Louis Zamperini from YANK MAGAZINE

Durable Louis


By Sgt. Frank De Blois

The full story of Lou Zamperini’s war with Japan probably will never be told. There were parts of it—the 47 days in an open boat, the delirium of wasting starvation and heat, the long, horror-filled months in four Japanese prison camps, the sadistic genius of his captors—which he can no longer put into words because they are hidden forever behind a dull blanket of pain in his brain.

But most of the story Zamperini knows and will tell. And some of the rest of it will come out—eventually-from other sources, from some of the men who went through a part of the monstrous adventure with him, from his family, his friends and from the Japanese. And when you piece it together you may find that Zamperini’s story is one of the most incredible of the entire war.


Louis Zamperini after returning from Japanese captivity

In 1936, Lou Zamperini was a schoolboy running against grown men for a place on the U.S. Olympic 4,000-meter relay team. He made the team by beating Don Lash, the Indiana state policeman who was our best distance runner in those years. In the Olympic finals—run in Germany—he finished eighth, beating Lash again, and later, in a moment of whimsy, he climbed atop a flagpole in Adolf Hitler’s Sportsplatz and removed a swastika as a souvenir. This last bit of horseplay won him a chiding from the AAU.

After the Olympics, Zamperini came home to the U.S.A., ran some more races, including a 4:07 mile, graduated from the University of Southern California, and entered the Army. He earned his bars in 1942 and shortly thereafter shipped out to Hawaii in a B-24.

On May 27, 1943, he took off in a B-24 from Kualoa Airport on Oahu in a routine search for a B-25 reported down somewhere west of Palmyra. It took him 28 months to return from that mission.

At two o’clock that afternoon, Zamperini’s plane—with crew of 10, including Lt. Russell Phillips, of Princeton, Ind., the pilot—reached the area where the B-25 had gone down. Zamperini, the navigator* told the crew to look around for the downed bomber, and then—suddenly—it happened. There was a jolt, the engines stopped and the plane nosed into the sea.

There was a soul-curdling hiss of water through the cabin and then a blast that tore the plane in half. Zamperini recovered consciousness minutes later and found himself 40 feet underwater, his body pinned beneath a machinegun mount. With one free arm he pushed the mount from him, inflated his Mae West life preserver, smashed his fist through a window, and shot through the boiling sea to the surface.

There he spotted two rafts and saw Lt. Phillips and Red McIntyre*, the tail gunner, struggling in the water. Zamperini lashed the rafts together, hauled Phillips and McIntyre aboard and went to work on a great triangular cut in the pilot’s head.

That’s what happened during the first few moments of the 47 days Zamperini, McIntyre and Phillips were to spend at sea in an ordeal surpassing in endurance most “open boat” stories in fact or fiction.

Rations in the rafts consisted of six pounds of chocolate and enough water to last the three men two days. After that they ate nothing but two small fish they caught, the liver of a two-and-a-half-foot shark, three small birds and four albatrosses which lit on the rafts to rest. From then on they hungered, thirsted and suffered until their upper lips pressed against their noses and their lower lips were raw welts hanging slack.


Zamperini inspects a hole in his B-24D Liberator “Super Man” made by a Japanese 20mm cannon shell.


View of the hole from inside the B-24 Liberator

According to Robert Trumbull, New York Times reporter to whom Zamperini told his story, the three men hit upon a simple diversion to keep sane during the 47-day ordeal.

“I made up imaginary meals which I ‘cooked’ and ‘served’ to Phillips and McIntyre three times a day,” Zamperini said. “Every day I prepared a menu for each imaginary meal—breakfast, dinner, supper—describing the preparations for each ingredient. They would ask me, ‘Well, what are we going to have for lunch today?’ and I’d go on with the little play as if it were real. It helped to keep us cheerful.”

After 20 days at sea, Phillips’ head compress began to smell. Zamperini decided that this indicated maggots, so he left the bandage alone until the caked blood fell out in chunks. Then he removed the dressing. The scars were straight and thin. The wound had healed completely.

On the second day, the three men on the two rafts saw their first plane. It was a B-25, at 8,000 feet and two miles off, and it passed them without noticing the flares they sent up.  The next day a Liberator flew by, directly overhead at 3,000 feet and again failed to notice the flares. On the 27th day they saw their third plane—and it saw them. It was a Japanese “Betty” two-motored bomber, and it strafed them with machinegun fire. Zamperini dove overboard and fought off sharks until the plane withdrew. The other two men—too weak to move—sprawled out on the decks as though they were dead. But the plane didn’t hit anyone.


