Louis Zamperini’s record in the mile earned as a USC track star stood for 20 years. After he ran for his country in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, he had the dubious honor of meeting Adolph Hitler. But when his B-24 Liberator crashed in the Pacific during WWII, many thought a promising life was cut short.
The harrowing account of his ordeal at sea told in Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding book “Unbroken” reveals that God had another plan for his life.
“Talk about a miracle,” Zamperini says today at age 94. Stationed in Hawaii during WWII, Zamperini volunteered to search for a plane and its crew that disappeared one day in late May, 1943.
When he agreed to undertake the mission, he knew the only plane available for the search was considered a “musher,” because its tail flew below its nose due to undetermined mechanical problems.
His concern about the plane was confirmed when one of its engines sputtered and died during the search mission, which sent all aboard into a steep dive and a violent crash into the sea. Trapped inside the fuselage by wires from the electrical system, his ears popped and pressure inside his head intensified until he blacked out.
The plane sank deeper and deeper with Louis trapped inside. Like Jonah ensnared in the belly of the whale with seaweed wrapped around him, Louis couldn’t free himself from the wiry tenacles.
Then mysteriously he awoke and was freed from the wires! He was able to get through a window, then carbon dioxide canisters inflated the chambers in his Mae West jacket, which floated him to the surface.
“Why had he woken again? How had he been loosed from the wires while unconscious?” he wondered later. This first miracle suggested angelic hands sent by a God of deliverance and rescue – a God who still sets captives free.
Only Louis and two other crewmen survived. They spent weeks bobbing in the South Pacific in a struggle of faith and endurance. Their main concern was water, because they only had a few pints between them. Their food supply consisted of a few ration bars.
“On the raft we had some chocolate bars,” Louis recalls. Each Hershey Ration D bar was divided into segments, and they decided if they ate two squares a day, combined with a few sips of water, they might last for a few days until they were rescued.
But this sensible plan was quickly thwarted. “During the night the tail gunner panicked and ate all the chocolate in one night,” Louis says.
When Louis found out that Mac had eaten all the chocolate, he resisted the urge to beat the tar out of him. After four more days, they consumed all their water and none of them had a morsel of food.
“The next day Mac started screaming, ‘We’re all gonna die; we’re gonna die.’”
“I couldn’t calm him down, no matter what,” Louis recalls. “I had to crack him across the face and knock him on his butt to settle him down. I thought he would die because he ate enough chocolate for six people for a week.”
Sharks continually circled the men as the relentless tropical sun beat down on them. After three days without water, a cloud the size of a man’s hand appeared on the horizon. Storm clouds gathered and finally gushed over the men, as they craned their mouths upward to catch as much as possible. With a few improvised canvas rain catchers, they were able to fill a few containers with more water.
They caught a sea bird, but decided they couldn’t eat it. Instead, they used it for bait and were able to catch a slender ten-inch pilot fish. It was the first raw fish the men had eaten in their lives and their first food in more than a week.
As Hillenbrand notes in her book, the previous record for raft survival by Navy crash victims in the Pacific was 34 days.
Louis had only prayed once in his life during childhood when he feared his mother might die. Now he prayed to God fervently for help. After they passed the two week mark, Louis began to pray aloud. Without any church background, he recited bits and pieces of prayers he recalled from movies. Their third crewman, Phil, provided the amen chorus. Mac remained quiet.
After the water ran out again and they had been six days without a drop in their mouths, Louis prayed once more. He told God that if He would quench his thirst, he would dedicate his life to Him.
On the 27th day they were strafed by a Japanese bomber. All three men jumped overboard and hid underwater as the plane’s machine guns opened up on the raft. Unharmed, they were so weak they could barely climb back on the raft.
The plane came back for a second pass. This time, Phil and Mac stayed on the raft and took their chances. Louis again dove underwater. This time, a shark made a charge toward Louis. He shoved his palm into the shark’s nose and it swam off.
When Louis climbed back aboard, he thought for sure the other men were hit. “Impossibly, there were bullet holes all the way around the men, even in the tiny spaces between them, not one bullet had hit either man.”
“That was a miracle,” Louis exclaims. “There were 48 bullet holes between their crotches and arm pits. We were missed by an eighth of an inch,” he notes. “You’ve got to believe in angels.”
By the 32nd day, Mac had faded to a mere shadow of himself. With his own water tin dry, he pleaded for a sip of water. Phil refused him, but Louis obliged. Like the rich man and Lazarus, the man who made himself “rich” in stolen chocolate, longed for a drop to cool his burning tongue.
“Do you think I’m going to die?” Mac asked.
Louis couldn’t lie to him. “Mac, I think you’re gonna die tonight.” Sure enough, Mac passed during the night.
“We buried him at sea,” Louis says. “He sank like a rock. He had no flesh. We were all skin and bones.”
On the 40th day, a number that always seems to carry biblical significance, Louis had a vision of angels singing. As recounted in Hillenbrand’s book, “It sounded like a choir. Above him floating in a bright cloud, he saw human figures, silhouetted against the sky. He counted 21 of them. They were singing the sweetest song he had ever heard.”
When Louis and Phil were picked up by the Japanese on the 47th day, they each had lost half their body weight from starvation. “We couldn’t stand up or walk so they had to carry us over their shoulders.”
“We were an attraction to the Japanese,” Louis notes. “They spent hours at the raft, counting all the bullet holes,” he recalls. “The Japanese couldn’t believe it. They kept looking our bodies over to see where the bullets hit.”
In the end, the Japanese shook their heads and came to the same conclusion reached by Louis and Phil. It must have been a miracle.