Louis Zamperini: 1917-2014


Although it should come as no shock but is nontheless sad news, the family of Louis Zamperini announced his death on Thursday after a long struggle with pneumonia. At 97 and given his life experience, Zamperini had a good long run indeed. Many World War II veterans of his era passed years, if not decades ago.

If youve not read of Zamperinis story in Laura Hillenbrands superb Unbroken, this is a good time to crack the book and learn about Zamperinis remarkable life. I read it a couple of years ago and made a note to comment on it here, but never got to it. But nows the time.

Zamperinis experience as a World War II B-24 bombardier in the Pacific might not be especially unusual were it not for the fact that he survived an astonishing 43 days in a life raft, drifting across a significant expanse of the Pacific before being taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands. He was eventually transported to Japan and endured more than two years of daily torture, starvation and privation before being repatriated in 1945 after the Japanese surrender. Given that more than 40 percent of American POWs died in Japanese captivity, Zamperinis survival was probably more determination than luck, or perhaps equal measures of both.

Some critics of Unbroken have suggested that Zamperini may have exaggerated his post war redemption, but his war experience itself was well documented by Hillenbrand. With the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, Hillenbrands book and Zamperinis story offer a glimpse into a phase of the war that gauzy histories and films often seem to miss.

Zamperinis B-24 went down in the Pacific in May of 1943, in the midst of a miserable year for the allies. In Europe, air planners were learning the bloody lesson that unescorted bombers couldnt reach their targets without unsustainable losses. In the Pacific, they were learning another lesson: the aircraft, equipment and training werent up to the vast distances to be covered in the Pacific. Navigation training was rudimentary, survival gear was barely up to the challenge and the resources simply werent yet available in the theater. By Hillenbrands telling, so many aircraft were lost in the vastness of the Pacific that a significant percentage of resources were devoted just to search and rescue. All too often the searchers were themselves lost.

And indeed, Zamperini was one of the lost airmen. His B-24 crashed on a SAR mission after one engine quit and the flight engineer accidentally feathered the second engine on the same wing. Of 11 aboard, only three survived. One died at sea 33 days later and Zamperini and the B-24s pilot, Russ Phillips, were captured by the Japanese 43 days after the crash, little believing they had been adrift that long. His was by no means the longest survival at sea during World War II, but it was nonetheless a feat. U.S. forces never found a trace of the airplane, a dilapidated B-24 called the Green Hornet which the entire crew, according to Zamperini, despaired of flying on the SAR mission they were assigned; a musher Zamperini called it in his diary. Zamperinis family was notified that he had died even before the Japanese recovered the two airmen in the Marshalls.

Apart from Zamperinis inspiring survival tale, one of the most interesting things about the story is how quickly the Air Force and Navy conquered Pacific distances. By early 1945, B-29s were flying regular missions to bomb Japan from the Mariana Islands and had extensive SAR assets to support them. When the war ended and U.S. ground forces couldnt reach the POW camps quickly, the B-29s did. They eventually dropped so much food and supplies that the POWs had to scratch messages in the dirt begging them to stop. Some prisoners were actually injured by the rain of plenty.

Born in 1917, Zamperini was a ripe old 24 when he enlisted in September 1941, before Pearl Harbor, making him among the oldest World War II veterans. That he lived as long as he did breathes life into the subtitle of Hillenbrands book: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. Louis Zamperinis life was certainly that.

A film version of Unbroken is due to be released in December. In Torrance, Zamperini’s hometown, the airport was named Louis Zamperini field in honor of his achievements as an Olympic runner during the 1930s.

Join the conversation.
Read others’ comments and add your own.