Former POW Recounts Survival Story

WWII vet Louis Zamperini talks at JSerra Catholic High about drifting at sea for 47 days after his plane went down, drinking rainwater and eating fish before he was captured by the Japanese.

Seventy years after he was captured and tortured by the Japanese during World War II, 95-year-old Louis Zamperini recounted his ordeal Friday to a rapt audience of students and faculty at .

Before the war, Zamperini was a 1936 U.S. Olympic runner whose blazing final lap in the 5,000-meter race earned him a handshake from Adolf Hitler

Seven years later, while serving as a bombardier in the U.S. Army, he was taken prisoner after a plane crash and 47 harrowing days at sea.

He and 10 other men had been aboard the Green Hornet, which took off from the island of Funafuti to search for a lost aircraft.

During the flight, a mechanical failure caused the plane to go down, killing most of the crew.   

“I was under the tripod of the plane when it happened and the life raft was stuck beneath me,” said Zamperini. “The wires were tangled around me like ... spaghetti. I cried out to God for help and was immediately set free.”

He and two others survived the crash, climbing into a life raft with just six bars of chocolate and six pints of water. The chocolate was eaten out of panic during the night.

After 10 days at sea, a plane flew over and hope was almost immediately restored. But the plane did not see them. Several days later, a Japanese plane zoomed by and fired shots. Zamperini dove underwater to avoid the bullets, he said. His crewmates were too weak to swim, but nobody was hurt.

Adrift at sea, the men survived by drinking rainwater and capturing a few fish and albatross. Nevertheless, after 33 days, one died of starvation. Two weeks after that, Zamperini and the remaining crewman landed on the Marshall Islands and were captured.

As prisoners of war, they were tortured and used as guinea pigs to try out various drugs and narcotics the Japanese had devised, he said. Several months later, the men were shipped to Ofuna, a man-made island off the coast of Tokyo that was designed especially for POWs.

There, Zamperini was tortured by a man named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka "the Bird." He was later transferred to a camp 400 miles north of Tokyo, only to be tormented by “the Bird” again, he said. Soon after, the war ended and he slowly made his way home to California.

After the war, he met the love of his life, Cynthia Applewhite, and married her in 1946. But he suffered from post-tramatic stress disorder and began drinking heavily. His wife persuaded him to go with her to a pair of Billy Graham revival meetings. There, he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.

"After I knelt down and accepted Christ, my life changed and my nightmares were gone," Zamperini said.

In 1952, Zamperini returned to Japan to address a group of Japanese war criminals. He later wrote a letter of forgiveness to Watanabe, urging him to become a Christian.

Friday's talk at JSerra was the latest in a series of inspirational appearances for Zamperini, whose story has been chronicled in books, film and various news media accounts.

