I stayed with my parents for a few days, living in my old room, before being ordered to Birmingham Hospital in Van Nuys for a month of observation. There they fed me pills to finally kill the intestinal parasites and any other bugs I’d brought back from the war. The regimen often made me sick all night, but at least the doctors warned me in advance, saying, “You’ll be fine in the morning.”
I had to stay in the hospital the first week, but then I could put on my uniform and go out if I came back at a decent hour. Wherever I went, publicity followed. Whatever I did after the war was news. Today, if Tom Cruise drove down the street in plain sight, people would yell and wave. I’m no Tom Cruise, but that’s about how famous I was after the war. The exposure cost me my privacy, but after what I’d been through, I didn’t mind the glory. The other guys in my ward couldn’t resist kidding me relentlessly: “Hey, we saw you in the paper with a cute chick, Zamp. An actress. You’ve gone Hollywood, Zamp.”
The coverage and attention kept building as everyone tried to get into the act. In early November the Los Angeles chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart honored me, along with Lieutenant Will Rogers, Jr., and Commander Edward Dockweiler. I was happy to be there, as my parents had received my Purple Heart for “wounds resulting in my death” in May 1944.
(A few years later, Will invited me to be on his radio show to talk about the Bill of Rights. His other guest was a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan. At the time a couple of big oilmen wanted to groom me for the state legislature. I declined. When Reagan found out, I remember him saying, “It’s interesting that you’re going into politics. I was born for politics.” His remarks made me scratch my head; he was just an actor.)
Newspapers dug out my old track records, gave them new importance, and speculated about my competitive future. Sports editors—even those who had openly expressed disappointment with me before the war—again filled their columns with my exploits. Radio commentators and luncheon groups extended invitations to appear. I made a broadcast with my old coach, Dean Cromwell. I officiated at track meets. I even handed out gold cups to horse-race winners at the Santa Anita racetrack.
In 1944 Torrance had renamed its army airstrip Zamperini Memorial Field, but when I came back alive they changed it to just plain Zamperini Field. A couple of Academy Award actresses and generals from Washington came down for the big luncheon and ceremony.
In February 1945 a track meet in New York had begun featuring the annual Zamperini Memorial Mile. They changed the name on that one, too.
I also joined the Sea Squatters Club, whose ranks were open only to “United Nations airmen forced down at sea who used a rubber life raft, no raft, or stayed with their plane and survived.”
Jack and Harry Warner—they ran the movie studio—told the Los Angeles Times, “When Louis gets home, we’re throwing an all-studio party for him.” They held it at the John Ford ranch. I danced with Maureen O’Hara and other lovely young actresses.
Many Warner stars belonged to the Lakeside Golf Club near the studio, and that soon became my hangout. I didn’t play golf; I just walked around the course with the celebrities, and they seemed to like it. One day I stood at the bar with Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson, Forrest Tucker, and Bob Hope when a guy ran out of the dressing room and said, “Captain Zamperini, Oliver Hardy wants to see you. Come with me.” I found Hardy, one of my heroes, in the shower. He walked out stark naked and hugged me. Then he started crying. “Louis,” he said with a sniff, “I prayed for you every day you were missing.” Hardy was Catholic; I’d been Catholic Athlete of the Year the year after DiMaggio got the award. Later Hardy told Lakeside’s manager, “Whenever Zamperini comes in, all the food, liquor—whatever he wants—is on my tab. Unlimited.” I’m not sure why, but I never took advantage of his generosity.
Nightclubs around town also threw open their doors to me. Of that I took advantage, in part because I didn’t know how long it would go on. Postwar celebrations were everywhere, and my old college friend Harry Read and I could be found almost any night of the week at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood, at the world-famous Earl Carroll Theater and Nightclub on Sunset, or in any of the area bars. (Carroll’s place opened in 1938 and included technical innovations like a sixty-foot-wide double revolving turntable on the eighty-foot main stage, three swings that lowered from the auditorium ceiling, an elevator, a revolving staircase, and a rain machine. Out front was a twenty-foot-high painting in neon of Beryl Wallace, one of Carroll’s “most beautiful girls in the world,” and Sunset Boulevard’s Wall of Fame, preserving, in cement, the personal inscriptions to Earl Carroll of more than 150 of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars.)
Sometimes Phil joined us and we did the town. The war was over and we kept the nostalgia to a minimum—though occasionally we shared a private look full of amazement and gratitude that even though we’d lost two crews, and gone through hell, we’d still survived.
Once, Fred Garrett and his wife joined Harry and me at Earl Carroll’s. Fred had been fitted with a prosthetic leg. Recalling how he’d anticipated yet dreaded his homecoming, I looked first at Mrs. Garrett’s face, then searched Fred’s. I knew Fred hated the Japanese so much that he would never let rice touch his lips again, and depression followed him like a lost dog. Of course, I had both my legs, so although I hated the Japanese, too, I couldn’t honestly compare our treatment in the war. All I knew was that hate was as deadly as any poison and did no one any good. You had to control and eliminate it, if you could. Fred, who went on to work for years in the control tower at Los Angeles International Airport, intercepted my glance, grinned from ear to ear, and lifted his glass high. “Welcome home, Zampo,” he said, and I knew he meant it.
ME? I FOUND my own way of “controlling” the hate that had revealed itself as recurring nightmares about the Bird. I’d had the same angry dreams in prison camp, but there I also had to deal with the horrible reality of his presence, meaning that awake or asleep I couldn’t get away from Watanabe.
Even after my release, when I was caught up in the excitement of going home, the dreams didn’t stop. I kept hoping they’d pass, but when they didn’t, my solution was alcohol. I thought if I got drunk enough, I’d sleep like a baby.
A common dream usually began with the Bird’s eyes glittering in a gray emptiness and his clipped voice shouting, “Look at me! Why you no look at me? Look at me!” As he raised his arm I tossed and twisted, helpless to avoid the heavy belt buckle swinging in slow motion at my face. But the metal always struck again and again while the Bird rhythmically screamed, “Next! Next! Next!” with each blow. When I couldn’t take it another second, I sprang at him, grabbed his thick neck, and crushed it until I knew he was dead.
Sometimes I found myself bobbing on the raft, only this time a grinning Jap pilot in the Sally bomber blew me full of bullet holes on his strafing run, causing unimaginable agony.
Other times I got caught stealing in prison camp and suffered beatings so horrible that when I woke up my body hurt and my hatred rose in my throat like a bad meal.
To dull the pain and memories, I roamed from bar to bar accepting drinks on the house or from bighearted strangers. I told my stories and wallowed in the term “war hero” until I actually believed it myself.
“It’s a miracle you’re still alive,” people generous enough to buy my drinks would say.
“Miracle?” I scoffed. “There’s no such thing as miracles. I was in better physical condition because I’ve always believed in good food and plenty of exercise! That’s what pulled me through. Nothing else.”
That certainly sounded wonderful, but no matter how fogged my brain, the irony of my extolling clean living as my fingers curled around my fourth or fifth damp tumbler of brown liquor did not escape me. I must have been a ludicrous sight, but no one seemed to notice or care, except to say, “Have a good time, kid. You’ve earned it.”
I LEFT BIRMINGHAM Hospital but didn’t go back to Torrance because it was too far from the action. Instead I moved in temporarily with a friend, the man who owned the Florentine Gardens. His place was huge and decked out like a palace. Another perk: he was in the girl business, by which I mean beauty contests. Miss South Dakota and Miss Chicago also lived in two of the six bedrooms. Surrounded by such dreamboats, I felt like a little kid in a candy shop; but as the only man allowed to stay there, I believed I had to behave myself.
Naturally, I was tempted. A young actress guest who’d won a part in the new Cisco Kid movie caught my eye. My host said, “Louis, she’s got two weeks before they start shooting, and she’s never been on a horse. It’s up to you to teach her how to ride. She doesn’t have to ride too well, just ride.”
I happily gave her lessons. A few days later, as I sat in the living room reading, she groaned and purred at the same time, and said, “My whole body is stiff, Louie. Would you give me a massage?” Before I could object she took off most of her clothes and lay facedown on the living room couch. I obliged her with my best massage—but that was it. When our host came home early and walked in on us, he nodded approvingly at my virtue. I knew I’d acted appropriately. Oh, well.
ON THE SURFACE I looked like I was having the time of my life, but the laughs were more and more a cover-up for the conflicts and tensions I’d brought home from the Pacific. After being confined to a raft, then a makeshift dungeon, and finally a series of prison camps, I was less and less able to sit still or tolerate a quiet moment. The second I awoke I called Harry to figure out what we’d do next. I became a social drinker who drank too much but not enough to become a “stupid” drunk or admit I had a problem.
Too often I embarrassed myself. Sitting at the bar in the Sunset House one night, lost in an alcohol reverie, I was startled by a sudden shout. Before I could stop myself I leaped off the stool and snapped to attention, shaking. Everyone stared. Mortified at my instinctive reaction, I covered my face. What I’d imagine to be a prison guard ordering me to snap to was only another customer boisterously punctuating a wild story.
Sometimes it only took a car-exhaust backfire to remind me of being caught in bombing raids like on Funafuti, where the explosions were so close that it’s lucky my eardrums didn’t burst. Or in Omori, where I had watched four hundred planes drop sixteen tons of bombs apiece on Tokyo.
“Have another drink,” the bartender urged. “On the house.”
“Yeah…yeah, thanks,” I mumbled. It took three to finally calm me.
At home I stayed up later and later, dreading sleep, yet drinking more and more while still believing I could numb myself enough to pass out and stay out. Even when I did, the dreams still came and their grip on me tightened.
I also liked to fight at the drop of a hat and got into scrapes at the slightest provocation. Some guy would say, “Yeah, you prisoners of war. That was a good way to get out of the war, sitting back and getting free meals.” I’d pummel jerks like him to the floor. I was on edge all the time.
The remedy? Drink to dull those impulses.
I should have reread my Coming Home pamphlet, which described my symptoms exactly. Memories of war kept running around my head. I couldn’t concentrate. I tossed all night. And yet I had so much nervous energy I couldn’t slow down. The section on fear was especially relevant—in my case fear of what to do with my life, of personal failure, of not being able to run again, of the media sobering up long enough to realize that despite my running trophies, war medals, and headlines, I was just a guy who’d done nothing more heroic than live.
IN FEBRUARY 1946 Madison Square Garden invited me to be the starter for the renamed Zamperini Mile. Actually, they insisted; seven of the world’s greatest runners would compete. Unfortunately, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to New York on time because the planes leaving the Burbank airport were full. (LAX then wasn’t even an international airport.) TWA had a waiting list, but the chances I’d make the cut didn’t look good. I needed some leverage, so I called Paul Zimmerman, the Los Angeles Times sports editor, to ask him to phone the TWA public relations man and give him a breakdown on my sports and war experience and say I had to get to New York, and could they do me a favor.
Zimmerman was on vacation.
When you’re desperate you get crazy. I found a phone booth near the TWA desk. I called the airline, told them I was Paul Zimmerman, and asked for the PR department. When the publicist, whose office was right across from where I stood, picked up, I said, “Lou Zamperini, you’ve heard of him, right? Forty-seven days on a raft, Olympian, all that.”
The PR guy said, “Oh, yeah, yeah.”
I said, “Well, he’s flying to New York, going back to start the Zamperini Mile, and I wanted to talk to him before he left. When he comes in, have him call me.”
Meanwhile, I could see the PR guy writing down every word I said. Ten minutes later I walked to the counter, told the gal my name. “Oh, just a minute!” she said, and called the PR guy, who came out and told me that Zimmerman had called and left a message.
“Okay, I’ll call him,” I said quickly, “but it’s essential that I be in New York by tomorrow night, for the Zamperini Mile.”
The counter agent shook her head. “Sorry, the flight’s full.”
“Hold on just a minute,” the PR guy said, and hurried down a hallway. Three minutes later he came back and said, “Mr. Hughes wants to see you.”
He meant Howard Hughes. I admired the guy for his flying ability but didn’t know much about him then except that he owned TWA. His office was quite plain, and he was very nice. “I read about your episode in the Pacific,” he said, and we chatted about flying in the war. Then he added, “I understand you have to be in New York.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but from what the girl says the flight is full.”
“I’m on that flight,” he said. “You can have my seat and I’ll go later, or I’ll fly my own plane.” His exact words.
TWA used four-engine Constellations. The trip would take all day, with a fuel stop in St. Louis. I got to sit with Frank Sinatra and two of his bodyguards. I didn’t know much about Sinatra either, except that in Omori Duva had told me, “He’s the top singer in America. The bobby-soxers are rolling in the aisles.”
In those days the flight attendants checked in each passenger by name after takeoff. When ours got to Sinatra, he gave her a look and said, “Russ Colombo.”
The woman knew who Sinatra was, but she had to maintain protocol and wasn’t about to give in. “Sir,” she said patiently, “I want your real name.”
“Russ Colombo.” Real snotty. I thought it unbelievable for a grown man to treat the hostess like that, trying to get her to say, “Oh, that’s okay. I know who you are.” I felt like punching him in the nose, and I might have, but she went to the captain instead. He sauntered up and told Sinatra, “Fella, one more disturbance and you’re off the plane in St. Louis.”
Sinatra turned red and told the attendant, “Frank Sinatra.” She wrote it down and didn’t give him a second look.
Frank’s buddies were nice guys and talked to me during the flight. I wore my uniform, and without really knowing much about me they wanted to hear my war stories. “You survived two plane crashes during the war?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Every time I get in a plane something seems to happen.”
I was just kidding, of course, but they got all excited: “Hey, Frank. Frank!”
Frank turned to me and said, “I tried to get in the service but I had a punctured eardrum.”
“So did I,” I said. When I was a kid someone shoved me off a twenty-foot platform at the Redondo Beach saltwater pool, and I hit the water sideways. My ear swelled up for a month or two. I had to wear an earplug forever. If the army noticed at my physical, they didn’t care, and I wasn’t about to remind them.
Sinatra thought I was being clever at his expense and just clammed up.
After we left St. Louis, I had my own run-in with the flight attendant. I don’t know why, but the number-three motor on the Constellation sometimes leaked oil and caught fire. I looked out the window and spotted oil trailing.
I said, “Uh-oh.”
Sinatra said, “What’s wrong?”
“She’s got an oil leak. And this is a Constellation.”
“What the hell does that mean?” he said.
“Well, the Constellation has had problems with the number-three motor.” They called the attendant, and she bawled me out for getting the passengers aroused. I didn’t care. “Young lady,” I said, “you better call the captain right now.”
“Sir, you’re disturbing the passengers.”
I said, “You better get the captain, or I’ll get him.” This time he came to see me. When I pointed out the problem, he ran like mad back to the cockpit, turned the ship around, and flew back to St. Louis. TWA put us in a hotel for the night. The next day I took another flight. Sinatra and his group took a train.
THE ARMY AIR Corps gave all returning prisoners of war two weeks of free R&R. I had no complaint about the nightlife and good times in Hollywood, but I thought a change in scenery might shake off my nightmares. We could select from a list of four approved resorts. One was Hawaii, but I’d just returned from Hawaii. Another was Miami Beach. I’d never been there. They also said I could take a guest. A family member would curtail my activities, and I had no steady girl, so I asked the ideal companion: my fun-loving buddy Harry Read.
We checked in at the beautiful Embassy Hotel in Miami and in the room found a long list of optional activities for soldiers on the loose. For instance, every day Ron Rico Rum held a party. You went to their headquarters—beautiful layout and bar—and let them mix you one fancy iced or frothy drink after another, sometimes with an umbrella in it. Or we could go deep-sea fishing. Take tours. Visit the zoo. Attend air force parties and dances.
“What do you want to do first?” I asked Harry.
“Let’s check out some of the private clubs,” he said with a wink.
“Perfect,” I said, and ripped up the list. Rest and relaxation? No, we’d knock ourselves out.
The air hostess on our flight had mentioned the McFadden-Deauville Club, owned by Bernarr McFadden. He was a big fitness buff, my era’s Charles Atlas, who’d gotten rich after starting Physical Culture magazine and would go on to found True Story and True Romance. Time and Newsweek wrote about him, and at the sight of a press camera he would strip to his underwear to show off his muscles. He sometimes gave interviews standing on his head.
We had to climb the wall to sneak in. Luckily, we found the flight attendant in the lounge and the three of us sat at a table, surveying the room as if we had every right to be there. I had my eye on a flashy girl sitting at the end of the bar. When our hostess friend left to meet a date, Harry said, “Look at the dolls.”
“They look friendly,” I said, leaning back expansively. “You know, this is the life. Single, no responsibilities, free to pick and choose. Can you see being here with a wife?” Harry didn’t have to answer. “I once said I’d be a bachelor for the rest of my life,” I continued. “That goes double now. Variety, that’s…”
My sentiment suddenly hung in the air as my head turned and my voice trailed off. Harry followed my gaze.
“Did you see her, Harry?” I whispered.
“The tall one with the long, golden hair and the face of an angel. She was here, now she’s gone.”
“Can’t say I did.” He shrugged, scanning the room for other prospects. But I could only think about the girl who had just glided through, head high, looking straight ahead. I consoled myself by deciding that she wasn’t the type to hang around a bar while a crew of eager beavers like us ogled her. Harry tried to revive the carefree-bachelor conversation, but I’d lost interest.
