One spring, 1944 day in the Ofuna secret interrogation center outside of Yokohama, Japan, a starved, beaten and humiliated Louie Zamperini was told by prison officials that he was going to race a Japanese civilian runner.
Zamperini, the 1938 NCAA mile champ who had come within 1.9 seconds of the world record, was told that if he did not race, all the hundreds of other prisoners would be punished.
That the emaciated, weakened and feverish Zamperini was even standing was a feat of Olympian proportions. He had been beaten and tortured after somehow surviving a series of misfortunes to end up in Ofuna, enduring when thousands of others in the brutal World War II war in the Pacific Ocean had not.
As detailed in “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s gripping 2010 book and the subject of a series of talks and discussions locally as part of the Northern Colorado Common Read program, Zamperini survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his plane, “Green Hornet,” went down at sea.
After floating roughly 2000 miles with no food—the chocolate on board had all been eaten on the first night by one of the three survivors, who later died on the raft—the trio had no food or water.
But Zamperini did have hope, always believing he would survive.
Circled constantly by scores of sharks, the survivors were strafed by a Japanese plane. The raft ended up full of holes and sinking; Zamperini and the two others patched it up while fighting off sharks. One night a great white, big enough to swallow the raft in a gulp, came up from the deep and hit the raft from beneath. There was a cyclone, huge waves and blistering sun.
In the midst of this, Zamperini was fueled by hopes of returning to the Olympics. He had been the youngest runner in the finals of the 5000 meters in the 1936 Olympics, just 19, when he finished eighth, amazing even Adolf Hitler with a last lap of 56 seconds. Nicknamed the “Torrance Tornado,” Zamperini had found in running an escape from the stifling life and petty thievery that had marked his childhood in Torrance, California.
After setting California high school records, Zamperini went on to USC, where he seemed destined to break four minutes for the mile. His best chance came at the 1938 NCAA mile championships. His bid, however, was sabotaged by rival coaches, who ordered their runners to sharpen their spikes in order to slash Zamperini.
Both of his shins were cut up, a toe impaled by a spike and one runner elbowed him hard enough to break a rib. Despite all that, Zamperini nearly set the world record. He went undefeated in 1939 and ran some fast indoor mile times in the winter of 1940, all in preparation for the 1940 Olympics, which had been moved from Tokyo to Helsinki. He would be in his prime.
Then came the war.
The Olympics were canceled, and Zamperini enlisted in the Air Corps.
All this is detailed in “Unbroken,” a book that can be called a literal page turner.
Like many who have read it, I stayed up late into the night to see what would happen next to Zamperini. The worst was to come when he was transferred to Tokyo’s Omori POW camp, where he was picked on by a sadistic prison guard nicknamed “Bird” who had singled him out for the worst punishments, because of Zamperini’s fame and his refusal to submit. He was beaten with a heavy metal belt buckle, whacked full on upon his face, hit with kendo sticks. And if Zamperini remained defiant and “unbroken,” he was beaten again until he fell unconscious.
The new movie, “Unbroken,” directed by Angela Jolie, opens on Christmas Day.
“I found it disturbing,” said Sarah Rebick when I stopped by the Boulder Running Company Sunday afternoon, discovering that nearly everyone working in the store had read the book. “Disturbing that anyone could treat another human being that way. I don’t know how anyone could have survived a Japanese camp. ”
Many did not. Downed airmen and ship survivors were beheaded, or died from disease, beatings, malnutrition or during medical experiments. Zamperini was injected with unknown liquid after he was finally washed up on an atoll in the Marshall Island, and then transferred to a horror island called Kwajalein. There he was locked in a cell, beaten and subjected to abuse form visiting submarine crews.
Zamperini’s Olympic fame saved him, as he was being saved for propaganda purposes. The day came when he was taken from Omori to Tokyo, shown clean sheets, given food, an told that if he would read a propaganda statement over the air, he could live in luxury. Zamperini refused and was beaten even more severely, and then moved to the worst camp of all, snow-bound and frigid Naotuse in northern Japan.
When Zamperini arrived, he found the Bird waiting for him. Forced with the other prisoners into slave labor carrying sacks of coal and salt, he suffered a leg injury that would end his running career when he was training for the 1948 London Olympics after the war.
His last race, it seems, was that in Ofuna, which he won to the cheers of his fellow captives, resulting in a clubbing that knocked him out. “It had been worth it,” writes Hillenbrand.
Back in California, Zamperini drank heavily, tormented by the “Bird,” dreaming of strangling him, and strangled himself by dark thoughts of revenge. Finally, with the help of Billy Graham, Zamperini forgave the Bird and his other tormentors, which liberated him as much as the B-29s did at the end of the war. Zamperini returned to Japan in 1998, asked to carry the Olympic torch at Naoetsu in advance of the winter Olympics.
Writes Hillenbrand: ‘He raised the torch, bowed, and began running. All he could see, in every direction, were smiling Japanese faces…clapping, waving and cheering Louie on, and 120 Japanese solders, formed into two columns, parting to let him pass.”
Zamperini, then nearly 81, runs through the snow past the spot where cages once held him, where prisoners were tortured and died, an “old and joyful man, running.”
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