The story of Louis Zamperini captured the attention of Americans in the 1940’s and again in recent years thanks to the biography by Laura Hillenbrand Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and the hit movie Unbroken.
Those familiar with either the movie or the book will recall that after his days as a troubled youth Louis took up running and became a star athlete. Louis went on to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After WW2 broke out, he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber.
Louis and his fellow crewmen cheated death multiple times, but none more harrowing than after his plane went down in the Pacific Ocean. While most died in the crash, Zamperini and another airman survived a total of 47 days adrift in the ocean on a life raft (a third survived the crash but died at sea).
After being rescued from the water by enemy forces, both men became prisoners of war and were eventually sent to Japanese POW camps.
Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners referred to as The Bird. His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, and he was by all accounts a sadistically cruel and abusive Japanese soldier who terrorized the prisoners. He especially had it out for the Olympic athlete, whom he had regarded as his ‘number one prisoner.’ As such, Louis experienced even worse treatment than the other prisoners.
Watanabe was so notorious in his abusiveness, he was listed as number 23 on General MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan after the war. However, after years of hiding from the authorities (and being thought to have killed himself) he would never face trial for his actions. He died in 2003.
The movie Unbroken does an excellent job chronicling the trials that Zamperini experienced as a downed airman adrift at sea. It vividly depicts his time in a hellish POW camp. It is an inspiring tale of how with courage and determination he persevered through it all.
But the story doesn’t end there.