January 09, 2015

Louis Zamperini (1917), son of Italian immigrants, grew up in Torrance, California. He was dedicated to running and qualified for the 5k at the Olympics in Berlin, 1936. Although he didn't win a medal, his perspectives for the next Olympics in 1940 were good. However, he would never get this chance.

During WWII he enlisted in the US Air Force and he was trained to bombardier. In 1943 his plane, called the Green Hornet, crashed in the Pacific Ocean. He survived this crash, together with two other soldiers, Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips and Francis “Mac” McNamara. For 47 days, Louis and Phil survived on a raft in open water. Mac died because of hunger and exhaustion. Eventually they reached the Marshall Islands and it wouldn't take long before they were captured by the Japanese. Solitary confinement and starvation followed. Zamperini also survived this hell and was transferred to the war prison Ofuna, on a small island in front of Tokyo.

Here he faced his biggest tormentor, the infamous Mutsuhiro Watanabe (a.k.a. 'the Bird'). This sadist abused him on a daily basis, just for pleasure. Even when Zamperini was transferred to another prison, because he refused to work for the Japanese was propaganda, the Bird was waiting for him with his cruelties.

Also this ordeal Zamperini survived. Eventually the end of WWII came, and Zamperini was received in the US as a war hero. However, he suffered severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. After converting to Christianity, he left behind his nightmares and he went back to Japan in 1998, when he was 81 years old. He carried the Olympic torch for the Winter Olympics in Nagano and, believe it or not, he contacted Watanabe. Watanabe however had no need to meet Zamperini again.

Zamperini's story shows how much a man's body, mind and soul can endure. This impossible story is written down in “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand (2010). The movie "Unbroken'", directed by Angelina Jolie, is now released in movie theaters.

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Louis Zamperini reads his forgiveness letter to the Bird