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Farewell to America’s ‘Unbroken’ Hero

11:40 AM, Jul 9, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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America, just before its Fourth of July birthday, lost one of the greatest of the generation that guided it through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Louis Zamperini was 97, so this was not entirely surprising. Zamperini, the American who couldn’t be broken by Nazis in Berlin or sadistic guards in POW camps in Japan, had been designated to be the grand marshal of the 2015 Tournament of Roses parade. My grandfather, a World War I veteran, used to say “give me my roses while I’m alive.” Unfortunately, the Rose Parade organizing committee waited too long. (Zamperini will still be honored posthumously as grand marshal next New Year’s Day.)

Louis Zamperini

“Lucky Louie,” as he called himself, was a rambunctious kid from an immigrant family, who learned to use his fists after being picked on in school for speaking the broken English he learned from his Italian father. He referred to himself in his memoirs as “a rebel with a chip on his shoulder,” sort of like one of those Hollywood “Little Rascals” for which his prewar generation was famous. After several run-ins with the Torrance, Calif., police and the local parish priest, Louie’s older brother Pete introduced him to athletic running as a means of focusing his energy. Louie began competing in track in what he referred to in his book Devil at My Heels as “the first wise decision of my life.”

The rest is history. The track record of “the Torrance Tornado” took him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a handshake with Hitler himself. Louie did not medal—he said he was saving that for the anticipated 1940 Tokyo Olympics. (Zamperini, of course, made it to Japan, but only as a POW slave laborer.)

But Zamperini had run an astonishing 56 seconds in the final quarter mile of the 5,000 meter event in Berlin so the Fuehrer wanted to meet him. Goebbels brought Zamperini to Hitler who observed, “you’re the boy with the fast finish.” Louie said the American athletes in 1936 considered Hitler “only as a dangerous clown.”

Louie still had some of his rambunctious qualities because, on a tour of Berlin with a teammate, he decided that he wanted a swastika souvenir when they stopped in front of the Reich Chancellery to take photos. As they stood there Hitler again appeared with a contingent of armed guards and went inside. After the building’s guards had goose-stepped past, Louis made a run for the building, climbed a flag pole and grabbed a Nazi banner. The guards saw Zamperini as he attempted to make his escape, shouted “halt” and started firing. Louie wisely stopped and was handcuffed. However, upon seeing his Olympic uniform and hearing that he had wanted the swastika as a souvenir, the German commandant of the building let “Lucky Louie” keep the banner.

It was in the Pacific Theater where Louis Zamperini made his name as a war hero. Anticipating America’s entry into the war, he enlisted in the army in September 1941. He went to Officers Candidate and bombardier school in Midland, Texas. In October 1942 he was assigned as an Army Air Corps second lieutenant to Hickam Field in Honolulu with the B24 bombing unit of the Forty-second Squadron. His first raid took place on Christmas Eve, 1942, the target was Japanese-occupied Wake Island.

On May 26, 1943, in an aircraft dubbed the Green Hornet, which Zamperini noted “couldn’t fly straight,” he and his fellow crew members crash landed in the Pacific. His harrowing 47 days on the high seas, including near starvation (his weight dropped to 67 pounds), thirst, encounters with sharks, killing and eating raw sea birds, and the death at sea of a fellow crew member, are graphically recorded in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. That story will also be retold in a movie directed by Angelina Jolie which is to be released in December.

Zamperini and another crewmember, Second Lieutenant Russell Phillips, were captured by the Japanese and taken first to the island of Kwajalein and then to mainland Japan as POWs. His parents received a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt informing them that their son had “died in the service of his country” and that “he stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live.” His mother, however, never gave up hope that he was alive.

Louis Zamperini’s treatment as a brutalized prisoner of war continues to have relevance today because of the ongoing debate in Asia over Japan’s war crimes. Article 2 of the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War reads: “They must at all times be humanly treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against them are prohibited.” The death rates of American POWs held by Nazi Germany and Japan during the Second World War provide a stark contrast. Statistics indicate that only 1,121 of 93,941 U.S. POWs died in Nazi internment camps (a rate of about 1.1 percent) while 13,851 of 36,260 POWs died while in Imperial Japanese custody (a rate of 38.2 percent.) This is evidence not only of abuse and brutality but of clear violations of the Geneva Convention by Imperial Japanese authorities.

Zamperini became aware of these violations from his first days of captivity on Kwajalein. A native islander, who worked for the Japanese, approached him in his cell because of his Olympic notoriety. This person informed him that the nine U.S. Marines who had left messages scrawled in Zamperini’s cell had been summarily executed, “decapitated with a samurai sword.” Zamperini described how his guards taunted him and his crewmate: “they jabbed us with sticks, spit on us, tossed hot tea in our faces. Sometimes they made us sing and dance—as if we could—for their amusement.” He also observed Comfort Women, the current focus of so much historic controversy, while imprisoned on Kwajalein. In his memoirs, he recorded: “on the way I passed two somber young girls, very out of place in a combat zone. They shuffled and stared at the ground.”

