Biographies & Memoirs



The train ride east through the mountains to Yokohama took about eight hours. My mind stayed in neutral most of the trip, but my stomach tingled apprehensively with the unfamiliar sensation of being totally free. Unlike some, who grumbled about years of miserable treatment or complained that we should have been liberated from Camp 4-B sooner, I’d made up my mind to stay focused on the future, not the past. I was happy that more than two years of hell were over; I knew the time had come to think of going home. When I saw the Stars and Stripes over Yokohama, that would signal the beginning of the rest of my life.

Other men echoed my feelings. “I’m going to marry a rich girl and let her take care of me the rest of my life!” one G.I. exclaimed.

“Oh, sure,” we said. “Just like that.”

“Yeah. Just like that,” he said, undaunted. “I’ll spend my time where the rich people circulate. Law of averages: one of them will be single, and I’ll be there at the right psychological moment. Spend all your time on the docks and you’ll marry a fisherman’s daughter. Join an exclusive country club and wind up with an heiress.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Sounds pretty sentimental to me.”

He shrugged, and then I heard a trace of the bitterness we all felt in what he said next. “I just don’t want any more problems. Let the world treat me nicely for a change.”

A SOLDIER GOT on the train at the stop before Yokohama to tell us what would happen next. My ears perked up when he explained that in a building near the station the Red Cross would give us Coke, coffee, and donuts. “You can have all you want,” he said with a knowing smile. “The nurses and Red Cross girls are ready to serve you.”

Naturally, everyone wanted into that building immediately. The minute we stopped moving, manic, salivating soldiers poured out of the train cars and headed for the sweets and the sweeties. As I waded into the crowd, I heard a voice hollering over the din, “Who’s got a great story? Who’s got a great story?” My POW buddy Frank Tinker grabbed my shirt, pointed at me, and said, “Hey, this guy’s got an incredible story!”

I didn’t want to talk to anyone; I just wanted the goodies. But the guy who yelled stopped me as I tried to get by and said, “What’s your name? What’s your name?”

“Hey!” I said. “They told me that when I got off the train I could go into that building and get all the Coke, all the coffee, and all the donuts I wanted.

“You will,” he said, “but your friend said you had a good story. What’s your name?”

“Lou Zamperini,” I snapped. “Okay? I’ve got to get—”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said. Somehow I’d stopped him cold. “Lou Zamperini? Impossible. He’s dead.”

That stopped me cold. “I know who I am,” I replied, “and I’m not dead. I’m Lou Zamperini.”

“I’ll need some verification, okay? I can’t print a story without proof.”

I didn’t want to verify anything, or be anyone’s story. I wanted a Coke and a donut. But I tried to be as graceful as possible under the circumstances. “Maybe after I get some food, all right?”

He shook his head, unwilling to let me go. “How can you prove you’re Zamperini?”

“The Japanese took everything I had but my wallet.”

“Yeah?” he said.

“But they emptied that, except for eight dollars in American money hidden in a secret compartment, and my USC Life Pass.” Only athletes who lettered three years in a row got the sterling silver pass, engraved with their name. I was number 265. Reluctantly I dug out my wallet and handed him the pass.

“I can’t believe it,” he said, after a moment, “but that’s good enough for me.” He introduced himself then. “I’m Robert Trumbull of the New York Times.”

“Like I said, I’m Lou Zamperini, and I want something to eat and drink.”

Trumbull told one of his buddies, “Go get something for Louie.” So I waited, half-furious, trying to think of what to say as Trumbull peppered me with questions and pulled out every detail I could remember, including some I didn’t want to. The more I spoke, the more his face settled into a mask of almost permanent astonishment.

His friend never came back with the food.

When Trumbull finished I walked into the Red Cross building, famished. I couldn’t get at the food right away because I had to stand in a line so some guy with an air blower could cover me with white sulfa drug powder. (Years later we learned the stuff was toxic. The manufacturer had dumped some in the ocean between Catalina and Palos Verdes, and the cleanup costs went into the billions. Ruined the fishing, too.)

By the time I got deloused or whatever, all the food was gone. I was so desperate for a taste of anything American that I scoured the floor searching for crumbs.

The next day, while waiting at the Yokohama airfield for a plane to Okinawa, I saw a table by the quartermaster’s window stacked with extra rations. I grabbed all I could hold. To have enough food was wonderful; to have more than I needed was pure joy.

“Hey, hey, Lieutenant, take it easy,” a sergeant said, obviously familiar with this type of behavior. “Don’t worry about food. You’ll get all you want where you’re going.”

“That’s what they told me when I got here,” I said. “I’m taking no chances.” I shoved the booty into my shirt until it bulged like a Christmas stocking, remembering at that moment how I’d shoved my mother’s cookies into my shirt when I was seven years old, after she’d told me not to take any from the cookie jar. (She caught me, and I got scolded.) But when you’ve been hungry for two years, you trust no one. The sergeant was right, though. When I landed in Okinawa that night the Red Cross had two portable wagons set up at the airport, with the same coffee, Coke, donuts, and volunteer girls. I saw fluffy pastries, jelly donuts, and brown dunkers. I scooped up one of each and enjoyed the hell out of them all.

OKINAWA, WHERE WE fought one of our last great battles in Pacific, was only 350 miles from Japan. We’d sent 168,000 troops ashore to assault 100,000 defenders who had spent a year digging sixty miles of caves, tunnels, and underground positions. The cost of victory was dear. We lost thirty-two ships and took over 10,000 casualties. Fourteen hundred kamikaze planes (kamikaze means “divine wind” in Japanese, named after the typhoon that destroyed the invading Mongol fleet in 1281) sank twenty-six ships, and claimed 3,000 American lives. The battle lasted fifty-one days, from April 1 to June 21, 1945.

Now Okinawa served as a staging area for returning troops, POWs, and occupation forces headed for Japan. At the temporary shelter they ushered us into big tents with cots and told us to bunk down for the night. The next morning, bright and early, I lined up for more medical treatment. The routine of being reabsorbed into a free society felt weird, but like a patient who has to see the doctor, I submitted. I got three different shots in the arm, then an orderly told me to go into a room at the end of the building. I had noticed, while standing in line, that the door to the room was always closed; a sign on it read: LAST SHOT. When my turn came I opened the door and stepped hesitantly inside to find a colonel sitting at desk covered with shot glasses full of whisky. I broke out in a wide grin. “Welcome home, soldier,” the colonel said. I drank my shot without hesitation. It went down nice and warm.

I lined up for a breakfast meal ticket at the mess hall, but an orderly, scanning a list of names on a clipboard, turned me away. “Sorry,” she said. “This food is only for prisoners of war.”

“But I’m a prisoner.”

“You’re not registered as a POW.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. That was the first I’d heard of it, officially. “Maybe so, but I’m still a prisoner. I’ve been one for more than two years. Ask anyone.”

“Sorry. Your name’s not on the list.”

Unbelievable. They thought I was just trying to get a free meal, and the pity was that a good look at me proved that I desperately needed one. It’s like if you don’t have an appointment with a doctor, you say, “But, Doctor, look at me, I’m dying.”

“Well, yes, you are. Come on in.”

I tried again: “I’m skinny. I’m hungry. I’m a prisoner of war.”

She wouldn’t budge. “Sorry. No I.D. You’re not listed.”

Rather than argue, I went to the Red Cross tent and put two and two together on the way. At Ofuna, the secret interrogation camp, the Japanese hadn’t registered me as a POW—and apparently had neglected to correct that after transferring me to Omori. Even so, I thought that after my broadcast proved to the army that I was alive—certainly I was well known enough that if anyone with any clout had heard, it would make the news—someone would have added me to the POW list. Obviously not. It was assumed that I was already on it. That brought up another problem: without the proper I.D. I wouldn’t get new clothes either.

Fortunately, the Red Cross girl was very nice. “Help yourself,” she said, pointing at the snack food. I grabbed a couple of Snickers. “Why aren’t you with the others?” she asked as I wolfed them down.

“I’m a prisoner of war but I’m not registered, and they wouldn’t let me in the dining room with the rest of the guys.”

As I told her my story a lieutenant walked in. “Here’s a man who can help you,” she said. So I told him my story. “I’m the general’s adjutant,” he said. He took me to see his boss, who also wanted to hear my story. By now it was lunchtime, and I’d told my story so many times that the general invited me to eat with him while we talked.

Afterward he asked, “Are you in a hurry to get home?”

“Not really,” I confessed. “I’d like to stay if I could. I’d like to fatten up. I don’t want my mother to see me like this.”

The general got on the phone and called Dr. Eli Lippman. He was in charge of medical services on Okinawa and ran a hospital in part of the underground fortifications the former tenants had dug. Lippman took me in tow and made sure I got my food and clothes.

That night, as I lay sleeping, a typhoon struck. I was safe enough inside the tent, but I had to use the head because I still had a touch of dysentery. Fortunately, someone had tied a rope to the tent pole and strung it to a post by the outhouse. I grabbed ahold and followed the rope, made it through the wind and rain, and sat down. But just as my bowel emptied I felt a big explosion as the storm lifted the outhouse into the air and blew it over the side of the hill. I was only able to make it back up through the mud and muck by hugging the ground.

The next day no one could believe the devastation: ships turned over, planes upside down on top of other planes. We could hardly find a place to eat, and when we did, the roof leaked rainwater onto our dishes.

After the weather cleared, Dr. Lippman said, “Well, Louie, I found out that your outfit’s here, the Eleventh Bomb Group.” He drove me to their headquarters, and man, was I glad to see them! I guess the feeling was mutual because they decided to throw a party for me.

We had only one problem: a short supply of liquor. Dr. Lippman said, “Don’t worry about the drinks.” He mixed five gallons of his alcohol reserve with distilled water and cola syrup and made “bourbon.” The party was fun, and emotional in a military sort of way, because everybody had thought I was dead. Later the nurses wanted to throw another celebration for me. I even took a jeep ride with a beautiful nurse. I was a good boy, though. In fact, not too long ago I got a letter from her, asking if I remembered that night. Beautiful!

My buddies drove me all over the island and showed me the different military installations. At one a guy said, “You’re from ’SC? Bobby Peoples is here.” Peoples was the school’s champion javelin thrower and a football player. When I saw him he said, “Hey, guess what? Dutch Wilcox is here.” Wilcox was an official at USC. “Let’s go find him. He’ll be thrilled to see you.”

I said, “You go in first and say, ‘Hey, I just met a guy who’s run a four-oh-six mile and he wants to go to USC.’” It was Dutch’s job to recruit guys like that.

Peoples went in and then I heard Wilcox say, “Send him in!”

Dutch was leaning back in a chair when I stepped in, and the minute he saw my face he fell backward. Nothing like a man you thought was in heaven walking in to say hi. Then Tyrone Power, the actor, came in and we all had lunch.

I also ran into Major Pearce, from my old squadron, who showed me my own obituary, cut out of the Minneapolis Star Journal. It felt great to be remembered so well, even if they’d exaggerated.

I STUCK AROUND Okinawa, gaining weight, watching the POWs fly in and out. The general called and said the occupation troops had also arrived from the States and were eager to get to Japan, but would I talk to them first? He explained that the men were so mad about Japan’s behavior in the war that he was afraid they’d destroy property and abuse the women. He wanted me to keep them from overreacting by letting them know that not all Japanese were bad. “If you can help minimize their anger…,” he said.

“I can not only minimize, I can tell the truth,” I assured him. Soon I stood on a stage in a huge canyon before the largest audience I’d ever seen. “We had Japanese soldiers, guards, who were kind to us, helped us, and saved lives,” I told the men. “One saved my life at Kwajalein.”

About halfway through my stay, USC tried to get me to come home to speak during halftime at a football game. I was still skinny and, frankly, having a good time with all the attention. Dr. Lippman asked, “Do you want to go home?”

“Not really,” I said. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to see my family. I wondered if my mom still had the wings I’d sent her before I went overseas. What about my dad’s million-dollar smile—had it faded a bit? Were my kid sisters, Virginia and Sylvia, still shy? And Pete? He’d gone into the navy. I assumed he was unhurt; wouldn’t he be surprised to learn that when I got back in shape I wanted to run again?

“That’s no problem,” Dr. Lippman said. “I’ll say you’re medically unfit to travel.”

That was good for me, but I learned later how shocked my mother was when she read in the paper that I was “unfit.” I felt bad. I was as fit as I could be, considering. I just enjoyed partying with the nurses, drinking Dr. Lippman’s homemade bourbon, and I hadn’t thought how my pursuit of long-denied pleasures might affect anyone else.

On the other hand, I had also started to catch up with the world I’d left behind, and step by step I began to regain the confidence and self-esteem I’d lost under the enemy’s relentless effort to destroy my dignity. Actually, I didn’t lose it; I just couldn’t display it. I could have been the strongest and meanest guy in the world, someone who would strike back at a moment’s notice, but when you’re controlled twenty-four hours a day by an authority who will beat or kill you if you step out of line, you have to be submissive. In prison camp we all acted normal in private; only when the Japanese were around did we “act” like cowards. I don’t know if that’s a good word to use, but you either played along or paid the price. A smart guy plays along as little as possible, just enough to survive. I never saw anyone summarily shot in front of me, but there were ninety-one camps in Japan and its occupied lands, and just because I didn’t witness that kind of horror didn’t mean that the Japanese hadn’t slaughtered many men. Besides, I’d never forget the names on my cell wall in Kwajalein.

TO HELP POWS readjust, the army passed out a small red pamphlet published by the Army Air Forces Headquarters, at the command of General Hap Arnold, for “distribution to AAF returnees.” Titled Coming Home, it had simple graphics and straightforward, friendly language.

Here’s how it began:

Good? Bad? Mixed up? Or can’t you tell?

That’s O.K., though. It’s exactly the way thousands of men have felt who have come back ahead of you. Some of them wanted to talk it over. But some of them didn’t even want to think about their feelings. If that’s the way you feel right now, it’s perfectly all right; don’t turn another page. We suggest that you stick this away in your flight bag or some other place where you can get at it later.

It may come in handy.

The story followed a typical soldier, John Brown, through his homecoming, through the fear, the strange feelings of having changed, of being treated differently, and gave tips on how to go along and get along. The advice pretty much came down to this:

No matter how much help John Brown got, though, in the final analysis it was up to him. The real, permanent solution, he found, lies with the individual man himself. But it sure is a big help to understand what is going on inside and why.

I read my copy right away and determined that all things considered, I was doing okay. I packed away the pamphlet in the unlikely event I’d need to refer to it again.

I SPENT AS much time as I could on Okinawa but eventually had to continue my journey home. Guam was the next scheduled stop, only I got put on the wrong plane and ended up headed for Manila, capital of the Philippines. At first I didn’t want to fly at all; the plane was a B-24 with a plywood deck and forty former POWs inside. But it was the only way home, so I climbed aboard. Midflight the pilot got a call that Manila was socked in with rain and to land instead on a little fighter strip between two mountains at Laoag, in northern Luzon. We came in from the beach side, taxied up between the peaks, and parked overnight.

The next day they turned the plane around and we sped down the runway, heading toward the water. Suddenly, I realized we had a problem. The plane should have been airborne but wasn’t. With the wind against us, the runway was too short for a big craft, so heavily loaded. I rushed to the bomb-bay window and looked out. There was the water, right in front of us, and a mound of dirt; I guess they’d bulldozed sand into a small dike to keep the ocean from flooding the runway. I thought, Oh no, after all I’ve gone through, now I’m dead? Then the B-24 hit that bump at the end of the runway, bounced into the air, and settled down so low that whitecaps came through the ill-fitting bomb-bay doors and soaked us. Fortunately the plane never dipped below that level.

