As a child, Louie Zamperini was a whirlwind. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born in Olean, New York, but grew up in Torrance, California. His childhood was a parental nightmare. At five, he began smoking, picking up cigarette butts on his way to kindergarten. He began drinking at age eight, hiding under the dinner table after snatching glasses of wine. The list of his early mishaps included impaling his leg on a bamboo beam, nearly severing a toe, and getting drenched in oil after scaling a rig. He also became adept at picking both pockets and locks.
From this inauspicious beginning, Louie would go on to become an Olympic runner and a World War II survivor. Laura Hillenbrand, who previously gave us an equine champion, Seabiscuit, now profiles a true American hero in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Zamperini’s story is not new and not unknown. Tony Curtis was once set to portray Zamperini in a film. That never came about, but with a new book—and a brilliant one, at that—we may get to see this incredible story on the screen.
Louie’s turnaround from juvenile delinquent to track star began with yet another disciplinary hearing at school. His older brother, Pete, intervened for 14 year-old Louie, taking along their mother who didn’t speak much English. Pete argued that Louie needed an outlet for all that energy and suggested that rather than punishment, Louie should join a sport. “It was a cheeky thing for a sixteen-year-old to say to his principal, but Pete was the one kid in Torrance who could get away with such a remark, and make it persuasive.”
After some initial resistance, Louie began to run and kept running through high school and college, breaking records and making headlines. He racked up a score of nicknames: Iron Man, Torrance Tempest, Torrance Tornado, to name a few. “Not long ago, Louie’s aspirations had ended at whose kitchen he might burgle. Now he launched onto a wildly audacious goal: the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.”
Hillenbrand’s telling of Louie’s participation in the Berlin Olympics, presided over by Adolph Hitler, is fascinating reading. Never having been out of the country, Louie made the most of his journey, beginning with the ocean voyage aboard the luxury steamer Manhattan. Resorting to his old tricks, Louie concentrated on pocketing as many souvenirs as possible. He also enjoyed the food. “For a Depression-era teenager accustomed to breakfasting on stale bread and milk, and who had eaten in a restaurant only twice in his life, the Manhattan was paradise,” Hillenbrand writes. She lists the 15 items (1 pint pineapple juice, 2 sardine salads, 2 plates of chicken, pound and a half of cherries, etc.) that Louis consumed for his evening meal on July 17. Unfortunately, all that indulging came with consequences. Louie arrived in Hamburg, 12 pounds heavier.
In 1936, America’s Olympic team included the great sprinter, Jesse Owens. In the Olympic village, Louie shared a cottage with Owens, who did his best to keep a fatherly eye on the younger runner. Ever the prankster, Louie’s response was to steal Owne’s “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Louie would watch Owens crush the field in his 100 meter race, but would come home without a medal. Still, he captured the crowd’s adulation when he ran the final lap in his 5,000 meter race in 56 seconds. “In the 5,000, well over three miles, turning a final lap in less than 70 seconds was a monumental feat.” Sitting in the stands after his race, Louie attracted the attention of the führer. “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” he said in German.
Returning home, Louie concentrated on winning races and training for the next Olympics. By 1940, however, Europe was at war and the Olympics were cancelled. A year later, Louie was in the army air corps training to be a bombardier. Fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific, Louie and his squadron led a successful raid on Wake Island and were hailed as heroes. By 1943, there was even talk that the Japanese would be finished within the year.
The war, however, dragged on and Louie’s survival skills were put to the ultimate test. Sent out with his crew to rescue another squadron, Louie’s plane crashed into the Pacific. Louie and two other airmen spent nearly 50 days drifting on a raft, fighting off sharks, eating birds and fish, and catching rainwater to quench their thirst. At one point they hid under the raft avoiding bullets from a Japanese bomber. Their joy at finally seeing land was crushed when they realized the islands were occupied by the Japanese and they would become prisoners of war.
Louie’s Olympic glory made him a target among his Japanese jailers, particularly the sadistic Mutsuhiro Watanabe nicknamed “the Bird.” Day after day, the Bird would make it his business to keep Louie in his sights, striking him, torturing him, humiliating him at every turn. For his part, Louie refused to be broken, something that ensured the Bird would increase the violence.
“In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination,” Hillenbrand writes. While only one percent of the Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died, those held in Japanese POW camps were less fortunate. Of the 34,648 Americans held by the Japanese 12,935, more than 37 percent, died.
Louie survived. He returned to his family in California and began to heal physically. Healing his psychic wounds, however, would take a longer time. He was obsessed with finding the Bird, who had disappeared after the American takeover of Japan. “In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again to his tyrant,” HIllenbrand writes. Louie would never be free until he let go of his pursuit for revenge.
Redemption comes and Louie is able to even forgive some of his former guards and move on. In the 1984 Olympics, Louie ran with the torch, a runner, a survivor, a hero.
“In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predictament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.”
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption