat and stop at the harbors to fuel up. But then some people escaped from another camp and if anyone escaped they would kill three other people. Louie was trying to get stronger and was getting back in shape and was stealing more and more food. Louie found out that he was going to another camp called Omori. It was just out side of Tokyo. They could hear louder and louder bombs because America was winning the war.

At the new POW camp Omori a few veterans from Ofuna also were there. There was one prison guard that devoted his time to break Louie, His name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but they nicknamed him The Bird. The Bird was so vicious he would tie people to a tree for days and he was like a bomb waiting to go off. He grew up in a very rich family. He was expected to be a general but he became a corporal.

After a long cold night someone gave him some tea and some sugar. To Louie it was priceless. The 1920 Geneva Convention said the prisoners had to be healthy and paid and nothing too challenging. The government never followed the Geneva Convention. The POWs worked seven days a week, 11 hours a day, and were undernourished. They would die by the thousands. The men were getting fed bad food and they would have explosive diarrhea and they would eat lumps of coal to slow down the digestive system. Most of the prisoner guards were tolerable besides of The Bird. And if he heard anyone talking about him he beat you. When prisoners arrived at POW camp they are supposed to be red crossed so their governments could be notified. Louie never got a Red Cross Japan had a special plan for him. The Bird named Louie the number one prisoner. The Bird would find Louie and beat him. The Bird set up corporals to work in with the other prisoners but two people said that those against the Geneva convention when The Bird asked Louie who blurted out to make the camp a better place. The Bird thought about it for a little bit and said yes. He marched them over to the pit oozing over with 900 men fesses they had to clean that out for the rest of their days there. The POWs slaves that worked at the ports try to create havoc with the shipping labels and destroying materials. And they would even overload barges and make them sink. The POW people would steal anything that they could get their hands on and sneak them into camp. If anyone got sick everyone pitched in and what they stole and gave it to the sick people. The Bird and Louie are now at each other’s wits end.

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Louie was going into town to pick up food rations. He had never seen Japan without a blindfold on. It looked like they were going through depression. He saw a sign spray-painted on a wall. Louie translated it. It was about the new American B-29 bombers. He asked one of the people that he knew what the B-29 was and it was America’s plane that could fly across the vast lands in return from its mission. One day a B-29 bomber flew by for an hour above Japan taking pictures, and it was the first mission that the B-29 got. Japan asked Louie if you be on the radio, so he agreed, but he only could talk good things about Japan. He left little hints for friends and family to know that he was still alive. Louie’s parents found out and Mrs. Zamperini cried.

Life at Omori got significantly better. The new guards let them write letters to their families. The biggest dogfight above Japan resulted in America winning the dogfight. Louie got transferred to a new POW camp. He was in the train for hours. When he got off the train there was snow everywhere. He was in a little village that was buried in 19 feet of snow. People were digging vertical tunnels out of their homes. When Louie got to the camp he saw The Bird. Louie’s heart sank.

Louie would carry bags of coal off ships weighing about 60 pounds. When they would come back from camp they would be covered in black coal. They would never get a break from unloading the boats of coal. Louie stole rice inside his pants. One day Louie got transferred to this salt mine. Louie was walking with a bag of salt when a guard threw out his elbow and Louie fell. Louie couldn’t walk from his injuries. He got half of his rations since he wasn’t working. He had to find a way to work again, so he cleaned the pigsty with his bare hands.

Louie finally got well enough to walk and they sent him back to work. He had 103° fever and they would not let him stop working. One lone B-29 bomber came and tried to blow up the factory. Louie and a few other officers got convicted of stealing fish. The Bird lined them up. The rest of the POWs had to hit the officers. All of the Americans got relocated to a new POW camp. They walked for hours and hours to get to the new camp. Some of the villagers told them that they could be killed on August 22.

The Bird gave Louie a goat that was very sick and said, ‘He dies you die’. That night Louie tied the goat up and it got loose. Louie knew the knot was secure so The Bird must have cut it. The Bird made Louie hold a 6 foot beam above his head, and if he dropped it he would have a butt of a gun in his chest. Louie held the beam until The Bird punched Louie in the chest after 37 minutes. The Bird said to Louie,’ I’m going to kill you tomorrow’. The next day Louie hid for the whole day but The Bird found him. A few other POW inmates were planning on killing The Bird. The Bird grew more and more hostile after the B-29 bombers flew night after night blowing up cities. The Americans dropped a hydrogen bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima.

Real Footage - Atomic Bomb- Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The POWs started to figure out that the war was over. The Bird was off setting up a camp for a few days. The town people were walking around dazed. The officers kept on disappearing. They eventually said there was no more work and the war was over. They first did not believe them until they got invited to go bathe in the river. They saw an American plane saying that the war is over and dropped a chocolate bar. The POWs started rioting and burning down fences. Then the plane came back and dropped pants. The contents of the pants were cigarettes, chocolate, and a magazine telling what happened in the war.

The POWs were starving so they found some chalk and wrote on the roofs “700 starving POWs”. The B-29 bombers started dropping off pallets of food. A pallet of shoes almost took out Louie and Tinker. So someone wrote on a side of the road “drop here”. The POWs feasted day and night. They were told that they were going to be picked up September 4 but two weeks later Fitzgerald went to the train station and demanded a train for the next day. The officer refused so Fitzgerald punched him and there was a train there the next day. All of the able POWs went on the train and Fitzgerald stayed to wait for the last soldiers to leave.

When the POWs began their travels from the camps they would stop at every city and would be laden with wine. They started getting to the cities that were destroyed and after the first couple they stopped cheering. When they got to Hiroshima they saw people and they were like walking ghosts. When they got to Yokohama there were Red Cross nurses for the POWs. Those were the first American women that they’ve seen since the war started. Then they flew to Okinawa. The pilot asked Louie if he’s ever been there and Louie said ‘Yes, it was Kwajalein’. Louie flew to San Francisco. Pete went AWOL and found Louie at the hospital where Louie was getting medical attention. From there they got on a bomber plane and flew home to visit their mother and their family. Louie’s mom had the best day of her life when she had her two sons back

Louie waited 2 ½ years for this day, to be at his parents’ doorstep. There was birthday presents and Christmas presents just waiting for Louie to open them. There was enough food there for a king. The family had a record of Louie when he was on the radio. They put that record on the player and when Louie heard it he said to take it out and destroy it. The people that knew The Bird were questioned. The Bird became one of the most wanted war criminals. The authorities could never find The Bird. As Louie started doing more and more speeches he started drinking. Louie took his two weeks leave from the military and went to Miami Beach. Louie met his wife there, her name was Cynthia. Cynthia visited Louie and got married.

Phil and Louie’s families had dinner together at a club and a waitress walked by with rice. Phil freaked out and told the waitress to get away from him. The POWs were coming unwound in their new environments. Louie thought that running would help him like it helped him in high school so he started training again for the Olympics. Louie started doing four-minute miles. He thought he needed to push himself further so he doubled up his workload and went for a 2 mile run. On his last lap his bad ankle started acting up and he heard slicing noises in it. Louie ran the fastest 2 mile in the North West that year. The doctors said his running career was over. Louie was trying to wash the bird out of his mind with alcohol.

Louie’s hunger to kill The Bird for what he had taken from him grew out of control and that led to drinking. His drinking got so bad he had blackouts. Louie was trying to raise money to go back to Japan and kill The Bird. Louie never raised the money for going to Japan and he caught a string of bad luck. Then Louie found out that he was having a baby. Louie had a dream of strangling The Bird and when he woke up he was strangling his wife. When Cynthia came home one day she saw Louie shaking Sissy. Cynthia decided to pack up her stuff and leave. The Bird was alive.

The Bird’s mom fled the detectives and met him at a restaurant. The Bird said he’d be back in two years. Cynthia Zamperini went to Billy Graham’s sermons and went home and told Louie that she was not going to divorce him. A weight was lifted off of Louie’s shoulders. Cynthia made Louie go to Billy Graham’s next sermon. When Louie got home from the Billy Graham sermon Louie got all the alcohol in the house and poured it down the drain, and he was a changed man. That was the first time Louie has slept completely through the night since the war.

Louie flew to Japan to visit all his captors. He shook their hands with a smile on his face and forgave them all. He asked about The Bird, they said The Bird stabbed himself to death. Louie and Cynthia were so poor and the only piece of furniture they had was a crib. The Bird’s mom waited two years and went to the restaurant where The Bird was supposed to be if he was still alive. She was there the whole day, but there was no Bird.

Louie started a camp for troubled young boys like himself when he was a kid. He got materials donated from local businesses to build the camp, and they went hiking and skiing. Louie got an invitation to run the Olympic torch. He jumped at the opportunity at 68 years old. Louie, declared dead almost 60 years ago, will outlive them all.