Louis Zamperini: The Real Man Behind Hollywood’s ‘Unbroken’

Louis Zamperini – the Second World War hero behind Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken

Louis Zamperini had been a rebel who rose to become an Olympian. He was the champion turned into a WWII serviceman. Louis Zamperini continued on to become a bombardier who went AWOL at sea, captured by the Japanese Navy and went through many torturous struggles. But the will and courage of Louis Zamperini was too steadfast to be broken. He eventually returned home barely alive, but welcomed as a hero.

Accordingly, Angelina Jolie’s second directorial debut, Unbroken, is a fitting tribute to the life of WWII hero Louis Zamperini.

To Hell and Back

Each day for two full years in the life of Louis Zamperini was hell. These were the times he spent in the hands of his Japanese captors.

Two camp guards known as The Butcher and The Bird spent everyday of these two infernal years attempting to break the young American soldier’s spirit. Louis Zamperini would have been easy to kill him being in their territory. But killing the Olympian-turned-POW was an effortless means to an end. So, they brought him close to death only to pull him back to life to go through the cruel cycle once again.

Louis Zamperini was fed with bits of meat containing twitching maggots and rubbed in rat droppings. He was, one time, beaten in the temples by his captor using a metal buckle. They even made him lick his captor’s boots. To top it all off, he was injected with Dengue fever and left to fend it on his own as poor as his physical condition was.

Once, Louis Zamperini was ordered by his Japanese guards to hold a log above his head. When he did so, they had him punched in the stomach repeatedly waiting for the time that he would eventually collapse from their mistreatment. However, to their chagrin, Lou remained standing after a full 37 minutes had passed. In their anger, they lashed at him until he was beaten to the ground.

They might have not known, the will of one Louis Zamperini was hard to break down. After all, the former Olympian had went through a lot. His plane crashed in the sea and he, along with two other buddies, fought with the elements and shark attacks while being adrift in the waters for 47 days without food and water.

Looking Back

Louis Zamperini was born to Italian immigrants in 1917. His mother gave birth to him in Olean, New York. Eventually, the whole family moved to California.

He grew up in relative poverty. As both his parents were Italian, the family had trouble speaking in English which made Lou an easy target for bullies. Because of that, his father taught him boxing for self-defense. But then, he got into a lot of trouble fighting off his oppressors.

Seeing his brother’s talent in sports along with his ability of getting himself tangled in trouble, Pete (older brother of Louis Zamperini) signed him up for his school’s track team. Prior to that, Lou never knew how talented he was at running. He just made it in his mind to run everywhere.

When he won his first race, Louis Zamperini  couldn’t believe his distance to the runner who came after him was by a quarter of a mile. At first, he thought he did not follow through the track and must have had cut in several corners. But his audience assured him that he ran the full lap.

Young Louis Zamperini competing.
Young Louis Zamperini competing.

At 17, he exceeded all the local records in running in his school in Torrance, a Los Angeles suburb, earning him the nickname Torrance Tornado.

Meet, Greet and Steal

Because of his admirable running records, Louis Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics at 19 becoming the youngest American qualifier in the 5000-meter run. However, he only attained the eight place in the said event. Nevertheless, his final lap, which he ran in a mere 56 seconds caught the attention of the notorious German dictator Adolf Hitler enough to merit a meet and greet portion with him.

Louis Zamperini was able to shake hands with Hitler with the latter even calling him the boy with the fast finish. But then, Louis Zamperini went on to climb a flagpole and steal Hitler’s personal flag.

The Second World War

Louis Zamperini trained hard for the 1940 Olympics, hoping that this time, he eventually would get a gold medal. However, his chance never came as World War II broke out. He was drafted into the US Army at 27 and became a bombardier assigned in the South Pacific.

It was in 1943 on a surveillance mission when the B-24 Liberator plane he was crewing in crashed into the sea killing eight of its eleven-man team. Louis Zamperini was one of the crash survivors. He, along with two others, drifted at sea in a life raft. They braved countless shark attacks and survived on a diet of raw fishes and two Albatrosses they caught and drank rain water.

Meanwhile, the family of Louis Zamperini back home had been told that he was dead.

