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Plane crash at sea, 46 days adrift with sharks, strafed by Japanese, then things got really bad

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By Tom Hennessy, Press-Telegram Columnist
January 1, 2011

He was incorrigible.

He smoked at age five, drank when he was eight, and as far back as anyone could remember was breaking into homes and running — very quickly from police. At Torrance High School, Louis Zamperini was fast enough to make the track team.

After graduation, he tried for the U.S. Olympic team, running 5,000 meters and qualifying 1936 games in Berlin. He finished eighth, faster than any other American, and ran the final lap with a kick so astonishing it earned him a dubious prize — a handshake from Adolph Hitler.

It is an annual custom of this column to a run a list of selected books for summer reading. But “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s World War II saga of Zamperini, once and perhaps still, the price of Torrance, is so extraordinary that I cannot wait until June to review it.

When Hillenbrand, who wrote the 2001 best-selling horse biography “Seabiscuit,” told Zamperini her new book would be about him, he assured her that writing it would be easier. “I can talk,” he said.

The story: In 1940, with World War II closing in, world-class track star Zamperini enlisted and became an Army Air Corps bombardier. In May, 1943, his crippled B-24, “The Green Hornet,” crashed into the Pacific. Only three crew members survived; the pilot, tail gunner and Zamperini.

They drifted 2,000 miles, eating birds and fish. Their companions were the scorching tropical sun and sharks that rubbed against the raft and even jumped into it.

Using the raft’s oars, they killed a couple of sharks and ate their livers. On their 33rd day at sea, the gunner died. Thirteen days later, off the Marshall Islands, they were captured by the Japanese.

Cruelty beyond war

In the European theater, Hillenbrand notes, one in 100 captured Americans died. But in the Pacific War, she says, the ratio was about one in three. The difference was due to the sadistic, unreasoning cruelty of the Japanese military, whose officers were even known for mistreating their own enlisted men.

For their first few days, Zamperini and his pilot, Russell Phillips, were treated well.

But on July 15, 1943, they were taken to Kwajalein in the Marshalls. There they were interrogated, brutalized, and, at the end of August, taken to Japan, then to a POW camp at Ofuna.

That was where Zamperini met “The Bird”. His actual name was Matsuhiro Watanabe.

“The Bird,” as prisoners called him, was feared more than any other guard. The product of a privileged Japanese family, he was said to have taken a psychopathic turn after being turned down as an officer. A corporal, he vacillated between moments of unusual kindness and unbelievable cruelty, the latter sometimes inflicted with a baseball bat.

By the start of the war, Zamperini had become a world sports celebrity. Watanabe recognized him as such and thought that being especially cruel to the runner would inflate his feared reputation among prisoners.

Writes Hillenbrand: “Watanabe beat POWs very day, fracturing their windpipes, rupturing their eardrums, shattering their teeth, tearing one man’s ear half off, leaving him unconscious — when gripped in the ecstasy of an assault, he wailed and howled, drooling and frothing, sometimes sobbing, tears running down his cheeks.”

This is what Louie Zamperini’s life had become. Every day and every evening until the end of the war, he woke up and fell asleep thinking of “The Bird.”

Like his fellow prisoners, his only sign of hope, in the waning months of the war, was the sound of American bombers overhead.

Saved by the bomb

Historians say the Japanese military intended to kill all POWs, but the plan went awry when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Like many veterans, the bomb brought Zamperini freedom and home. But his troubles did not end.

Zamperini return home

He was plagued by flashbacks, anger and alcoholism.

Then, in 1949, he met Billy Graham. Thanks to the evangelist, the former track star turned his life around. He became a motivational speaker and the subject of numerous newspaper articles and radio interviews.

An episode of “This Is Your Life,” a popular biographical TV program, was devoted to him. Its surprise guests included Russell Phillips, the pilot from the crashed B-24.

Zamperini regained a measure of prominence.

At age 82, he became a torch runner at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

He was also profiled in a program by CBS. The network even managed to find and interview Matsuhiro Watanabe.

The guard who had made Louis’s life so hellish said this to the network’s Bob Simon: “Beating and kicking in Caucasian society are considered cruel behavior. However, there were some occasions in the prison camp when beating and kicking were unavoidable … Zamperini was well-known to me. If he said he was beaten by Watanabe, then such a thing probably occurred at the camp, if you consider my personal feelings at the time.”

Before going to Japan, Zamperini wrote to Watanabe. He said he had forgiven the guard’s cruelty and that he hoped to meet him.

But Watanabe, who would die in April, 2003, had no wish to meet the American he once tormented. At Nagano, Zamperini was received warmly by the Japanese.

“Their compassion,” he told Simon, “more than compensated for my past years in Japan.”

Today, age 93, the man some people believe might have broken the four-minute mile had it not been for the war, lives in Los Angeles.

Still spry, he gives occasional lectures, telling his war story to veterans and other groups. His lecture fee is hefty, but he has earned it.