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.
The Japanese specialized in mental, as well as in physical, torture, and as an officer, athlete, and celebrity of sorts, Louie came in for special abuse. Horribly ill, he asked for a physician—who came, looked at him, laughed at him softly, and then walked away. He begged for water and a guard threw a cup of it, scalding hot, in his face. He was forced “to stand up and dance . . . whistle and sing,” pelted as he ate with fistfuls of gravel, and made to crawl on the floor after tiny rice fragments while guards outside poked him with sticks. When they fell under the sway of The Bird (Mutsuhiro Watanabe), described correctly as “monstrous,” the torments increased. A psychotic even by prison camp standards, The Bird would beat POWs daily, breaking their windpipes and teeth, making one officer sit in a shack wearing only his underwear for four days in winter. The Bird brought men to his office to show them letters from home, and then burned the letters; he made men guess how he wanted them to address him, and then beat those who gave the wrong answer; he “ordered men to violate camp policies, then attacked them for breaking the rules.” Now and then he would woo prisoners with gestures of friendship, then beat them ferociously. Many felt he took a sensual pleasure in the infliction of pain upon others: “When gripped in the ecstasy of an assault, he wailed and howled . . . sometimes sobbing, tears running down his cheeks.”
Singly and together, the prisoners made ferocious attempts to hang on to their dignity, sabotaging whatever they could: “At the railyards and docks, they switched mailing labels, rewrote delivery addresses, and changed the labeling on boxcars, sending tons of goods to the wrong destinations,” Hillenbrand tells us. “They threw fistfuls of dirt into gas tanks, and broke anything mechanical that passed through their hands,” and built things designed to not work or break easily. They “accidentally” dropped fragile items; shredded clothes; drenched them in mud; packed them again into boxes with notes signed “Winston Churchill,” drank gallons of tea and then “peed profusely” into the bags of rice they loaded; found ingenious ways to steal foodstuffs; and blocked a canal by sinking a barge they were loading by hurling heavy objects into its hold. In the camps, they communicated in code, addressed guards (in English) in cooing tones while delivering insults couched in obscenities.
Stunts kept their spirits alive in the torment and in their captivity, allowing them to believe they were still free agents and soldiers and not merely victims of fate. Reserved, quiet Phil, “so recessive that he could be in a room for a long time” before anyone noticed him, survived “with a calm, adaptive acceptance” that allowed him to absorb and endure any indignity. The more flamboyant and outgoing Louie could not: A born rebel, a near-delinquent before he found his real outlet in running, he found powerlessness and degradation unendurable, which was both his weakness and strength. His pride (and celebrity) aroused further rage in The Bird, which increased Louie’s will to defy him still further.
From earliest childhood, Louie had regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness, and his determination to rebel. The result had been a mutinous youth. . . . Now, as he was cast into extremity, despair and death became the focus of his defiance. The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance were sustaining him in the greatest struggle of his life.
They were close to the end of their tethers in August 1945, when word began to leak through of a strange new bomb that had destroyed a whole city. Soon after that, they were free.
For many, however, the war was not done: “The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity. [Diseases] were rampant. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings. . . . Others had gone blind.” Equally bad were the psychic disorders: “Flashbacks . . . were common. Intense nightmares were almost ubiquitous. Men walked in their sleep . . . and woke screaming, sobbing, or lashing out. Some slept on their floors . . . ducked in terror when airliners flew over, or hoarded food.” One “was dogged by urges to scavenge in garbage cans.” Others went “feral with rage.”
Quiet Phil went home to Indiana and his childhood sweetheart, where he constructed a life as uneventful as possible. But Louie had entered a new form of darkness: If, under the worst forms of stress he had held things together, in sunny California, surrounded by loved ones, he was now coming apart. He had flashbacks where he was back on the raft, or in prison, feeling the rage, pain, and terror, smelling the stench and the squalor, feeling lice crawl on his skin. He had dreams in which The Bird beat him relentlessly, and dreams in which he tried to kill him. Killing The Bird became an obsession, and he began to plan trips to Japan where he could track down and dispatch his tormentor. Frightened of sleep, he began to drink, leading to blackouts and outbursts of violence.
