Lucky Louie Zamperini

Lou Zamperini was lucky. He survived a risky, put-up-your-dukes childhood  and made it into the Olympics. But in May ’43, in a B-24 over the Pacific, his luck seemed to run out.

by Martin Jacobs

Young Louis Zamperini was bad news. He was angry and rebellious. He had a taste for alcohol and a penchant for fighting. The police always seemed to be chasing him for something. Back in those tough days of the Great Depression, his future looked pretty grim.

Louis Zamperini was born in Olean, New York, in 1917, the second of four children, and moved with his family to Torrance, California, in the 1920s. Like many kids, he didn’t think much about the consequences of his actions. He had a bravado that made him tough and resilient, but that also brought him some close shaves, such as the inevitable perilous falls that came with hopping freight trains. He almost drowned one day after plunging into the ocean. He was pulled out unconscious, but he survived—with the new nickname Lucky Louie.

As Zamperini entered his teenage years, he found an outlet for some of the energy that had led him to mischief: competitive distance running. Before long, he had set the interscholastic record in the mile. “Newspapers started calling me Zamp the Champ,” he says. “I relished every moment in the limelight, knowing at last I could make something of myself…. I won a scholarship to the University of Southern California and, at 18, I made the US Olympic track team in 1936 to compete in Germany.”

Zamperini partied all the way across the Atlantic on the USS Manhattan, drinking and dancing and gaining 14 pounds, losing any real chance to win an Olympic medal. Before 100,000 spectators in Berlin, Zamperini ran the 5,000-meter race and finished in eighth place. He placed first among the Americans in the race, though, and impressed Adolf Hitler. After the race, Hitler applauded him and grasped his hand, saying, “Ah, the boy with the fast finish!” Zamperini proudly recalls, “He didn’t impress me. Even if he had given me his wristwatch, it still wouldn’t have meant much to me. To me, he was just another dictator.”

After the competition, Zamperini hit the streets of Berlin to find souvenirs. There were hundreds of possibilities in the shops, but what he really wanted was a Nazi flag. Showing that he hadn’t completely put aside his mischievous ways, he scaled a 15-foot wall surrounding the Reich Chancellery (the German equivalent of the White House) and seized the Nazi swastika flag off the flagpole. The Germans caught him, but he wasn’t charged. In fact, when Lieutenant General Werner von Fritsch, commander in chief of the German army (who, in 1939, would be the first German general killed in World War II), found out who Zamperini was, he let him keep the flag. And he still has it.

The militant fascism Zamperini witnessed in Berlin soon affected him personally. In September 1940, the war in Europe and Japanese aggression in Asia led the US Congress to institute a peacetime draft. Selection began the next month. Zamperini had had a taste of military life as an Army Air Corps flight school cadet in the spring of 1941, but had washed out. By September 29, however, he was back in uniform, a duly drafted member of the US Army. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, despite pleading to remain in the infantry, he was shifted back to the air corps and sent to bombardier school in Houston. Officers Candidate School and further bombardier training followed at Midland, Texas. Then Zamperini was commissioned a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force, as a master bombardier.

“My first combat mission left Kualoa Field, Oahu, on Christmas Eve of 1942,” Zamperini recalls. “We plastered the Japanese at Wake Island. Six missions later, Nauru, Makin, and Tarawa islands saw our B-24 bomber riddled with 600 bullet holes, with half our crew dead or wounded and one wheel and the right tail shot off. Luckily, even in the face of incredible danger, we landed safely.”

On May 27, 1943, Zamperini’s crew left Kualoa in the only B-24 available, the Green Hornet, to search for a B-25 reported shot down near Palmyra Island. The search continued until about 2 p.m., when both port engines failed, one after the other. The aircraft tumbled and turned, and within two minutes, it slammed into the sea with a terrific explosion. The fuselage and left wing hit the water simultaneously and the aircraft did a half cartwheel. “It felt like someone hit me in the head with a sledgehammer,” Zamperini says. “The crash forced me forward and down into the sea. I blacked out momentarily from the impact and found myself entangled in coiled wires and cables that wound around me like metal spaghetti.”