One of the crash survivors died due to starvation after 33 days at sea, but Lou with the other survivor held on to their lives.  On their 47th day, they were spotted by the Japanese Navy and were taken in as POWs.

That was the start of the two-year hell Louis Zamperini experienced in the hands of his Japanese captors.

In the Hands of the Enemy

Japanese Corporal Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe, Zamperini's chief tormentor.
Japanese Corporal Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, Zamperini’s chief tormentor.

After over a month of being out in the open sea and sky, Louis Zamperini found himself locked up in a cell no bigger than a dog’s kennel. So great was the claustrophobia he felt that time that he broke down and cried his heart out. But then, Lou never let his captors saw the brokenness he felt inside.

He was moved to a covert interrogation camp somewhere in the Japanese mainland. Here, he got his taste of severe physical, mental and psychological beatings and it was from the hands of Japanese medical officer Sueharu Kitamura known as The Butcher.

Louis Zamperini, along with other POWs, were fed with maggots-infested, rat droppings-rubbed and sand-and-grit-filled rations which cracked the teeth of those who ate them.

Eventually, he was transferred to a man-made Sandspit situated between Tokyo and Yokohama September of 1944. But the condition Louis Zamperini was in did not improve. In fact, it went for the worse as the prison place was known for its vileness.

In this place, Louis Zamperini had his dose of hell in the hands of Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe known as The Bird. Watanabe was so obsessed with bullying and humiliating the former Olympian, he ordered his men to bring Lou to the brink of his death but never into it. The young American POW was beaten everyday. Watanabe even commanded his fellow POWs to also do the same.

When the Allied forces closed in against Japan, The Bird became more violent towards Louis Zamperini. This convinced Lou that he would get killed before the liberation could come. Fortunately, The Allies reached the camp Lou was in on September 1945 with him barely alive but still breathing. He then returned home welcomed as a WWII hero.

Nightmares of the Past

Nevertheless, the was changed Louis Zamperini. He may have met his wife, Cynthia, and got married in 1946 but the nightmares of the past kept on haunting him.

He fought with depression, anger and went on to become an alcoholic. He even went as far as plotting his return to Japan with the desire of killing Watanabe, his main persecutor.

The troubled life he was leading almost cost him his marriage.

Moving On

Fortunately, Louis Zamperini found God and with that, he also found the right steps to get his life back on track. He was able to work out through his marriage with his wife Cynthia and the couple went on to have two kids. Louis Zamperini also became an inspirational speaker with his messages pointing out to the power of forgiveness, a topic he was well acquainted with.

Finally, he was able to return to Japan for the 1998 Winter Olympics which was held in Nagano. He ran a leg in the event’s torch relay. Louis Zamperini was able to run past the camps where he once had been a prisoner in his POW days.

By that time, Watanabe, who had already been condemned as a war criminal, but evaded prosecution, was discovered as a well-to-do businessman who had made his fortune in insurance.

Louis Zamperini wrote to the former Japanese guard. He wanted to meet his ex-persecutor not out of anger but out of forgiveness. However, the latter refused.

Watanabe, eventually, allowed himself to be interviewed in the American TV program 60 Minutes. Here, he claimed that he treated the POWs  who came under his watch in WWII only as enemies of Japan.

The Story of a Well-lived Life

Louis Zamperini went on to write two autobiographies. But it was the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption written by bestselling author Laura Hildebrand that touched a tender cord in Lou. It made him realize how many of his pals he lost because of the war.

Angelina Jolie with WWII hero Louis Zamperini who  also was her neighbor and friend in LA prior to directing the movie about his life.
Angelina Jolie with WWII hero Louis Zamperini who also was her neighbor and friend in LA prior to directing the movie about his life.

It was also this book that became Angelina Jolie’s basis for her upcoming WWII film on the life of Louis Zamperini — Unbroken.

Lou regards Jolie as his new friend and even once said that he was not complaining as the gal really loves him since she kisses and hugs him most of the time.

He even went on to become her guest when the actress was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences.

During the ceremony, Louis Zamperini was asked to sum up his life.

God has given me so much and he expected so much out of me — these words were his answer.

Louis Zamperini passed away July 2 of this month after losing battle with pneumonia. He was 97.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE