'World War II Isn't Over': Talking to Unbroken Veteran Louis Zamperini

Before his death in July at 97, the man immortalized in Laura Hillenbrand's book reflected on courage, forgiveness, and why he doesn't consider himself a hero.

In a 1942 photo, Brigadier General Isaiah Davies pins a pair of silver bombardier wings on Lieutenant Lou Zamperini. (AP)

None of us believed it. None of us. Never once. Not underneath, even.

That’s what Sylvia Zamperini would say about her family during World War II when confronted with the idea that her brother, Louis, had been killed. Even when the War Department assigned Louis Zamperini an “official death date,” and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a condolence letter, his mom knew he was still alive and that she would see him again, one day. She was right.

As the world now knows, thanks to author Laura Hillenbrand, Louis Zamperini waged one of the most astonishing personal battles in World War II as an Army Air Corpsman. In May 1943, his B-24 crashed into the Pacific. For 47 days, he floated on a raft in the ocean. He was then captured by the Japanese, who held him prisoner until August 1945. These experiences tormented Zamperini’s postwar life, but in 1949 things began to turn around for him. Zamperini forgave the men who held him prisoner, including the sadistic Japanese corporal, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who was known as the “Bird.” This saga is chronicled in Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The book has remained on the bestseller lists since it was published in 2010, and in December, Universal will release a film adaptation, directed by Angelina Jolie.

Even before his war experience, Zamperini was a remarkable figure, “one of the greatest runners in the world,” as Hillenbrand writes. A track star at the University of Southern California, Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn’t win the gold medal, but he returned to Los Angeles a celebrated athlete and continued to set college records.

Zamperini was a revered figure in Southern California, and died last July at age 97. After Hillenbrand’s book appeared, I learned that he was my neighbor in the Hollywood Hills. I interviewed him twice, in 2010 and 2011. This is the first time our conversations have appeared. They were edited for length and clarity.

John Meroney: What did you learn from the publication of Unbroken?

Louis Zamperini: That World War II isn’t over. People are still suffering from it. I received a letter from a fellow who told me, “My dad came home from the war, he became an alcoholic, destroyed our family life, and I’ve hated his guts ever since. But after reading your book, I’ve forgiven him. I wish he were still alive so I could tell him I love him.” Letters like that come in all the time. Unbroken was published as a help to society.

Angelina Jolie with Louis Zamperini. Jolie directed Unbroken, a film about Zamperini's life. (Universal Pictures.)

Meroney: Your story isn’t just about forgiveness. It’s about the definition of courage—the courage it takes to overcome incredible odds. Given your expertise in this area, who do you regard as the best examples of courage today?

Zamperini: The injured soldier who comes back from Afghanistan and says, I want to go back. He could get out of the service with a wound, but instead he says, I want to go back and be with my buddies.

Meroney: Do you get to meet with many of the troops?

Zamperini: Yes. For a number of years, I’ve been flying down to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms and speaking to the graduating class. And then they go off to Afghanistan. When I read in the paper that a Marine from Twentynine Palms was killed over there, I know I shook hands with him. That’s kind of hard to take.

Meroney: When you address soldiers, what do you say?

Zamperini: I tell them my war story. I say not to goof off during training—to learn all they can so that if they’re ever in a dire situation they’ll know what to do. When I was on that life raft, I was the only one who was prepared.

Meroney: Is that what kept you going?

Zamperini: Well, I’d taken survival courses all my life. Two weeks before we crashed, there was an expert on the South Pacific who gave a lecture on survival. When I got there to hear him, there were only about 15 out of thousands who could have attended. What he said helped me on the raft. Every soldier should learn survival on land, sea, and in the air.

Meroney: A key turning point in Unbroken is the night in 1949 when you hear a young Reverend Billy Graham preach in Los Angeles. If that night had never happened, how do you think your life would be different?

Zamperini: I wouldn’t have a life. I think I’d be dead. I was going downhill, fast. But Billy Graham came to town.

Meroney: What did he say that got your attention?

Zamperini: The one thing he said that shook me up was, “When people come to the end of their rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, they turn to God.” I thought, That’s what I did on the raft. All I did was pray to God, every day. In prison camp, the main prayer was, “Get me home alive, God, and I’ll seek you and serve you.” I came home, got wrapped up in the celebration, and forgot about the hundreds of promises I’d made to God.

Meroney: After the war, you had nightmares about being a prisoner of war. Hillenbrand discloses that these dreams were so extreme, you almost strangled your pregnant wife to death in your sleep thinking she was the “Bird,” the man who tortured you.

Zamperini: Those nightmares came every night. I looked good, had my weight back, but I had nightmares. I’d always wake up wringing wet. I thought I was strangling the Bird. I honestly wanted to go back to Japan and secretly find and kill him before I’d be satisfied.

Meroney: And your life was never the same after Billy Graham.

Zamperini: Well, that night I went back to his prayer room and made my profession of faith in Christ. I asked God to forgive me for not being conscious that He answered my prayer requests. While I was still on my knees, I knew there was a change. It happened within seconds.

Meroney: What was it?

Zamperini: I felt this perfect calm, a peace. The Bible calls it the peace that passeth all understanding. I knew then that I was through getting drunk, smoking, and chasing around. I also knew I’d forgiven all my prison guards, including the Bird. Boy, that’s something. So I got up, went home, and that was the first night in four years that I didn’t have a nightmare. And I haven’t had one since.

Meroney: How did forgiving your captors change your life?

Zamperini: Well, when you hate somebody, you don’t hurt them in the least. All you’re doing is hurting yourself. But if you can forgive—and if it’s true—you’ll feel good. It’s chemical. White corpuscles flood your immune system, and that’s a secret to good health.

Meroney: What kind of response are you receiving from Unbroken?

Zamperini: Ninety percent of the letters I get are from people who’ve been hurting, and they contact me for advice or counseling. I had one this morning—a woman with three little children, divorced. She goes to church, says she’s a Christian. She can’t forgive her former husband. She said, “I read your book and what it says about forgiveness and I broke down and cried.” I quoted Mark Twain for her: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

Meroney: What else did you tell her?

Zamperini: That forgiveness has to be complete. If you hate somebody, it’s like a boomerang that misses its target and comes back and hits you in the head. The one who hates is the one who hurts. I talked to girls at a school in Palos Verdes and I said, “If you want to age quickly, then hate somebody.” After that, I got a letter from one of them, she was probably 15. “I went to a girl whom I’d hated for two years and I asked her to forgive me,” she wrote. “Now we’re the best of friends.” So forgiving someone is healing. To hate somebody hurts you physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Meroney: It must be strange to read a book about yourself, especially one that focuses so much on your suffering.

Zamperini: I wrote my own book called Devil at My Heels, in 1956. Writing it reminded me of prison camp—but Laura’s book put me back in that prison. Hers is so graphic. I read one chapter and had to force myself to get through it. I was there again. She apologized to me.

Meroney: Unbroken also gives readers a sense of how much soldiers mean to one another in their common struggle.

Zamperini: There’s something about combat where you have a camaraderie you don’t have anywhere else. One day three or four years ago, all of a sudden, I was just drained. For that entire day, I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, what was happening. But it was the fact that one of my buddies from the war—the last of them—had died. Laura’s descriptions brought them back to life, and that’s made me happy.

Meroney: You’ve seen challenging times for our country—the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, 9/11, endless war. Do you think we’ll prevail against our present challenges?

Zamperini: I’m not really pessimistic, but I can read the signs. When you’re in debt trillions of dollars, there’s no way to get out. To put it in perspective, I just saw an article that said one trillion seconds is 31,000 years. Then I heard somebody on TV say that if every man, woman, and child gave the government $58,000, we could solve our debt. And now we’ve got China building battleships and submarines and an air force. Their No. 1 aim is to get Taiwan back. If China ever did go after Taiwan, what could we do? We’re obligated to them. So we’re in deep trouble.

Meroney: What do you think we’re missing from our leaders in Washington?

Zamperini: I don’t hear any ideas that would be successful. Let me put it this way: A politician has the only job in the world where he can fail and still get paid. I look with hope for new leaders who have the answers, but nobody has them right now.

Meroney: What’s your assessment of President Obama?

Zamperini: I watch him closely. He’s very intelligent, and he’s a real linguist. But the most important thing in life which most of us don’t have is wisdom. And I don’t think he makes wise choices. Education and wisdom have nothing to do with each other. Once I was speaking at Folsom Prison. The warden took me around the yard. He said, “See that fellow over there? He’s a neurosurgeon.” “Whaat?” I asked. He continued, “And that fellow over there? He’s a dentist.” I was puzzled. “If these guys are so well-educated, what are they doing here?” I asked him. The warden said, “I guess they just didn’t make wise choices.”

Meroney: So Washington has a wisdom deficit, too.

Zamperini: I don’t see much wisdom there. Our problems are so big that I don’t know how anybody could come up with a solution.

Meroney: Who was the best president in your lifetime?

Zamperini: I don’t think any of them were what you would call a super leader.

Meroney: How about Franklin Roosevelt?

Zamperini: Stories went around about him among every solider in the Pacific.

Meroney: Stories about what?

