A Book Club – “Devil At My Heels”, Louis Zamperini

If you’ve got 25 minutes to spare then have a look at this video, ok forget the last ten minutes then when he starts rambling on about God and all the religious guff because Louis Zamperini eventually became one of Billy Graham’s missionary’s, just so you are warned, the story ends with bible bashing.

I’ve just finished reading his original biography “Devil At My Heels” and he now has a new one released “Unbroken”, again if you’re not into religion then avoid the last quarter of the book – the first three quarters are just an mazing Boys Own stylee story though.

Louis Zamperini was born of Italian parents in New York but relocated to the town of Torrance California in 1920 where he lived the life of a street urchin, stealing, fighting and heading for delinquency when the local police chief suggested to him that as they could never catch him when running away from his minor misdemeanors he might like to take up track running to distract him from his nefarious ways.

In 1934 at 17 years of age he set a state record for the mile at 4 mins 21 seconds earned a scholarship at the University of Southern California and was sent to trials in New York for the US Olympic team, in which he qualified to go to the 1936 Olympics as a 5000 meter runner. The 1936 Olympics were of course the Nazi Party show piece held in Berlin and although he didn’t win his event he impressed Adolf Hitler so much with his last lap effort that when Zamperini asked a guard if he could take Hitlers photograph from the stands in the Olympic stadium the guard returned to him with a request from Hitler that he would like to meet the runner who had refused to give in during his last lap.

Losing in the Berlin 5000 metre finals was considered to be just the start of his running career and when he returned to the US he concentrated on preparing for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, in the event he would go to Tokyo but not as a runner.

Zamperini joined the US Army Air Force in 1941 as a Bombardier, a bomb aimer in a B24 and flew many successful missions against the Japanese in the Pacific campaign but in May 1943 on a search and rescue mission their aircraft crashed into the ocean killing all but three of the crew, those three found themselves adrift in the middle of the Pacific in two small inflatable dinghies.

They drifted for 47 days over 2000 miles surviving on rainwater and raw fish, one of them died on day 40 but Zamperini and his pilot Russ Phillips eventually washed up on a small group of islands in the middle of nowhere, the Marshall Islands, which were occupied by the Japanese, they were taken prisoner and sent to Japan where Zamperini was imprisoned in a secret prisoner of war camp that was undisclosed to the Red Cross, with no news of his capture it was assumed after twelve months that he was dead, his family were informed and the loss of an Olympic hero in the war on Japan made national headline news.

The book is the story of his survival, both during the time adrift on the Pacific and in the prison camps in Japan where he and many others were badly treated by one of the guards in particular, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, and of course to round off every good story you’d expect that after the war Zamperini and his nemesis would meet again and either kill or forgive each other, but the story doesn’t have a corny ending for after Zamperini became one of Billy Grahams missionary’s he travelled extensively in Japan seeking out many of the guards that had held him captive and forgiving each one, but Watanabe has consistently refused to meet Zamperini.

On his 81st birthday in 1998 Louis Zamperini was invited by the Japanese to run an Olympic torch relay leg in the Winter Olympics of that year.


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