I thought I had found God when reading “The Life of Pi” when Pi and his bengal tiger were desperate cast-aways, blowing in the seas, roasting in the sun, trying to catch a fish here and there. But then – I had not read Unbroken. Pi was lucky. Pi had some supplies and a net. Pi had on-board entertainment in the form of the tiger and a water station that would give him water to drink. Pi had a wooden boat (in addition to his raft).
Louis was not that lucky.
Louis Silvie Zamperini was born in 1917, son of Italian immigrant parents in Torrance, California. He was a wild and wilful child, and not until he was 14 did anyone find an activity that would focus him.
It was his elder brother, Pete, who thought of it: athletics. Zamperini junior roared out of the blocks and almost immediately began smashing collegiate, state and finally national records for the mile. At 19 he muddled his way into the US Olympic team for the wrong event, the 5,000m, at the very last opportunity, and within days was on a steamer heading for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He came in among the last but his final sprint brought on the cheers of the crowd and even got Hitler’s attention.
“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain. Louie thought: Let go.”
He went home determined to win Olympic gold for the mile at Tokyo in 1940. No one doubted it was possible. He would also be the first, said many experts at the time, to break the four-minute barrier.
Instead there was Pearl Harbor. Zamperini was drafted into the air force as a bombardier and started flying missions over the Pacific. He still kept up his training, however, and on 27 May 1943, running alone on sand in Hawaii, he clocked 4:12. He knew he could go much faster, but it was to be his last run for many years. That same day, while his plane was searching for lost airmen over the ocean, it crashed and immediately sank.
“Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.”
“Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil. Joyful and grateful in the midst of slow dying, the two men bathed in that day until sunset brought is, and their time in the doldrums, to an end.”
They end, however, in grim style. Zamperini and fellow survivor are in sight of land when they are captured by Japanese forces. The Red Cross, however, is never informed and the two are declared dead. You can tell how horrible his treatment had become if he is wishing to be starving on the life-raft once more… the soldiers were taunting them, beating them regularly for any offence, and often poking them with sticks and throwing rocks at them. They even wanted their prisoners to make sounds and strip them on the most honourable possession: their human dignity.
“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”
Incarceration as a PoW, especially if taken by the Japanese, was a horrible business. Zamperini found himself beaten and humiliated with appalling regularity by one particular guard, Mitsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird” by the prisoners. Occasionally he was made to run against Japanese to prove their superiority. If he won, he was bludgeoned into unconsciousness. Dysentery and beri-beri wore him down, as did the guard’s sadistic attacks. By the end of the war, his life was hanging by a thread.
This book shows that recollections in later life can be vastly superior to any cash-in-quick responses to dramatic events.
As hard as he tried, Zamperini could never erase the memory of his cruel treatment at Watanabe’s hands. A full half-century had passed when, in 1996, Peter Hadfield, a British journalist based in Tokyo, tracked Watanabe down and published an interview with him in the Daily Mail.
When a producer with the CBS American television network told Zamperini that Watanabe was still alive, he was dumbfounded. CBS filmed an interview with the former prison camp guard, but although Zamperini agreed to meet his captor in a Tokyo hotel, Watanabe refused point blank. Having evaded justice by slipping into hiding, Watanabe died a free man in April 2003. Although Zamperini had become a born-again Christian many years earlier, he could never forgive his former tormentor.
Louis Zamperini, born January 26 1917, died July 2 2014