Lawrence (Larry) McCook September 10, 2012 at 11:12 PM
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story! It has been my extreme honor to drive WWII Veterans to school speaking engagements for the last 12 years. It is so wonderful to hear their real life stories and to become friends with these Real Heroes!
Charles September 10, 2012 at 11:23 PM
I read his book "Unbroken" a few months ago. Interesting this guy was at USC, the Olympics and in a Japanese POW camp. Grew up in Torrance the airport of which is named after him.
Martin Henderson (Editor) September 10, 2012 at 11:28 PM
He was also at the Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles, which essentially launched Graham as the preeminent evangelist in the U.S. He's kind of a Forrest Gump character. Awesome story.
Charles September 11, 2012 at 12:33 AM
It was at one of these "crusades" where Zamperini the alcoholic realized he had "hit bottom" and went through his "born again" transformation. Zamperini's experience is a classic example of this transformation.
Brad McGirr September 11, 2012 at 01:47 AM
Charles, in Laura Hillenbrand's book "Unbroken," Mr. Zamperini fully admits that when he came home from serving his country, he suffered from what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. As a result, he drank heavily and abused his wife. At his wife's insistence, he then attended one of Rev. Graham's crusades and his life has been completely transformed. Thereafter, he visited Japan and publicly forgave his astonished former captors for the abuse he endured at their hands. Mr. Zamperini is a fantastic example of a true American hero and a man who readily admits his past mistakes while striving every day to be a better man than he was the day before. Whether he "hit bottom" before his religious awakening matters not. If he had attended a crusade and met Rev. Graham a year later, would that make any difference to you? I think not. Charles, Mr. Zamperini's faith is what makes him who he is. Regardless of whether or not you share that faith, I think we should celebrate this wonderful man for his service to his country and for the man he has become. Believe me, after crashing in the Pacific Ocean and being tortured in various POW camps, Mr. Zamperini has endured far worse than ridicule from someone like you. He can handle it just fine.
Jincie September 11, 2012 at 02:36 AM
I simply love the comments on this awesome individual. Why would anyone, sitting in their nice soft comfy chair in front of their computers even comment on Louis Zamperini's life. He is so far above anything you will ever be in your life that to try to qualify what he has done is ludicrous.
Kathi September 11, 2012 at 02:51 AM
Yep, that was the one in 1949 in Los Angeles.
Kathi September 11, 2012 at 02:58 AM
Actually Louie Zamperini also has 2 different versions (w different co-authors) of his autobiography, Devil At My Heels. I got the earlier version close to 50 years ago when I heard him speak at a rally when I was in high school. Bought the book & got it autographed. Then went home & told my folks about it & found out that my uncle, (who was a track star also at the time, but missed the Olympics due to injury) knew him from track events. Maybe my Dad had met him also, not sure about that. His book gives a more personal view of his life, Unbroken fills in more background. The 2 complement each other. Both books are available on Amazon. Got to hear him at the Harvest event last Summer & then at a church in MV in Oct (& even got to talk to him there very briefly). Amazing story & amazing man & when I heard him last Fall, he still had quite a sense of humor in recounting some of the events.
Kathi September 11, 2012 at 03:01 AM
As far as the guy on the raft who didn't make it, he was in better shape than the pilot or co-pilot to start w after the crash. They were all starving, but it sounded like he lost the will to keep going another day & another day w the starvation, shark attacks, etc.
Kathi September 11, 2012 at 03:03 AM
Glad the high school students could hear his 1st hand accounts of his life & history. A lot better than just reading a book. & there are less & less of those who lived through those times. My Dad & my uncle who were both a little bit older than Louie are gone now. So amazing he is still doing so well at his age & providing a bridge to the past for the younger generation.
Glenn Acosta September 11, 2012 at 03:05 AM
His remarkable story was aired on the Sunday Morning show a few months ago. Truly incredible. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7409886n
M B September 11, 2012 at 03:16 AM
I am 3/4 through Unbroken, Capt. Zamperini's biography, by the author who also wrote "Seabiscuit". It is one of the best stories I've ever read, and I am truly sad to have missed his appearance at JSerra. Incredible, inspiring story!!!
Brad McGirr September 11, 2012 at 03:46 AM
It's a great book M B. And for those who are looking for a pretty "safe" book for their children to read, one that will give them insight into "The Greatest Generation," I'd highly recommend the book. ("Unbroken", by Laura Hillenbrand)
Kathi September 11, 2012 at 04:47 AM
Unbroken is good, but I would also suggest Devil At My Heels for his more personal touch--that is if you are interested. Also you can read the reviews on amazon of both books. I bought the updated version--w the different co-author than the older one I have--along w Unbroken on Amazon.
Kathi September 11, 2012 at 04:49 AM
Last Summer I looked on Amazon at the reviews & found links to Hillenbrand's website & also I think he had one. They may have a list of future speaking engagements. He was at Mt of Olives Lutheran in MV last Fall where I got to hear him again. So glad I did! It was worth it, even having to walk about 2 blocks w a broken foot!
Charles September 11, 2012 at 12:45 PM
Edit...Actually it was "Devil At My Heels" that I read.
Hercules1944 September 11, 2012 at 02:23 PM
[IMG]http://i152.photobucket.com/albums/s188/Hercules1944/194th%20Tank%20Battalion/WalterStraka002.jpg[/IMG] I am standing next to MR Walter Straka, a Bataan Death March survivor. He was with the local Guard unit her, activated just prior to WW11 and spent the war as a guest of the Japanese. What an amazing man. We are down to two survivors locally from that Tank unit. I also went to a 90th birthday party recently for a guy that jumped into Normandy in the wee hours of D-Day. Tell you what folks, I did 26 months USMC in NAM. Whateverever I saw ind did was pretty paltry when compared to the WW11 guys. Especially if you were a POW guest of the Japanese. God bless all them guys.
Charles September 11, 2012 at 03:53 PM
American death rates in POW Camps Nazi, 1% Vietnam 15% Korea 38% Japan 40%


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