A short history of the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived as a Japanese POW

This short history of the life of Louis Zamperini is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken. Most movies stray from the history that was portrayed in the book. The movie Unbroken does not.

Early Life

Louis Zamperini was born 1917 to Irish immigrants. He lived a troubled youth were he was a master thief and escaped artist. While Louis was a major trouble maker, his older brother Pete was perceived by most as the model citizen. Two brothers with the same parents and same upbringing had two different reputations growing up in Torrence, California.

As Louis entered High School, his brother Pete started to work with Louis and encouraged him to run. Pete understood that Louis’ mischievous ways were simply Louis way of getting attention. Because Louis’ parents were native Italians, their English was poor and it was Pete who often interceded with Louis’ teachers to show Louis mercy. Pete harnessed this desire for attention and steered Louis into a disciplined life of a Track and Field star.

As Louis progressed through High School, it became clear to the entire nation that Louis was one special runner. It was not long before people started to think that Louis would be the first runner to break the four-minute mile.



Graduating from High School Louis started training to run the mile at the Summer Olympics. However, a few months from the American trials, Louis knew that he was not fast enough to be one of the top three Americans. Louis decided that he needed to switch disciplines and run the 5,000-meter race. With only a couple 5,000 meter races under his belt, he qualified for the Olympic trials in New York with a photo finish against the American record holder Don Lash.

At 19 years-old, Louis Zamperini was going to Berlin to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Louis did not medal in the race, but he did manage to run the last lap in under a minute coming from the back of the field to finish eighth. Louis’ last lap was so spectacular that Hitler was impressed. Hitler invited Louis into his box where he shook his hand saying “Ah, you are the boy with the fast finish.”

Military Service

Louis returned to the United States where he ran track for USC. Louis was diligently preparing for the 1940 Olympics. However, because of the war, the 1940 games were canceled. Louis had graduated from college and was filling in as a movie extra. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Louis found himself in the Army Air Corps.

Louis was sent to the Pacific theater where he was a bombardier. Louis first combat took place at Wake island. This surprised bombing attack was commenced at midnight on Christmas Day, 1942. However, during this attack, the bomb doors were unable to shut and Louis and the crew flew back to base thinking that they were going to run out of gas and crash into the ocean. Two of the four engines had stopped by the time the plane rolled to a stop on the runway.

A couple months later, Louis’ plane, Super Man, led the bombing run at the Island of Nauru. There were only a few Zero who were stationed on this island but because Super Man was the lead plane, it drew a lot of the enemy’s attention and ended up with 594 holes. It was a miracle that Super Man was able to make it back to home base. The crew had to manually lower the landing gear. On landing, they learned that one of the tires was flat and the plane came to a rather abrupt halt.

On May 27, 1943, Louie rose early in the morning and went for a run. He was able to get a soldier in a jeep to pace him. Running in the sand, Louie clocked a 4 minute and 12-second mile. This ended up being the fastest time for any American that year. Upon getting back to camp, Louis and the rest of his crew were told to board the Green Hornet and go search for a plane that had gone missing.

As the crew of the Green Hornet searched from the lost crew, one of their engines stopped working. As a result of low cloud cover, the crew had been flying only 800 feet above the water. In an attempt to balance the plane, one of the crew ended up killing the second engine on the left side of the plane sending the plane into a spiral. Because of how low they were flying, the crew did not have enough time to pull out and the Green Hornet hit the ocean tearing itself into multiple pieces.


Louis found himself tangled in a mess of wires. Even though he could hold his breath for over three minutes, he quickly found himself passing out for a lack of oxygen. Louis does not know how, but all of a sudden he woke up and he was no longer entangled with wires. He cleared himself from the sinking wreckage and pulled the strap which automatically inflated his life preserver. Louis quickly rose to the surface.


Upon the surface, Louis saw one of the life rafts floating away and he started swimming after it. However, the raft was floating faster than he could swim and he was about to give up when he saw a line that was tied to the life raft floating by him. He grabbed the line and quickly entered the raft. He soon was able to paddle so as to obtain a second raft. With two rafts, he soon found two crew who did not have life preservers on who were clinging to wreckage.