Zamperini: Things that didn’t make sense, questions about the war. About an hour before Pearl Harbor was hit, we sank a Japanese midget submarine near the harbor. With a five-minute warning, we could have knocked down that Japanese air attack—we had the stuff to do it. But nobody said a word.*

Meroney: Did you and your fellow soldiers admire Roosevelt?

Zamperini: He was a great leader. But when Europe was in trouble and Churchill wanted to see us in the war, FDR made a very dynamic statement to the American people: “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” he said. However, he was making boys register for the draft at the same time. This was more than a year before we got into the war.

Meroney: What do you think of the criticisms of President Harry Truman for using the atom bomb?

Zamperini: I’m against anything nuclear, including nuclear power plants. Look at Chernobyl and what recently happened in Japan. In 1950, I interviewed victims of Hiroshima. They all said the same thing: I feel honored. Because this happened to me, millions of lives were saved.

Meroney: Why did you interview them?

Zamperini: I was interested in their opinion. Now we have people who were born after that who’ve become historians. They criticize America, but they don’t know anything. Bombs were necessary. The Japanese still had thousands of kamikaze pilots near Tokyo. Besides that, the field marshals ordered all the heads of the prisoner of war camps to kill all the prisoners. We would have been slaughtered. Also, Japanese leaders told the women and girls of Okinawa and Saipan, The Americans are going to take over and then rape and kill you. There were families jumping off of cliffs because of that.

Meroney: Because they were afraid of us?

Zamperini: Yes. Every woman and daughter in Japan was to be given an auger. They were told, When the Americans come, stab them. The bombs stopped all that. They saved thousands of lives, and ended the war. We forget too easily.

Meroney: Do you consider yourself heroic?

Zamperini: Oh, no. I walk into a VA hospital and see guys in wheelchairs with their legs missing—or two legs missing or an arm missing and they’ve got one Purple Heart. Well, I’m in one piece and I’ve got three Purple Hearts. When a guy gives up part of his body, he’s the hero.

Meroney: But doesn’t a Purple Heart indicate valor?

Zamperini: You can get a Purple Heart for scratch. When the Japanese hit us on Funafuti, enlisted men on my crew came to me and said, “Louie, you won’t believe it, guys are cutting themselves with pieces of glass. The Japanese bombed us, and there were guys scratching and cutting themselves with glass and torn aluminum. They’d get in line to get patched up. Their names would be recorded so they’d receive a Purple Heart. It’s sad that things like that happen.

Louis Zamperini ran the 5000-meter race in the 1936 Munich Olympics. Actor Jack O'Connell, above, plays Zamperini in Unbroken. (Universal Pictures)

Meroney: Having been an Olympian, what do you make of the doping scandals in sports?

Zamperini: Drugs have always been around, but in my day no athlete would touch them because there was no money in sports. Today, money is the incentive—I’ll get my gold medal so I can put my name on a product and make a million. Sports has turned into a business, and what a sickening thing that is.

Meroney: The athletic department of USC, your alma mater, was scandalized because its star football player, Reggie Bush, allegedly accepted gifts as a student athlete. NCAA rules forbid that sort of thing. What’s the culprit, in your view?

Zamperini: It’s USC’s fault. I was distraught over punishing the entire football team for Bush’s mistake. The NCAA should punish [the institution of] USC, not all the other players. If they fined the school $100,000, these things wouldn’t happen again.

Meroney: During World War II, who were your heroes?

Zamperini: Glenn Cunningham. As a boy, he was burnt so badly in a fire that the doctors said he’d never walk again. But he got back on his feet, started to walk, and then started to run a little. He had the world record for running the mile. I ran against Glenn, my hero. Once, I saw him in the shower. Not only were his legs burned, he was burned clear up the middle of his back. How that man ever walked or ran is beyond me. He was a real true hero to everybody. Bill was clean living. He wouldn’t take drugs for any kind of money. But today, that’s the name of the game.

Meroney: Do you exercise every day?

Zamperini: Yes. The average person should walk eight flights of stairs a day. I do at least that much, maybe double. Besides that, no matter what happens, if I have a cheerful countenance all the time, nothing gets me down.

Meroney: You survived an airplane crash, lived on a life raft in the ocean for almost two months, and were beaten as a POW. You’re almost 95. What do your doctors say about you?

Zamperini: I recently had a complete physical at the VA hospital and, as part of it, saw a psychiatrist. She announced, “I just deal with anxieties.” I told her that I didn’t have any. She said, “Everybody has anxieties. What do you mean?” I said that I loved my neighbor as myself and believed in doing good to those who hated me. She was astounded. We talked and talked and when I got up to leave she hugged me and said, “I’ve learned something today.” Those are the secrets to a happy, long life.

* A reference to a debunked conspiracy theory that Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor ahead of time but allowed it to happen to facilitate American entry into the war.