By Somali K Chakrabarti
Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.
– Bern William
Louis Zamperini, a US Olympic runner, who became a fighter in the World War II, was marooned in the Pacific ocean for 46 days, survived the ordeal of a Prisoner Of War (POW) in Japanese camps, and later turned into an inspirational speaker, exemplifies resilience.
A wayward child, Louis had taken to smoking and drinking, early on in life, and was often picked up by the local police for getting into brawls. His parents were first generation Italian immigrants who had moved to Torrance, California, in 1919. Their repeated efforts to discipline Louis were discounted by the defiant kid; but the constant encouragement of his brother Pete, influenced Louis and he started taking an interest in sports.
His racing abilities soon came to be noticed, as he started improving and winning races, including the national high school race, in which he broke the record set during World War I.
Louis went on to participate in the 5000 metres race in 1936 Olympics, where he finished the final lap so fast (in 56 seconds beating the previous Olympic record of 69.2 seconds) that it caught the eye of Adolf Hitler, who personally came up to Zamperini and shook his hand.
In 1941, Zamperini joined the US Air Force and earned the rank of second lieutenant. He was deployed as a bombardier to the Pacific Island of Funafuti during the World War II.
During a bombing mission against the Japanese occupied Nauru island in 1943, their bomber B-24 Liberator was severely damaged and many crew members were badly injured. Subsequently they were sent on a mission to rescue a lost aircraft and its crew on the Pacific on another B-24, The Green Hornet – a plane with a history of mechanical issues.
The fighter plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean 850 miles south of Oahu, killing eight of the crew of eleven men. Zamperini found himself afloat and managed to get onto a life raft with two of his other crewmates “Phil” and “Mac”.
They floated on the raft for more than a month before they lost Mac on the 33rd day.
After 46 days of being stranded at sea on the life raft, they were discovered and taken captive by a Japanese warship that took them to the mainland of Japan. By then, both Louis and Phil had lost half their body weight or more.
Zamperini was taken in as a POW at a camp in Tokyo, the city where he would have run the Olympics marathon, had the War not taken place.
Zamperini, who was declared ‘Kiled In Action’ (KIA) by the US government in 1944, stayed in different POW camps at Kwajalein Atoll, Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu, till the War ended in August 1945. He finally returned home to receive a hero’s welcome and later became a Christian inspirational speaker.
At the age of 80, Zamperini ran in the Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagana, Japan, a place near the POW camp where he was held captive.
Zamperini lived long till the age of 97 and died on July 2, 2014, at his home in Los Angeles.
The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.
Zamperini and his two crew-mates prolonged without food or water, surviving on raw sea fish, opening their mouth to drink water when it rained and holding as much rain water as they could, in their small containers. They had to constantly fend off shark attacks and were nearly capsized by a storm.
A slight ray of hope emerged when they spotted a plane and signaled it, but it turned out to be a Japanese bomber that fired at them multiple times, puncturing their raft.
Mac died after 33 days at sea. Though the hope of survival was bleak, the two people carried on their struggle to stay alive each day. They somehow managed to remain adrift only to be discovered and taken captive by a Japanese warship that took them to Tokyo as POWs.
This dialogue from the movie ‘Unbroken‘, between Louis and his brother Pete, gives an invaluable lesson. A proper frame of mind helps a person to get through extremely tough situations and prepares one to avail any opportunity that may unexpectedly present itself.
Zamperini’s belief that he will survive the odds, helped him to survive. On the life raft Zamperini would talk with his fellow survivors and tell them of his mother’s recipes to divert their minds off the lack of food. At the prison he would write Italian recipes and share with his fellow prisoners. He did not let the insults, abuses and beatings of the sadistic prison guard break his morale.
The prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanbe at the Tokyo camp, known as ‘The Bird’ by the inmates, treated the prisoners with terrible brutality. He intimidated, humiliated and tormented Zamperini several times, but each time, Zamperini bounced back.
Once he made Zamperini hold a heavy wooden log over his head for over 37 minutes, and ordered his men to shoot Zamperini, if he dropped the log. When Zamperini held the log for more than half an hour, Watanabe punched him in the stomach.
Watanbe’s failure to become an Army officer appears to have been behind some of his cruelty. He purposely targeted Zamperini, who was an officer, an Olympic athlete and sort of a legend, for excessive torture.
In midst of torture at the POW camp, Zamperini was taken to Radio Tokyo to announce that he was alive and refute US government’s declaration of his death. He refused to accept Radio Tokyo’s offer to use him as a propaganda tool in exchange for living more comfortably with other propaganda prisoners. He was returned to the camp, to be subjected to torture again, but his integrity was has intact as his morale.
The amazing life of Louis Zamperini – an Olympic runner – turned war hero, is a great source of inspiration for people all over the world. It is a story of extraordinary resilience, under the most excruciating circumstances.
This post is inspired by the movie Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
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