Not long ago, after my story was on national TV, I got a phone call. A voice said, “You’re Louis Zamperini?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“How did you get from Okinawa to Manila?” he asked.

“Well,” I replied, “in a B-24, but we didn’t actually go to Manila first.” Then I told him this story.

I asked him why he wanted to know, and he said, “I was the pilot. I almost crapped in my pants. I knew we’d had it. That plane just barely, barely stayed above water.”

Nice to know that all these years later we were both still among the living.

MANILA, UNFORTUNATELY, WAS more of the same situation I’d encountered on Okinawa—and worse. I’d gotten a bottle of rare and valuable whisky as a present on Okinawa, but someone stole it from my tent in Manila, and yet again I couldn’t get food or clothing. So I did what I’d done before: head to the Red Cross tent and tell my story. The girl there set me up with Joe Laitin, a big wheel with Reuters in the Pacific. (Clearly, the Red Cross gals in the Pacific had the system wired and knew how to work it.)

“I’ve got a big problem,” I told Joe. “I’m damn hungry, and I can’t get a meal ticket.” When I told him my story he got so uptight that he immediately took me to headquarters, talked to a colonel, and got me squared away. For a war correspondent he had lots of pull. He even had me on his NBC radio show.

When the Japanese vacated Manila, they left a hundred thousand dead bodies and an impoverished, bomb-ravaged shell of a city. The place was entirely unappealing. Boring. At least on Okinawa, after the POWs left, I was the only former prisoner there; I was singled out, taken care of, unique. In Manila I was nobody. I just walked around, in rain that never let up, and the world was caked with mud and misery. I wanted out quickly, but I had to wait for a flight. Joe Laitin tried to help by getting me an application, but the functionary at headquarters said, “Are you kidding? There are eighty-one colonels ahead of him, trying to get a flight home.”

Joe took the application anyway, and I filled it out, waited a couple days, didn’t get a call. Joe and I went to headquarters. He found a stack of applications on a desk and went through them until he found mine—on the bottom. He put it on top and told the desk officer, “He goes on the next plane.” The officer didn’t argue. Reuters could ruin you, if they wanted to. (Later Joe spent years as a journalist in Hollywood and worked as a deputy press secretary under President Lyndon Johnson.)

I got off easy. Normally it took a bottle of whisky or a box of cigars—the next most precious commodity—to move up the list. The ATC—Air Transport Command—had a racket going. Their job was to haul goods for the rank and file, plus airplane parts. They also took liquor and cigars all over, charged a bundle, and got away with it because money is meaningless to a soldier in combat, stationed on some far-out atoll. A hundred dollars for a bottle of liquor? Sure! Twenty-five dollars for a cigar? Okay! The ATC got that stuff free from guys like me, who wanted to get on a plane without waiting.

The ATC also hauled commodities for the upper brass. I ran into several officers who were alcoholics. Some people believe that if the Pacific generals hadn’t gotten so much liquor, the war would have been over two years sooner.

I FLEW OUT of Manila for Hawaii on a brand new C-54 Skymaster transport, the military version of the DC-4 that McDonnell Douglas put into commercial service in 1946.

The crew knew about me and invited me to fly up in the cockpit. That’s when I learned that Robert Trumbull’s story about me had broken on the front page of the New York Times and had been syndicated, running in newspapers from the Honolulu Advertiser and the Detroit Free Press, to the Catholic Digest and my hometown Torrance Herald. Later my story made Time and Newsweek and countless other publications. Although I’d enjoyed the spotlight when I ran, now I couldn’t have cared less about being in the New York Times. Trumbull did a good job, but in Yokohama he had taken from me what was most precious: Coke and donuts. I know it sounds crazy, but to a POW those priorities make perfect sense.

I told the crew some stories until we landed on a small island to refuel. When we got out to stretch our legs, the pilot said, “How do you like this island?”

“Well, there’s not much here,” I said.

“Not now,” he said. “This is where you spent forty-three days. This is Kwajalein.”

“Where are all the trees?” I asked.

“Leveled by naval gunfire. There’s only one tree left.” He took me to see it, and that was that.

HAWAII WAS UTOPIA. First I got a long-overdue promotion to captain. Then friends introduced me to the legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku, who welcomed me into the Outrigger Canoe Club and even took me out himself. Hawaii was wide open and jubilant because the war was over. When the civilians saw us in uniform, they all wanted to buy us a drink. The place was awash in booze and girls and activity. Ignoring the future and the past, I drank and danced and gorged myself, and forgot to thank anyone, including God, for my being alive. Best of all, I did this while being made to “stay” in the hospital because I still had a touch of some tropical bug that didn’t really need any special treatment. Again, I felt no hurry to get home.

Fred Garrett, the POW whose leg had been amputated on Kwajalein, was at the same hospital. We bummed around together and got physically fit by wrestling on Waikiki Beach. People thought I was nuts, wrestling a one-legged guy, but Fred was big and strong and wanted to show he had no handicap.

Of course, I got busted for having too good a time. I was a bit of a celebrity, the “hero” returning home and all, and someone in General Arnold’s office found out I was goofing off, boozing and partying every night. Beset by queries from my family, friends, and reporters, Arnold sent a red-letter order: “Get your ass back here with every available dispatch,” meaning: come home, even if you have to row.

I left immediately, wondering what I’d done wrong other than try to make up for a few years of hell.

ON OCTOBER 2, 1945, I flew straight to San Francisco and went to Letterman Hospital, where I got another physical, found out I still had a touch of something tropical, and agreed to spend a week under loose observation. In the meantime Fred Garrett and I shared a room and tried to see as much as possible of the city.

Because of Robert Trumbull’s story of my return from the “listed dead,” I was constantly hounded by a gaggle of reporters. I quickly understood the pressures that had forced General Arnold to put a halt to my island holiday, as well as that once again the army could make public relations hay from my reputation and adventures. The limelight was bright. Phone lines were jammed with interview requests and calls from well-wishers. Organizations wanted me as an after-dinner speaker. What a pain. Of course, I quickly decided it was better to love the attention than to hate it. I’d been here before, and it felt good being back.

To control the situation, I met the press in the hospital lobby. The reporters were generally nice, and the interviews weren’t too extensive, though it could get overbearing. If an interview is ten or fifteen minutes, that’s fine, but if they want to hear your whole story, well, hey, you got a month? I told them to read the Trumbull piece.

A banquet held in my honor by the San Francisco Press Club was a taste of life to come and a nostalgic reminder of my glory days as a runner. In fact, this time around was better because an awestruck respect was part of the package, coupled with an eagerness to help me forget my ordeals. Just as training hard for a race had paid off, I soon found it tough to deny that I’d “earned” whatever attention now came my way. Sitting there on the dais, I experienced a gratifying, exciting warmth, a flush, part adulation, part liquor. Fred filled our glasses the moment we emptied them, my eyes turned redder, and I grew expansive. When finally called on to speak, I not only touched on the past but made promises about the future.

“Before I crashed at sea,” I said, “I told you there were still many miles left in these legs. That hasn’t changed. I’ll be running again. In fact, I hope to qualify not just for the next Olympics in 1948, but for the next three!”

A brash promise, not to mention a direct contradiction of what I’d said on Joe Laitin’s radio show from Manila. Thinking about my injury from being pushed off a plank with one hundred pounds of coal on my back, I’d said, “I’m through with competitive racing, thanks to the Japanese.”

