July 5, 2014


Louis Zamperini, onetime Olympic runner who survived WWII ordeals, dies at 97 (MATT SCHUDEL, July 3, 2014, Washington Post)

He competed in the 5,000-meter run in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and was considered a favorite in the 1940 Olympics, which were scheduled for Tokyo but never took place because of World War II.

Instead, Mr. Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Forces and became a bombardier on B-24 Liberators in the Pacific. On May 27, 1943, he and the rest of his crew were on a search-and-rescue mission 800 miles from Hawaii when the aircraft developed mechanical problems and dived nose first into the ocean.

He was one of three crew members to survive the crash. Trapped under water and wrapped in torn coils of electrical wire, Mr. Zamperini found his bearings when his class ring from the University of Southern California caught on a piece of metal. He was able to swim out of the wreckage as it drifted toward the ocean floor.

He and the other crew members climbed into a rubber life raft that had few provisions. As they drifted in the open sea, they improvised ways to capture rainwater. Mr. Zamperini fashioned the pin of his lieutenant's insignia into a fishhook, with little success.

Sharks circled the small inflatable raft, which sprang leaks as the rubber weakened under the relentless sun. One day, a Japanese warplane strafed their lonely craft, forcing them to dive into the water with the sharks.

The three castaways survived by catching birds with their bare hands and using the entrails for fish bait. When a tern landed on the raft, "Louie was so famished that he went at it with his teeth, ripping the feathers loose and spitting them out in whuffs," Hillenbrand wrote in "Unbroken."

"Almost immediately, he felt a crawling sensation on his chin. The tern had been covered in lice, which were now hopping over his face."

From a college physiology course, Mr. Zamperini recalled that the brain was a muscle that could atrophy from disuse. He and his fellow airmen told stories about their lives and repeatedly sang "White Christmas" to an empty ocean.

In place of regular meals, they recalled their favorite foods in elaborate detail.

"Louie began describing a dish, and all three men found it satisfying, so Louie kept going," Hillenbrand wrote, "telling them about each dish in the greatest possible detail. Soon, [his mother's] kitchen floated there with them: Sauces simmered, spices were pinched and scattered, butter melted on tongues.

"So began a thrice-daily ritual on the raft, with pumpkin pie and spaghetti being the favorite subjects."

After 33 days, one of the three crew members died. Mr. Zamperini and the other survivor, Russell Allen Phillips, improvised a funeral ceremony and buried him at sea.

They stayed afloat for an additional 14 days, through rainstorms that stirred up 40-foot waves and nearly capsized their tiny raft.

Mr. Zamperini and Phillips were within sight of an island when a Japanese motorboat pulled alongside their raft. The emaciated Americans were taken captive at gunpoint, their hands bound behind their backs. Mr. Zamperini, who stood 5-foot-9 and weighed about 160 pounds when his flight took off May 27, had shrunk to about 80 pounds.

He and Phillips were shipped to separate POW camps. (Phillips survived the war and died in 1998.) Adrift for 47 days, they are believed to have survived the longest time at sea without provisions.

By strange chance, a Japanese officer at one of the camps had studied at the University of Southern California and recognized Mr. Zamperini. The Japanese thought a star athlete would have propaganda value, but Mr. Zamperini refused to denounce his country. He was then subjected to almost daily torture from a sadistic guard he called "the Bird."

In the meantime, Mr. Zamperini was officially declared dead, and his parents received a letter of condolence from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Mr. Zamperini and 700 other prisoners were released. They knew they were free when a U.S. plane flew over the prison, and the pilot dropped a small package from the cockpit. It contained a pack of cigarettes and a chocolate bar.

The prisoners sliced the chocolate bar into 700 slivers, giving each man a faint taste of freedom.

Posted by at July 5, 2014 6:08 PM

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