Some 70 feet down, Zamperini finally forced his way out of the sinking plane, scraping the skin off his back as he squeezed through a hole in the fuselage. He surfaced and caught his breath only to see fire, smoke, and debris on the water. “Swallowing a nauseous saltwater mixed with gasoline, oil, hydraulic fluid, and blood, I somehow managed to inflate my Mae West—my life jacket,” he says. “Then I noticed two crewmen about 20 feet away clinging to the side of a gas-tank float. I managed to grab onto a portion of a nylon parachute cord that was attached to an inflatable life raft. I climbed in, unhooked the oars, and rowed over to pick up our pilot, Russell Phillips, who was badly injured, and pulled him up into the raft. Then Francis McNamara, our tail-gunner, made it in. We were the only three survivors of the eleven-man crew.

“The next two days we saw B-25s searching for us, but they did not notice our flares or dye markers. Six bars of chocolate and a few cans of water lasted us awhile. Then, the only food for the next month and a half was two tiny fish, a two-foot shark, three birds, and four albatrosses. Rain showers seemed to arrive miraculously at appropriate intervals, a fact that started us wondering if someone up above was watching over us. We were in constant fear. Sometimes one shark would put its head right up on the raft and look at us. We’d whack him on the nose with the paddles.”

To help preserve sanity and morale, Zamperini coaxed the others into crooning hymns and Bing Crosby tunes. He cooked imaginary meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, tossing off brain teasers about how many eggs and how much baking powder to use. On the 27th day, a twin-engine Japanese KI-213 “Sally” bomber made several strafing passes. “I slid into the water, which was infested with sharks and hung below the raft to avoid the bullets,” Zamperini recalls. “Phil and Mac did the same. We could see the bullets pierce the raft, but luckily we weren’t hit.

“Six days later McNamara drew his last breath and slipped quietly into the sea. Phillips and I held a brief eulogy for him and buried him at sea. Then on the 47th day, after having drifted 2,000 miles, we at last made landfall in the Marshall Islands, as a Japanese harbor boat spotted us. We weren’t exactly rescued. The Japanese took us to Wotje, an island in the Marshall group. We were so weak, we could barely stand up. My normal weight of 165 pounds had dropped to 79 pounds. Someone gave us water and a few hard biscuits, our first food in eight days. Two days later, we were put on a merchant vessel and headed for Kwajalein. There we were confined to a detention building, where their treatment deteriorated to beatings, insect-filled rice balls, and confinement in eight-foot-deep holes carved in the coral.”

During captivity, Zamperini was used as a guinea pig by a Japanese doctor and injected with various substances. The experiments stopped only when he blacked out. On the wall of his wooden cell, he later found a crude engraving: “9 Marines marooned on Makin Island—August 12, 1942.” The names of the marines followed. It turned out that those men had been beheaded. Zamperini memorized the names so he could report their fate on his return home.

On the 42nd day of detention, Zamperini and Phillips were put aboard a ship bound for the island of Truk, in the Carolines, and from there to Yokohama, Japan. “‘My God,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to live though this,’” Zamperini recalls. “Maybe they thought it better to save the life of a famous athlete and Olympian than wantonly kill me. It made no sense. Whatever their rationale, I didn’t argue.”

At Yokohama, Zamperini helped unload 10,000-ton ships, shoveling out coal and refuse from the latrines. “The guards always had their favorite punishments, like doing pushups over the latrine, then pushing your head into it,” he says. “When the Japanese found out I was a star runner, they broke my nose three times.” Cruelty and abuse were part of daily life. On a march one day, Zamperini had a high fever and was falling behind. A guard yelled at him, “You lick your boots, or you die!” When Zamperini refused, the guard cracked him on the head with his belt buckle and brutalized him.

For the remainder of the war, Zamperini was moved from camp to camp, kept in a state of near starvation. He remembers being forced to eat rice off the floor, where visiting high-ranking Japanese officials clad in dress uniforms of white and gold braid tossed it. During one memorable interrogation in Ofuna, a camp outside Yokohama, memories of Zamperini’s college days came rushing back when he looked up at a Japanese interrogator and recognized him. It was James Sasaki, a classmate from the University of Southern California. Zamperini learned later that Sasaki had been a spy back in college, reporting ship movements in the harbor at Long Beach, California. “When the war started, Sasaki fled to Japan and eventually was placed in charge of 91 prisoner-of-war camps,” Zamperini says. “Sasaki tried to recruit me to broadcast anti-American propaganda, but I declined. To break my spirit, he then ordered me to run a relay against well-fed Japanese runners. Despite my near-skeletal condition, I prevailed.”