Leave it to Fred, though, to neatly express our great joy at being on native soil again. Rising unsteadily to his foot, hands on the table for support, he grinned amicably and said, “Boy, it’s sure nice to be home and see a bunch of fat people again.”

His comment also made me look at myself, now nearly 160 pounds—of spongy, limp flesh, not toned muscle.

A COUPLE OF days later I answered the phone for what seemed like the hundredth time. A dry voice drawled in my ear: “I told them you were too ornery to die.”

I was silent for what seemed like forever, then, “Pete! Where are you?”

“Just forty miles away, Toots. Be there soon.”

“You on a pass?”

“Nope. Went AWOL. See you soon as I can hitch a ride.”

As Pete later explained, a navy friend ran into his quarters and said, “Pete, look at this. Your brother’s home!” Pete wanted to see me so much that he just left San Diego without permission and flew to Frisco on a navy plane. I was very touched that he took such a huge risk—and relieved that he also got away with it.

Within the hour we were hugging each other unashamedly. “I knew you were all right,” he said, over and over. “Everyone thought I was crazy. I told Mom, ‘If Louie can get his feet on solid ground, he’s okay. Just give him a toothbrush and a scout knife, and he can take care of himself.”

I beamed and let him carry on.

“You know what we were going to do, Dad and I, if you didn’t show up?” he continued. “We were going to save up enough money to buy a boat and go from island to island and until we found you. I just knew you were alive somewhere out there!”

I forget what I said. I was so overcome that I couldn’t manage much.

Pete held me at arm’s length and said, “Let me get a look at you.” He took all of me in. “Hey, boy, you been living on cream puffs?” he joked, only he wasn’t joking.

“I know, I have to go on a diet. Give me a chance. All I did was dream about eating for two years.” Then I took a good look at Pete, and my grin slipped a little. Hair that had been as thick as mine was now sparse and thin, more gray than brown. Weariness lined his face; his body seemed gaunt and weighed down. “What’s happened to you, old man?”

“Boy, you got no respect for your elders,” he said, punching me lightly on the arm and changing the subject. I later learned that his transformation had lots to do with his worrying about my fate. That was Pete. He was my mentor, my advisor, my coach, my guardian. We were so close.

The day after Pete arrived, we were in midconversation in the hospital visiting room when the news media blew in, grabbed him, and mistaking his slim figure for a man who’d starved for two years, tried to interview him as Lou Zamperini, prisoner of war. We talked fast and straightened out their mistake.

Pete stayed for five days in a nearby motel. We talked about Dad and Mom, my sisters, track and field, his navy work in San Diego. The subject of my incarceration or what had appeared in the paper rarely came up, not because I didn’t want to talk about it but because we both felt the family was most important. Family first.

Finally, General Arnold, whom I never met, sent a special B-25 to San Francisco to fly Pete and me to Long Beach, and together we went home.

THOUGH IT WAS a very different moment, when my family met me as I stepped off the plane I couldn’t help think of the time I’d come home from the Olympics. I immediately ran up and hugged my mother. She had never lost faith that her boy was alive, and now she was beside herself. I guess most mothers are the same way, though many sons and husbands never came back. I hugged my dad and sisters, too. Everyone cried with joy, and I knew that my brother was the inspiration behind my parents’ determination to never give up hope. Even Chief Strohe of the Torrance Police was there, his police-car siren wailing in the background. But on the ride home there was more awkward silence than exuberant chat. I told no exciting stories of talented teammates, fine food, or stealing a Nazi flag. My only accomplishment had been staying alive.

We turned onto Gramercy Street and stopped in front of 2028, the white frame house I remembered so well. When I wasn’t having nightmares about strangling the Bird, I had dreamed often about relaxing on the living room sofa while my mother’s heels clicked on the blue-and-white checkered kitchen linoleum, and of watching as she prepared dinner.

Suddenly, I tensed up and shivered; none of it seemed real. I wanted to go in but I was afraid. What if the reality didn’t match up with my dreams? Would the house be the way I’d left it? Pretty much, I discovered, except for the fireplace. “An earthquake shook it to pieces,” my mother explained. But the bed in my room was freshly made, waiting for me.

