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.