After a few weeks, Zamperini agreed to do a broadcast only if he could write the script. Sasaki agreed, and Zamperini made the broadcast to the United States in 1944. “My family was shocked to learn I was alive,” he says. “My parents had already received my Purple Heart for ‘wounds resulting in my death.’”

Sasaki wanted Zamperini to do a second broadcast, but this time using a Japanese script. He refused and was promptly sent to another punishment camp, where he was beaten by a sadistic officer named Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, dubbed The Bird by the prisoners. Zamperini was already familiar with Watanabe from previous beatings at Ofuna. On one occasion, Watanabe beat him severely, then forced him to hold a six-foot four-by-four hardwood beam overhead at arm’s length. After 37 minutes, The Bird punched him in the stomach and the beam fell down on Zamperini’s head, knocking him out. As such beatings continued, all Zamperini could think about was revenge: “I would dream of strangling my prison guards.”

Soon afterward, the Japanese surrendered, and Zamperini and Phillips were liberated from the prison camp. “The guards disappeared, and I walked out the front gate waving my shirt to a B-29 as it flashed the message ‘the war is over’ in Morse code,” Zamperini recalls. “I have never forgotten the pilot returning my wave, and years later during a reunion in Chicago, I finally met the pilot. It was an emotional encounter for both of us.”

On September 6, 1945, a reporter for the New York Times caught up with Zamperini in Yokohama, interviewed him in depth, and wired home his incredible story. The story appeared in the paper three days later, but Zamperini himself would not appear in the States for a while. “It took me a month to reach home, resting and recuperating along the way,” he says.

Zamperini arrived at Long Beach, California, on October 5, 1945, and was promoted to captain and awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters; the Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster; the Philippine Liberation Medal; and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and American Campaign Medal with battle stars. He arrived home at Torrance, California, to a hero’s reception. A high school athletic field and the Torrance airport were named after him.

After the hoopla faded, Zamperini found himself at loose ends and unsure of what to do next. His thoughts turned to the 1948 Olympics in London, but his battered body just didn’t respond the way it used to. He sank into despair and, once again, turned to alcohol and brawling. It took conversion under the ministry of the Reverend Billy Graham to turn things around.

In 1950, Zamperini returned to Japan as a missionary. His goal was to meet with and forgive the prison guards who had mistreated him. He was able to meet several, including his former classmate and tormentor Sasaki at the Sugamo prison, still awaiting war-crimes trials. “I embraced him and told him I forgave him,” Zamperini says. “I even pleaded for clemency on Sasaki’s behalf with a deposition to General [Douglas] MacArthur [military governor of US-occupied Japan], but to no avail.” Sasaki would remain in prison until 1952, when the American occupation of Japan ended.

In 1998, on his 81st birthday, Zamperini ran a one-kilometer leg of the Olympic torch run in Japan for the Winter Olympics in Nagano. During his stay in the country, he tried to locate Watanabe, who had gone into hiding after the war. Fortunately for Watanabe, the United States had stopped looking for war criminals in 1947 on orders from MacArthur, and all charges against him were dropped in 1952. “I was told that Watanabe was alive and sold life insurance after the war and became wealthy,” Zamperini says. “When I finally located Watanabe, he refused to talk to me…. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see Watanabe, but I’m fine with it now. I’ve been blessed.”

Today, Zamperini travels the world as an inspirational speaker. That’s not bad for a man who in 88 years has already been the subject of a 60 Minutes documentary, represented his country in the Olympics, survived wartime military service and prison camp, and lived to tell about more than one brush with death. Lucky Louie he is.

Update: Louis Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014. A movie about his wartime experience, based on the best-selling book Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, was released in December 2014.

Martin Jacobs of San Francisco interviewed Louis Zamperini in 2003. This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of America in WWII. To get more articles like this one, subscribe to America in WWII magazine.

Photos (from, top): Lieutenant Louis Zamperini peering through a hole punched in the side of a B-24 by enemy fire during the April 1943 raid on Nauru; Zamperini at age two; Ofuna, the Japanese prison camp where Zamperini met a fellow University of Southern California alumnus turned Japanese interrogator; Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, the cruel Japanese disciplinarian who prisoners called The Bird; Zamperini hugging his mother while his sisters await their turn at his homecoming at Long Beach, California, on October 5, 1945.


Photo credits (from top): National Archives; courtesy of Louis Zamperini; courtesy of Louis Zamperini; courtesy of Louis Zamperini and Yuichi Hatto; courtesy of Louis Zamperini.

Copyright 310 Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.