Louis Zamperini: Coming Full Circle
By Andrew Knox and Aaron M. Little
The 700 Club
Interview: May 2003
Andrew Knox [reporting]: The son of Italian immigrants, Louis Zamperini was born in 1917. Soon after his family moved from New York to the West Coast, Louis inherited quite a character.
Louis Zamperini: I couldn’t speak English. I’m in kindergarten and the only reason I got through to first grade is because I cheated.
Andrew [reporting]: A smoker by age five, Louis was a tough young man.
Louis: The kids started teasing me to get me to swear in Italian. Two or three months, I started retaliating. I found out I could whip these guys. So I’m always fighting, getting even. Even the girls in school, when they gave me trouble, I’d take a glove of garlic, chew it, and blow my breath at them. So my whole life became a life of getting even.
Andrew [reporting]: His favorite trick was stealing beer from bootleggers. He was such a menace that the police intervened.
Louis: My brother, the chief of police, and my principal got together and said, “What are we going to do with this kid?”
Andrew [reporting]: Thinking he could use his speed for something besides stealing, they talked him into track. His first race…
Louis: In a 660-yard run, I came in last and of course I suffered because I’d been smoking and hijacking booze. I was in lousy shape.
Andrew [reporting]: A slow start, but in 1934 Louis broke the world’s interscholastic mile record. His time of 4:21 stood for two decades.
Louis: Then I get the shock of my life. I get a call from the Olympic Committee that I had qualified for the Olympic tryouts.
Andrew [reporting]: The “Torrence Tornado” finished the 5000-meter Olympic trials in a dead heat and qualified for a place on the American Olympic team. Louis was off to Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany.
Louis: I gained about 10 or 12 pounds on the boat going across. This is during the depression, and this is all free food!
Andrew [reporting]: In the 5000-meter Olympic final, Louis finished 8th, but ran the last one-forth mile in just 56 seconds. So fast, that Adolf Hitler himself insisted on meeting him.
Louis: So I went over to see him, he reached down, shook my hand kind of flimsy like and said, “Ah, the boy with the fast finish.”
Andrew [reporting]: He went on to star at USC and ran the mile in 4:08 and 3/10 seconds, an NCAA record for 15 years. He hoped for another shot at Olympic gold in 1940 but the games were cancelled due to the war. Louis joined the military.
Louis: I ended up in the Army Air Corp in the Pacific, operating out of Ayuka field in Hawaii.
Andrew [reporting]: Over the next two years he earned the nickname “Lucky Louis” for cheating death as a bombardier. So the search and rescue mission on May 27 of 1943 should have been routine.
Louis: The only plane available was a Green Hornet. The plane was used for salvaging part. It couldn’t go on a mission because it couldn’t carry a bomb load. We were reluctant to take it but they said, “Well, it passed inspection, and it should be alright.”
Andrew [reporting]: Eight hundred feet above the sea, the mission turned deadly. The Green Hornet’s two left engines cut out, and the plane and its crew crashed into the ocean, 800 miles south of Hawaii.
Andrew: What were you thinking when you were seeing the ocean get closer and closer, and you were spiraling down toward it?
Louis: I’ve got to say that is the highest emotion of the human experience is going down in a plane knowing your going to die! Out of 11 men aboard the plane three of us survived. It seemed like forever getting to the surface. On the way up, I’m swallowing oil, gasoline, and blood. I got to the surface, and I just threw up everything. I saw the pilot and tailgunner hollering help. Then I saw a life raft drifting away from the wreckage area which was vital for our survival!
Andrew [reporting]: Louis reached the raft and picked up the other survivors: tailgunner Francis McNamara and pilot Russell Phillips. They were now floating in the middle of 65 million square miles of water.
Louis: That’s when the tailgunner after about 20 minutes panicked and screamed, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” I said, “Mac, nobody’s gonna die. Settle back.” He kept screaming…
Andrew: Did you believe that? Did you believe you’d be rescued?
Louis: I believed we’d be rescued. We rescued people, especially when they know you’re out of fuel. They’re gonna come out and look for you.
Andrew [reporting]: The next day, they spotted a rescue plane.
Louis: It’s weird. From the sky, a raft looks like a white cap. They didn’t see us.
Andrew [reporting]: One week later, no more planes, and nature was taking its toll.
Louis: The sun is your friend early in the morning when you're cold, and then its brutal the rest of the day. When you’re on a life raft at sea, it’s much worse than being in a foxhole. They say there’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. Well you can multiply that a few times on a raft. That’s all you do on a raft. I don’t care if you’re an atheist or what you are. When you reach the end of your rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, your atheism isn’t gonna help you. You’re gonna turn and look up. So that’s all we did on the raft was pray morning, noon and night. Then we had to learn how to start surviving off of the ocean. There are some things that are not part of our food chain but when you’re starving, you’ll eat it!
Andrew [reporting]: Over the next three weeks the men survived by killing albatross that landed on the raft and using it as bait to catch small fish. But soon that bait looked too good to waste.
Louis: Eventually another albatross landed, and I told the guys we’ve got to try and eat it. This one we devoured like a hot fudge sundae. Just delicious.
Andrew [reporting]: They also survived on liver from small sharks they caught with their bare hands. While Louis drifted across the Pacific, in the U.S., President Roosevelt signed a death certificate for First Lt. Louis Zamperini. According to the file, Louis was dead. After 27 days at sea, hope came alive. The men spotted an aircraft.
Louis: He came in low right by us, and all of a sudden machine gun fire. My first thought was those are B-25’s. Those are idiots!
Andrew [reporting]: But those were not U.S. planes. It was the Japanese.
Louis: You’ve got the bullets from above, and you got the sharks hungry below. It was a bad situation.