May 27, 1943, started with a nice run on the beach but it ended with Louis Zamperini, Allen Phillips, and Francis McNamara floating in a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. These men had started the day looking for a crew that had gone missing and now they were dependent upon the U.S. Air Corps to find them.

For the next 47 days, these men floated approximately 2,000 miles west on the Pacific Ocean. Food and water were in short supply and they often went days without water. When the occasional tropical storm came through, they would do their best to catch as much water as possible and preserve it until the next storm. These men constantly were battling the elements and occasionally, sharks came along trying to catch themselves an easy meal.

One day, a Japanese bomber spotted the men and made five passes using the two life rafts as target practice. While none of the men were injured, one raft was completely destroyed and the second was on life support. The men had to use the inflatable pump to put air into the life raft while the other two men used the patch kit to fix the bullet holes.

On the 33rd day, McNamara passed away. Allen and Louis continued to survive and they soon saw an island. As they paddled to the island, a Japanese ship caught sight of them and picked them up. Allen and Louis had just gone from being castaways to being Japanese prisoners of war.


Prisoner of War

Upon being captured, the Japanese crew treated them well. However, once they reached Kwajalein Atoll, things changed. It became clear that the Japanese were going to pump these men for information and then kill them. For some reason, shortly before they were killed, the decision was made to send them to Japan.

While they initially were sent to the same POW camp, eventually they were separated. At the first POW camp, the officer in charge insisted on strict silence. The men were not allowed talk. It was at this camp that Louis was required to race various Japanese men. The first race he lost badly, but the second one he managed to win, even though he knew he was going to be punished. The third race, the guy whispered in English to Louis that if he allowed him to win, he would give Louis a couple of rice balls. Louis allowed the man to win.

Soon Louis was transferred to the famous camp where he was introduced to the notorious Mutsuhito Watanabe “The Bird”. This is the man who made it his personal mission to break Louis. This man would almost daily beat Louis. He would come up with all forms of physical and physiological torture.

It was from this environment that Louis was bribed with the possibility of reading Japanese war propaganda from the radio. The Japanese thought that if Louis would start reading their propaganda that somehow it would hurt the morale of the U.S. military. Louis refused.

The Bird was soon transferred to another POW camp on the western side of Japan and things became much more tolerable. However, the Bird was not through with Louis and he soon requested that Louis be transferred to the new camp. It was at this new camp that Louis was required to hold a six-foot long piece of heavy lumber over his head. Louis held the piece over his head for 37 minutes before the Bird came and sucker punched him resulting in Louis dropping the lumber on his own head.

After the War

When the war ended, Louis was extremely sick and weak. Upon returning home, Louis was a celebrity. He traveled around the country speaking. It was after one of these trips that he was on vacation in Miami where he met Cynthia. Louis was head over heals for Cynthia. After a little persuasion, so was she. Louis wanted a quick courtship but Cynthia’s parents wanted a little more time. Louis eventually won and they were married.

It was shortly after the wedding that the consequences of the last several years really started to catch up with Louis. While training for the 1948 Olympics, Louis injured his leg making it clear that he could never race again. Louis turned to the bottle and his life was soon a wreck. Not even the birth of his first born could break the downward spiral that he found himself in.

Cynthia soon decided that she was going to divorce Louis. However, one day she went to a Billy Graham crusade and her life was changed. After much persuasion, Cynthia was able to get Louis to go to the tent meetings but he left during the alter call. Cynthia was able to persuade Louis to go a second time under the agreement that once the altar call was given, they would leave.

Louis was getting up to leave during the altar call when he remembered his promise to God aboard the raft. He promised that if God gave them water, he would serve HIM. He remembered how he was not killed by the Japanese bomber even though the bomber had made five passes. Instead of turning to leave the tent, Louis walked to the front and turned his life over to Christ.

The change in Louis was immediate. He went home and poured all the alcoholic beverages down the drain. He threw away all his cigarettes and pornography. However, the biggest change was the immediate end of the daily nightmares that he was having regarding his time in Japan. Louis was a new man.

Shortly thereafter, Louis was able to go back to Japan and speak to many of the prison guards who had made his life miserable. These men were in prison serving time because of their war crimes and Louis was able to forgive these men for what they had done to him.


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