Soon the phone rang and rang, and the house filled with friends, city officials, and photographers. Every time I turned around a flash-bulb blinded me. Voices rose and fell like ocean chop. My body grew numb and my mind disoriented.

What’s the matter, Louie? You’re home. There’s Mom, crying—stop crying, I’m here, it’s okay, that death certificate you got is not worth the paper it’s printed on, don’t worry…why don’t I feel anything?

I heard a voice in my ear: “Look in the kitchen, Louie.”

Another voice: “How about a picture, Louie?”

I sleepwalked through it all, dimly aware of the expectant grins on the faces that constantly surrounded me. In the kitchen I saw a dinner of gnocchi and ravioli, steak, risotto, sosole, and biscotti cooking on the old green-and-white Roper stove—all of which I’d described time after time to Phil and Mac on the raft. I also recalled painful memories of so many meals taken at the huge white table Dad had made with his bare hands, my head bent over my plate in sullen silence. Now fancy bottles of every description covered the table. Liquor—that was fine.

My mother picked up one bottle and showed it to me. “The man across the street brought this one the day you were declared missing,” she said. “He said he didn’t drink but he’d have a drink with you, from this bottle, when you came home.”

Many bottles, all expressions of faith that I was alive, were labeled with the name of the donor. “Even after the death certificate arrived,” my mother cried, “the bottles kept coming.”

I looked away and on another kitchen counter saw cookies baked by my sister Sylvia, in the form of letters that spelled WELCOME HOME LOUIE.

In the living room, more pictures and flashbulbs and voices. Finally, I broke away and wandered aimlessly through the house and out the back door to the garage. To my surprise, I found my 1939 Plymouth convertible inside. At least my parents hadn’t sold it. As I ran my hand over the smooth wax job and patted the hood, my reserve gave way and the dam burst. I rushed back inside, crying. Soon, everyone was in everyone else’s arms.

At dinner I was too nervous to eat everything my mother had prepared, but I devoured the risotto to the last grain. Afterward we had coffee, and I noticed everyone looking at one another with expressions that seemed to ask, “Now?” My mother nodded, and everyone trooped out of the living room and returned moments later with armfuls of brightly wrapped packages. These were presents, tagged CHRISTMAS 1943, CHRISTMAS 1944, JANUARY 26, 1945 (my birthday), and notes that read: “Thinking of you on your birthday, wherever you are,” and the like. Here was the full proof that my family had never given up hope, had never stopped believing I was alive, and it struck deeply, not only reaffirming their love but revealing to me—despite all our previous differences—just where I’d come by the indomitable spirit that had kept me going on the raft and in prison camp. And to think that this was the family I’d often ignored, the mother I’d once, years ago, accused of loving Pete more than me. I was ashamed and overcome.

My family and friends didn’t try to get me to talk about POW camp or my war experiences except to say, with obvious satisfaction at the positive outcome, that monthly checks from my life insurance had arrived at the house for almost a year and been deposited in the bank, where they lay untouched—another symbol of their faith in my return.

I didn’t want to talk about the war either. When someone comes home from prison you don’t immediately say, “How was it in the big house?” You take him out to dinner and talk about other things—how it feels to be back, going hunting and fishing, running again, what kind of job he wants to get. Otherwise it’s like reminding someone they had cancer. Besides, I’d told it all to Trumbull, my parents had read it, and every paper in the country had copied it.

My parents also did interviews. One paper quoted my father as saying, “Those Japs couldn’t break him. My boy’s pretty tough, you know.” My mother tearfully offered another perspective: “From now on, September ninth is going to be Mother’s Day to me because that’s the day I learned for sure my boy was coming home to stay.”

Both hit the nail on the head and summed up my feelings exactly. Well, almost. What I told the papers about being home again completed the sentiment: “It’s just like Christmas, only better.”

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