“He was drinking heavily, slipping in and out of flashbacks, screaming and clawing through nightmares,” Hillenbrand writes. “In his fantasy, he killed the Bird slowly,” making him feel all the pain he once had experienced. One night he awoke trying to strangle his wife, who was pregnant. Distraught, she began making plans to divorce him. But first she begged him to go with her to hear Billy Graham, then a young and much-talked-about preacher, embarked on his first Western swing. Tense and angry, Louie followed his wife into the tent in Los Angeles, and everything he heard there served to make him more anxious still: Billy Graham talked of people adrift in the ocean, “a drowning man, drowning boy . . . out lost in the sea of life” —and Louie felt a “lurking nameless uneasiness . . . a memory he must not see.”
“God is interested in me . . . God spoke in creation,” Graham said, and Louie recalled a day when he and Phil had drifted into a scene of rare stillness and beauty, that looked like the first day on earth. “God works miracles one after the other,” said Graham: “God says, ‘If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.’ ” Louie found himself remembering miracles: He had been trapped in the hull of the Green Hornet, and the wires that held him had vanished. His raft floated out of his reach, and he grasped by mere inches the cord to retrieve it. Japanese bombers had strafed them repeatedly, and not a bullet had hit them. They had gone six days without water, and he prayed for salvation: “The next day, by divine intervention, or the fickle humor of tropics, the sky broke open and rain poured down.”
Then he had the last flashback he would ever experience: “He was a body on a raft, dying of thirst. He felt words whisper from his swollen lips . . . a promise thrown at heaven . . . a promise he had allowed himself to forget until just this instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” He felt the rain fall, and the rage and the furies were over forever. His last war was over. He had, finally, won.
Laura Hillenbrand’s master theme is the battle of will and adversity, and here she rachets the idea of adversity up to its most extreme heights. In Seabiscuit (2001), everyone (including the horse) suffered bad luck and depression, but bad luck was all that it was. Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, lost one of his sons in an accident—but it was an accident. Trainer Tom Smith was driven from the way of life he loved—but by the impersonal forces of progress. Red Pollard, the jockey, lost his original family and his sight in one eye, and suffered terribly in two dire accidents—but no one was trying to kill him.
The sufferings of Phil, Louie, and Mac on the raft came at the hand of an indifferent Nature, but with the transfer of Louie and Phil to the Japanese prison camps, we are moved into a realm of pure evil, which makes the story not (as in Seabiscuit) the struggle of will and misfortune but the battle of malice and good. This gives it a grandeur as stark as a Greek myth or biblical epic, and a stature few modern stories achieve. If the First World War gave us trench warfare and the decimation of a whole generation of leaders, World War II involved atrocities visited upon those not in (or no longer in) combat: The men, women, and children sent off to perish in death camps; the civilians forced to dig their own graves, and then fill them; the Allied POWs under Japanese jurisdiction, who suffered the torments of
Auschwitz, minus only the gas. In “normal” wars, the pain of noncombatants is the unintentional byproduct of military advances; in this, it was the point, and the end in itself.
Louie and Phil and the thousands of others who fought did so not just to survive but to endure as intact human beings, as people who came from and stood for a humane tradition, resisting the evil in man. They fought back with sabotage and with deftly hidden defiance; they fought with humor and cleverly hidden obscenities; and they fought by maintaining their standards of justice and decency. On the raft, Phil and Louie shared their water with Mac, though they needed it and they knew he was dying; when the first American plane to fly over at war’s end dropped cigarettes and a chocolate bar, these treasures were carefully portioned so that each prisoner had one puff and one barely visible chocolate sliver apiece. With such acts are civilizations maintained under pressure, and in the end, Louie prevailed over the three forms of danger considered most lethal to humans: the rigors of nature, the malice of others, and the darkness within one’s own soul.
As he had promised, Louie
Zamperini has been spending the rest of his life serving God. Now 94, he is active and vigorous. In 1954, he opened the Victory Boys Camp for boys as ungovernable as he had once been himself, channeling their defiance and energy into acceptable outlets, as the sport of running had once channeled his. Otherwise, he was “happily walking the world,” telling his story to schoolchildren and to crowds in packed stadiums, and in more exotic locations: “Improbably, he was particularly fond of speaking on cruise ships, sorting through invitations to find a plum voyage, kicking back on a first class deck with a cool drink in hand.” He kept his honoraria low, so that schools and small groups could afford to invite him, and he worked at a senior center in a neighborhood church. He carried the Olympic torch in five different Olympics, the last time in 1998 at the winter games in Nagano when he was four days short of his 81st birthday, in which he ran past Naoetsu, where he had once been a prisoner.
All he could see, in every direction, were smiling Japanese faces. . . . Louie ran through the place where cages had once held him. . . . But the cages were long gone, and so was The Bird.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.