Louis Zamperini in uniform

Soon after the attack, the gunner McIntyre became delirious. Zamperini cured him for a time by threatening to report him to his “superior office.” On the 33rd day, however, the gunner died and Zamperini mumbled a few prayers over his body and pushed it gently into the sea.

Life then became for the two survivors a series of hellish tortures—by the sun all day and by the blistering winds at night—as the rafts were sucked by the currents into the vicinity of the Japanese—held Marshall Islands. On the 47th night their rafts bobbed corklike in a storm that drove them close to land.  Through flashes of lightning, Zamperini saw a patch of green, and the following morning they found themselves in a sheltered lagoon.

“Say, Phillips,” Zamperini said weakly, “it’s an island.”

The other man looked up and nodded. Their ordeal by open boat was over.

Meanwhile, back home in California, Zamperini’s family received a telegram from the War Department informing them that their son was missing in action.

“I know he’s alive,” his mother said.

Zamperini’s and Phillips’ first contact with the Japanese was a pleasant surprise. They got food. Taken ashore by a ship’s captain, the skeleton-shaped fliers were given hardtack and water, their first food in eight days. Zamperini, whose weight had scaled down from 160 to 87 pounds, ate slowly.

“It’s delicious,” he said.

For a few days the sick, emaciated and half-starved Americans were permitted rest by the Japanese. Then they were taken to Wotje, given further treatment, and transferred to Kwajalein, where they lived for 43 days on three handfuls of rice a day. This was balled up and thrown through their bars by a guard who goaded his prisoners into scrambling about the floor of the filthy cell for the stray grains of rice on which they nursed their exhausted bodies back to health.

Sometimes the guards would enter their cells, prod them with sticks, make them sing and dance. Then, learning somehow that Zamperini was an American athlete, they bribed him with offers of food to lose a foot race to some Japanese runners. And later, when Zamperini said he thought Japan would lose the war, his nose was broken by a baseball bat. Zamperini set his nose himself by holding it in place all day and most of the night for two weeks until it healed.

Life at Kwajalein was a sample of life at Truk, Yokohama, Amomori and Naoetsu—all of which were ports of call on Zamperini’s itinerary.

At Yokohama, a Jap became peeved when Zamperini’s legs wouldn’t fit under the jump seat of a Chevrolet sedan—and smacked him across the nose six times with a flashlight.

“My nose bled,” said Zamperini. “But it didn’t break again.”

Later he made a radio broadcast back home. It was picked up in the U.S., but his survival was held so unlikely by the War Department that a wire was sent to his family, informing them that Zamperini was dead.

No,” his mother said. “I know he’s alive.”

At Amomori, meanwhile, Zamperini had met “The Bird,” a frog-headed sadist who forced American prisoners to do push-ups a-straddle dung-filled slit trenches until they collapsed from exhaustion.

“Once,” Zamperini told Trumbull, “‘The Bird’ filled a tub with hot water and told me he would drown me before the morning. Then he changed his mind and beat me around the head until my ears bled instead.”

“The Bird” followed Zamperini to Naoetsu, the bug-alive boghole that was to be his last “home” in Japan. There “The Bird” lined up all the American officers and forced American enlisted men to slug them until they dropped.  “The Bird” hated officers.

Zamperini was still at Naoetsu when the Japanese surrendered. But “The Bird” had flown and the other Japanese guards had overnight become fawning and solicitous.

Outwardly, Zamperini seemed little the worse for 47 days at sea in an open boat and 26 months of starvation, exposure, thirst and torture.  He had even gained 50 pounds since his imprisonment. But inwardly, he was far the worse for it.

“If I had to go through with it again,” he told Trumball, “I’d kill myself.”

Back home in California, his family got the news. Their son – the schoolboy runner, the Olympic star, the flier, their son—was safe.

“I always knew he was alive,” his mother said simply.

*Editors Note: Zamperini was the Bombardier. “Red” McIntyre’s real name was  Francis McNamara

More of Lou Zamperini’s story can be seen in:

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption





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One thought on “Louis Zamperini Story from YANK MAGAZINE

  • Peter Kubicek says:

    It looks that my eight months in German concentration camps were a picnic compared to the ordeal of Louis Zamperini.

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