The Magazine

Staying Alive

The limits of endurance in enemy hands.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Louie Zamperini astride a B-18 bomber, 1943

Louie Zamperini astride a B-18 bomber, 1943

Bettmann / Corbis

A World War II Story of Survival,
Resilience, and Redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand

Random House, 496 pp., $27

Around two in the afternoon of May 27, 1943, an American bomber, a B-24 Liberator Green Hornet, went down in the Pacific between Hawaii and Palmyra Atoll on a search mission for a pilot feared lost. Three of the six-man crew would die upon impact. The three who survived—Phil (Allen Phillips), the pilot; Louie Zamperini, an American runner who had been one of the stars of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; and the tail-gunner, Mac (Francis McNamara)—found themselves dazed, traumatized, and adrift in the ocean miles from any kind of island, with two rafts, no water, no form of shelter, and almost no food.

Thus began for Phillips and Zamperini two years and 10 months of inhuman torture, at the hands of both nature and man. For 47 days the two men would drift for thousands of miles, driven nearly insane by thirst and starvation, burned by the sun, chilled by the night, eaten by insects, poured on by storms, and forced to fight off, with sticks and fists, the schools of sharks that surrounded them, circled them, and sometimes launched themselves into their raft. Now and then Japanese planes would pass overhead and strafe them with bullets. (When American search planes had failed to locate them, the Army Air Corps assumed they were dead.)

In the course of this journey, they lived on rain water collected in canvas pump covers (that Louie sucked up and would spit into bottles), small fish that they managed to snare from the ocean, and birds, who now and then would touch down on the raft near them, whose necks they would wring and eat raw. Once, they pulled a small shark out of the ocean, clubbed it to death, ripped it open, tore out the liver, and ate. Under this regimen, flesh melted from them, and they turned into skeletons, their muscles wasted, their skin baked and parched.

“The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins,” writes Laura Hillenbrand. “They spent their days with their eyes fixed on the sky, singing ‘White Christmas,’ and muttering about food.” On the 33rd day, Mac died, and his body, wrapped in canvas, was slipped into the ocean as the other two prayed. For another 14 days they continued to drift on the ocean, moving closer to death. Along with their bodies, their grip on reality started to falter: To ward off dementia, they retold their life stories, recalling details from the past with astonishing clarity. At other times, the lines between real and imagined grew dim. On the 40th day Louie was dozing in a state of half-consciousness when he thought he heard singing. “He abruptly sat up” and, floating in a bright cloud above him, saw 21 human figures singing exquisitely beautiful songs. (Later, in a Japanese prison camp, he would repeatedly hear the same music.)

Seven days later, they were spotted and picked up by Japanese sailors. And then their real torment began.

 The horrors of the prison camps in Asia would be subsumed by those that came out of the death camps in Europe, but the sufferings endured in them were just as intense. “Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery,” Hillenbrand tells us. “Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive.” Thousands more died of disease or starvation. All lived in the constant fear of being beheaded or shot on the whim (or plan) of their keepers: “Kill all” orders were known to be in place in case of liberation by Allied armed forces. Of the nearly 35,000 American prisoners held in these places, nearly one in three died.

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