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Staying Alive

The limits of endurance in enemy hands.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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.

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