Andrew [reporting]: After a 30-minute assault, thinking Louis and his crew were dead, the Japanese left. Miraculously none of the men were hit with a single bullet. But six days later, their 33rd day at sea, tailgunner McNamara died. Louis said a brief eulogy and slipped him into the sea. For two more weeks, Louis and pilot Russell Phillips drifted. Suddenly, they saw land. But their raft was spotted by the Japanese.
They had spent 47 days in the South Pacific drifting nearly 2000 miles to the Marshall Islands before being rescued by the enemy.
Louis: We were taken to the island of Wotje and weighed in at 30 kilos, which is about 65 lbs. We still couldn’t walk; we had to crawl.
Andrew [reporting]: Within 48 hours they were transferred to Kwajalein -- “Execution Island.”
Louis: I come from the vast Pacific, the sky wide open. Now I open my eyes, I’m in a little cell….
Andrew [reporting]: Guards delighted in telling Louis about the previous marines who visited the island.
Louis: They’ve all been executed by decapitation, Sumarai style. He said that’s what they do to all prisoners that come here. The worst part about being in the cell was submarines came in, and they’d never see prisoners. They can’t wait, so they line up in front of your cell -- 75, 80 men lined up like they’re going to a movie premier. Every one of them is either swearing at you, throwing rocks at you, jab you with sticks, spitting on you. Here you are 65 lbs., constant diarrhea. You’re starved. They throw a rice ball; they don’t give it to you. It falls on the floor. You spend hours picking up every grain of rice mixed in with the dirt. I just thought that line would never end.
Andrew [reporting]: On three occasions Louis was injected and used as a guinea pig for experiments.
Louis: I said, “I’m getting dizzy.” So they put down how much time but now I feel prickly spots all over my body. Then I said, “Now I’m gonna pass out." And they’d stop.
Andrew [reporting]: But he made it off "execution island" alive. After 43 days of captivity, he and Phillips were sent to a POW camp in Japan. Then Louis was quickly sent to Omori. It was here where he met Matsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a., “The Bird.” “The Bird” was so relentless in his torture of the captives, Louis chose not to speak with us about it. Near the end of 1944, the Japanese took advantage of their famous prisoner’s star power. After an initial radio broadcast proving Louis was alive, he refused to read a second broadcast filled with Japanese propaganda.
Louis: I said, “There’s no way I can read this.” Because of that I’m sent to a slave labor camp.
Andrew [reporting]: That camp was Naoestsu.
Louis: I’m standing at attention and out steps “The Bird.” So I knew what they did to me to get even because I refused to do the broadcast. Boy, that blew me. My knees buckled. I went down and then it started all over again and even worse.
Andrew [reporting]: Louis was back under the control of “The Bird,” and the torture resumed. September 1945 Louis Zamperini was liberated. He arrived in the U.S. within the month.
Louis: So the war’s over. I’m alive but now it’s a whole new life.
Andrew [reporting]: The American hero was busy being a celebrity, but found the time to fall in love with Cynthia Applewhite. He proposed ten days after meeting her but couldn’t shake his demons.
Louis: Now I got married, had a little girl, and I’m still suffering nightmares, waking up strangling the bird. One night I accidentally strangled my wife in my dream, and she got scared.
Andrew: Doing some drinking too?
Louis: Oh, that’s all I did. I just figured the more I drank, the better I’d sleep at night. I was out every night drunk. My wife refused to go with me, so she decided to get a divorce. Had every right to a divorce, then someone had talked her into going to hear a new evangelist called Billy Graham.
Andrew [reporting]: His wife came to Christ at the crusade and had good news for Louis.
Louis: She said, “Because of my conversion, Louis, I’m not gonna get a divorce.” Boy I was happy. Then she had a new group of Christian friends all over me, and I avoided them like the plague!
Andrew [reporting]: But he was desperate to save his marriage, so he reluctantly agreed to attend the next Billy Graham meeting.
Louis: He talked about one person only, the person of Jesus Christ, for 30 minutes. He read the Scriptures. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." "The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Well, I knew I was a sinner but I didn’t like the idea of someone else reminding me. If anyone had ever asked me if I believed that Christ was the Son of God, I would have said yes. My whole life I believed it, but [in] the heart no. I knew somehow if I’d believed it in my heart, my life would have been different. So I knew I didn’t posses the Savior but I still didn’t want to do it. I think the best description to that is the Bible says that men prefer darkness rather than light. Here I was preferring my rotten life to the light. Then I started having a flashback to the life raft and prison camp, all those thousands and thousands of prayers “God spare my life through the war, and I’ll seek You and serve You.” I kept thinking I came back from the war alive, and I never even thought about those prayers. I never tried to keep one prayer.
Andrew [reporting]: That night, Louis gave his life to Jesus Christ.
Louis: I got off my knees and somehow I knew I was through getting drunk. I knew it. I also knew that I forgave all my guards including “The Bird.” I think proof of that is I had nightmares every night about “The Bird” since the war. The night I made my decision for Christ, I haven’t had a nightmare since -- 1949 till now! That is some kind of a miracle.
Andrew [reporting]: The young boy, who grew up always wanting to get even, came full circle in 1950. Louis traveled back to Japan to forgive the prison guards that tortured him. He couldn’t meet with ”The Bird,” but spoke with many of the former guards. Some even accepted Christ as their Savior. In 1998, Louis again returned to Japan to run with the Olympic torch before the Winter Games in Nagano.
Louis: I’m a great believer, and I believe it with all of my heart that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and who are called according to His purpose. Christ told us in the Scripture, “I am the way, I am the truth and I am the life.” Christ is the way to God, the way is the truth. People are always seeking truth; the truth is Christ, and He’s the life. But I think our eternal life starts now by faith in Jesus Christ. That is the strength we live by, and death no longer has a sting… not to the Christian.
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