"If I knew I had to go through those experiences again," he finally said, "I'd kill myself."
Louis Zamperini was a precocious child. He was always finding creative ways to get himself in trouble. He was desperate for any attention. Causing trouble is one way to get it, another way is to become really, really good at something. His brother Pete, a multi-sport star athlete, forced him into cross country and track in the hopes of keeping him out of trouble. The running, at first, felt like a punishment for all of Louis's misdeeds, but then something clicked over and he discovered that not only did he like running, but that he had an aptitude for it. He started winning races and then he started breaking records.
I went out for cross country my senior year of high school not because I had a burning desire to run, but because I wanted to get in shape for basketball season. The football coach had visions of me being a tall, reasonably fast, wide receiver. I had visions of a helmet crashing into my knee ending not only a short lived football career, but also wiping out my penultimate season of basketball. On the cross country team was a guy named Roger. His father had been an Olympic athlete. He had qualified for the games in Mexico, drank the water, and became too sick to compete. Roger had dreams of the Olympics in his future. I had a much smaller goal of improved stamina for basketball.
By the time the first race rolls around I'm still not sure how I will stack up with the other runners. With Roger beating me easily every day at practice I was more worried about embarrassing myself. At this point I had no racing strategy, no thought except finishing two miles. The gun sounds, everybody takes off in a stampede. At about the one mile marker I started passing scads of runners who were flagging. I was thinking am I outpacing myself here Am I going to run out of gas Then up ahead I caught a flash of Phillipsburg Panther blue. I could see Roger! He was duking it out with a pair of twins from a rival city. The stories that Zamperini told the author about runners elbowing, pushing, gouging...all true. Of course Roger wasn't worried about how long he took to run the race he was just putting a pace out there that eliminated all but his most formidable opponents. When the finish line came into sight he kicked down the afterburners and won with ease.
I finished 6th out of 65 runners, suddenly running took on a new meaning for me.
I was descended on by the local radio, television, and newspaper reporters. They asked me about the upcoming basketball season, a sport with a lot more interest to the community than cross country. They did ask me a few questions about the race which I couldn't really answer because I wasn't really sure how I managed to come in 6th. I looked over at Roger who was sitting on the ground changing out of his running shoes. No one was asking him any questions. I wish I'd motioned him over or walked over to him bringing the people asking questions with me, but I was still trying to make sense of everything.
He told me later that he was just glad I was bringing some attention to the program. He was magnanimous, but I felt about four inches tall. Louis and Roger would have understood each other perfectly. They knew all they had to do was keep winning and eventually the world would notice.
Louis Zamperini's Olympic passport.
I never did learn to love running, but I did love competing.
Laura Hillenbrand knows how to tell a story. Readers will find the descriptions of Zamperini's races leading up to the Olympics much more compelling than they think, even if they don't have an interest in sports. Zamperini qualified in the 5000 meters by the skin of his teeth for the historic 1936 Olympic Games. Jesse Owens was the story that year. He was putting a finger in Adolf Hitler's eyes every time he stepped onto the track. Zamperini finished eighth, but he was determined to return in 1940 and win a fist full of medals.
The wheel of fortune landed on a different fate for Louis Zamperini.
World War Two put a crimp in many plans, dreams were put on hold, careers were set aside, and marriages were speeded up. Zamperini ended up a bombardier in a B-24. His job of dropping bombs on the Japanese was hazardous enough, but when a commanding officer ordered his crew up in a plane that flew "mushy" and had been stripped of all nonessential parts he was certainly tempting fate.
The plane was called The Green Hornet and just like the movie by the same name it crashed and burned. Three members of the crew survived and Zamperini was one of the fortunate few.
The Bucket of Bolts that dropped the boys into the Pacific. I always love the airplane artwork.
After drifting for months, surviving by sheer grit and determination, they are picked up as prisoners of war by the Japanese.
Life has got to improve, right After all they don't have sharks rubbing at the bottom of their survival raft every day and every night. They don't have to worry about where their next drink of water is going to come from or their next meal.
The shark metamorphosis into a Bird, the Bird is Matsuhiro Watanabe. He is a psychopath who actually became sexually aroused beating up helpless prisoners. When the movie comes out this guy is going to be known the world over as one of the sickest most despicable human beings to ever exist. The list of charges against him, at the end of the war, were a stream of paper eight feet long.
Matsuhiro "the Bird" Watanabe
His favorite target: Lieutenant Louis Zamperini.
"The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man's vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized."
I was surprised to learn that my own understanding of the treatment of POWs under the Japanese was sketchy at best. I'm still processing the images invoked from recently reading The Devil of Nanking about the massacres at Nanking in 1937. Like the Nazis the Japanese at this time were interested in the purity of their own race. They felt that as a superior race it was their place to rule all of Asia. They believed that to surrender was cowardly and dishonorable behavior. This belief led to some very erratic aggressive behavior by Japanese soldiers who would rather die than be taken prisoner.
So The Bird was a corporal who had been turned down for an officer's position, this humiliation infuriated him. He despised these American soldiers who had surrendered and he especially despised the officers.
More than 37% of Americans held captive by the Japanese died. Only 1% of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. The Japanese guards were brutal and sadistic and at the end of the war many of them were prosecuted and executed. This changed as the Americans discovered that Japan would prove a valuable ally in the upcoming Cold War. The prosecution of further war criminals became a political stumbling block and were stopped.
I reached a point where I wondered why Louis Zamperini continued to want to live. He was too strong, too stubborn, too competitive to give up. When he crashed, his parents didn't know he survived. They were kept in nervous, soul crushing suspense because a demented Corporal decided that the POWs under his command would not be able to write home. Laura Hillenbrand could have let the behavior of the Japanese guards weigh this book down into a horrific tale of depressing stories of physical and mental abuse, but though she does share a lot of those stories with us they are uplifted by the sheer determination of Zamperini not only to live, but to get one chance to wrap his hands around the neck of his tormentor.
This book had me considering who we are when we go to war. Why do so many leave their homes as fathers, husbands, brothers and become this shockingly terrifying person capable of the most sadistic behavior War is hell. I know that, but there is a huge difference between killing someone in self defense on a battlefield and quite another to systematically, with creativity, torture people. The Rape of Nanking or the abuse of POWs defies all logic. These soldiers are not criminals or murderers. These are normal people until they are put in a uniform; and then, somehow they transform into criminals and murderers.
Laura Hillenbrand with Louis Zamperini
Hillenbrand includes a plethora of pictures all placed in with the text so you can look at a picture of what she is describing as you read it. I wish more publishers would do this for more books. It really enhances the experience. Hillenbrand is an excellent writer with a gift for storytelling. She adds in these wonderful details that really bring the story to life, so instead of waiting for the movie pick up the book and marvel at the capacity of humans to survive and bring their lives back from the brink of despair. Survival, Resilience, and Redemption are the subtitle of this book. You will end the book knowing and believing that Louis Zamperini exemplified all those qualities in the face of impossible odds.
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