Later, on the prison ship transporting him to mainland Japan, guards examined Zamperini’s wallet. There they discovered a Stars and Stripes newspaper clipping regarding his Olympic background and his participation in the Wake Island raid. They were so angered that they broke his nose. He was transferred to a series of POW camps where he spent the next two years as a slave laborer. “Brutal beatings, with fist or club, were the daily rule,” he recorded.

Zamperini made a mental note of guards and officials who were especially brutal and sadistic in their treatment of the POWs. At Camp Ofuna, in the foothills near Yokohama, there was a medic named Kitamura, nicknamed “the Quack,” who sadistically beat POW Marine Bill Harris almost to death for concealing a map of Allied military advances. There was James Sasaki, who had attended USC with Louis Zamperini, undercover as a Japanese spy, and then returned to Japan to become the head interrogator for the prison camp system. Above all, there was Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, who was assigned to Camp Omori, where Louis was transferred, and was nicknamed “the Bird.” Zamperini described him as “deranged, brutal beyond belief.” He took a personal dislike to “Lucky Louie” and tormented him both verbally and with great physical brutality.

“The Bird” disappeared near the war’s end and hid in the mountains of Japan for seven or eight years, until a general amnesty, to escape trial as a war criminal (Watanabe had been classified as a class-A war criminal, number 23 of the top 40 most wanted men, for his crimes against humanity.) When Louis returned to Japan in1998 to carry the torch for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, near the site of his final internment camp, he asked to meet with Watanabe, who had been located by journalists. Louis wanted closure and reconciliation but “the Bird,” in a final act of degradation, refused to meet with him. (Decades earlier, after hearing Reverend Billy Graham preach, Louie had met some of his other captors in Japan and had forgiven them all.)

At that last internment facility, Camp 4-B, near Nagano, where Louis Zamperini would return over a half century later, Louis and his fellow POWs were forced to engage in slave labor for Japanese corporations: “every day, gangs marched to the nearby steel mill, train yard and port. Although we had shoes, most of us walked the two miles to work barefoot in the March snow and ice, our feet wrapped in rags, because the Bird had a rule: whoever had dirty shoes got beaten and had to lick them clean.”

Two of the companies for which Louie and his fellow prisoners were forced to labor, Shinetsu Chemical and Nippon Stainless, continue to exist today. A number of these corporations which used slave labor also continue to do business in the United States. As former POW Edward Jackfert pointed out in a recent article in the National Interest, Sumitomo, Kawasaki, and Mitsui, all of which used POW slave labor in their wartime factories, have sold rail cars which run on Virginia’s VRE rail line. Yet, unlike German corporations which used slave labor, these corporations have never offered an apology to our old soldiers who are slowly fading away.

In 2000, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to a “multi-million pound compensation package” for former British prisoners of war in Japan in recognition of their “appalling” experiences—ex gratia payments from the UK government. As a result of Blair’s example, legislation was introduced in Congress which instead sought direct compensation for America’s POWs from Japanese corporations rather than from the U.S. taxpayer—the “Justice for the U.S. POWs Act of 2001”—with bipartisan sponsorship from two legislators from Louis Zamperini’s home state of California, Dana Rohrabacher and Mike Honda. The bill was designed “to preserve certain actions in Federal court brought by members of the United States Armed Forces held as prisoners of war by Japan during World War II against Japanese nationals seeking compensation for mistreatment or failure to pay wages in connection with labor performed in Japan to the benefit of the Japanese nationals.” The legal bureau of the State Department, however, supported the Japanese government’s position that all such claims were settled by the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, so the proposed legislation got nowhere. There has thus been no formal U.S. recognition of the debt owed our POW slave laborers.

Former Ambassador of Japan to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, did take an important step in offering his government’s first official apology in 2009 to survivors of the Bataan Death March at their organization’s final national convention in San Antonio, Texas. Ambassador Fujisaki stated, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News, "As former prime ministers of Japan have repeatedly stated: The Japanese people should bear in mind that we must look into the past to learn from the lessons of history. We extend a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people, including prisoners of war, those who have undergone tragic experiences in the Bataan Peninsula, in Corregidor Island in the Philippines and other places.”

Perhaps the passing of the “Unbroken” Louis Zamperini will be an occasion for Japanese corporations involved in slave labor to join in extending their apologies to the dwindling number of America’s World War II POW veterans. Is saying sorry so hard? “Lucky Louie” certainly wouldn’t think so.

Dennis P. Halpin is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Korea and a former adviser on Asian affairs to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins) and a consultant to the Poblete Analysis Group.

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