THE NEXT DAY we dressed for the beach and climbed the McFadden-Deauville wall again. Harry spotted two unaccompanied girls lying facedown on towels in the sand and spread our blankets as close to them as possible. I ignored our neighbors but Harry couldn’t resist. Soon I heard him telling the story of my athletic career, and I heard one of the girls say that although she was only eleven at the time she remembered seeing the newsreel of me winning the NCAA mile race. “How could I forget a runner sitting on a table with four large bandages on his leg?” she said.
I sat up to join the conversation and to my total shock found myself staring at the beautiful girl I’d seen the day before.
She smiled when our eyes met, and I all but froze. I could talk to anyone, but I’d never been that good at making the usual inane conversation meant to captivate and entrance women—especially with one who captivated and entranced me. But I meant to try. We said hello and introduced ourselves; her name was Cynthia Applewhite. When I stumbled and slipped, trying to keep breaking the ice, she took over.
“Where you from?”
Before I answered, this is what went through my head: I like skinny girls, and she’s skinny. She’s beautiful, looks intelligent. Nice personality. The kind of girl I always pictured meeting one day. My type, definitely.
Here’s what came out of my mouth. “Uh, Torrance…but staying in Hollywood.”
“I lived in Los Angeles once,” Cynthia said brightly, “right near Cathay Circle.” She went on about her life there as a young girl, and about living in St. Louis, New York, and finally Florida. Cynthia was nineteen, a debutante (also voted a Sweetheart of the Deauville), and the only daughter of a well-to-do family. She’d been educated at exclusive girls’ schools and even attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. In other words, our life experiences couldn’t have been more different, but I found telling her about myself much easier than I could have hoped for. I wanted to keep talking, just to be near her, and asked her out for that evening.
Cynthia’s popularity slowed me down for a moment, but when she saw my disappointment she told me her afternoons were free. We arranged to go deep-sea fishing.
“And by the way, Captain Zamperini,” she added, “you don’t have to sneak in here anymore. Just tell the desk that you’re guests of my family and use our cabana.
CYNTHIA GOT SICK on the fishing boat and caught only a green face as the army launch rolled in the heavy sea. To make good, I asked if she’d see me the next afternoon and she said yes. Unfortunately, we ended up at the Ron Rico Rum place and I drank more than I should have. I apologized and we made another date to go to the movies.
Pretty soon I fell madly in love. I told her so on the beach as the sunset’s dying glow warmed the water with oranges and pinks, and a pale moon hung in the sky—just like in a movie. I put my arm around her and kissed her a few times, and then, even though emotion has always been tough for me and mushy moments were never my style, I said it.
“I love you, Cynthia.”
I’d never told any other girl I loved her, and the words that had been moments ago stuck in my mouth felt weird and wonderful once freed. I tried not to make it sound as if I were pleading with her to say it back, or as if I didn’t know what my declaration would mean to a person as naturally sincere as she. I’d known Cynthia only a week, but I knew she was the gal.
Believe it or not, I forget exactly what she said in return, but the meaning was the same—and clear. That night she called her two other boyfriends and canceled their dates, leaving her free to be with me in the evenings. For the next few days we walked on the beach, went to movies we never actually saw, and allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by the realization that we were in love.
Harry returned to Los Angeles, leaving Cynthia and me a last night alone. As we sat on the beach under a summer moon, I said, as casually as possible, “You know, Cynthia, one of these days we’re going to get married.” She hesitated, and suddenly I felt lost, like another over-heated flyboy who had mistaken some friendly moments for forever. “Ah…maybe it wasn’t such a good idea,” I mumbled.
“Oh, no!” she said. “I think it’s a fine idea. But when?”
“When?” I felt a stab of fear, and for a moment I thought of backing away while I still had the chance, but when I looked at her I knew I’d never want to change my mind. “Soon,” I said. “As soon as we can.”
“Dad and Mother are going to take this awfully hard, Louie,” she said. “You know, the proper things, the family name…”
“I guess they’ll try to talk you out of it,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said evenly. “But they won’t. I have a mind of my own, Louie. Besides, you’re what I’ve always wanted. The other boys I know are like children.”
I knew she meant every word, and I prayed that she’d never discover that I had feet of clay.
THE NEXT DAY Cynthia brought her mother to meet me at the Embassy Hotel. We sat on the front porch, under the awning, while Mrs. Applewhite more or less conducted a cross-examination. Afterward Cynthia saw me off at the airport. I had six weeks of speaking engagements around the country, and then I’d be back in Los Angeles. We made plans for her to visit me after I got settled.
In the interim, in one of many letters, Cynthia told me her mother had tried to talk her out of marriage. “You’re marrying below yourself,” Mrs. Applewhite had said. As part of a family whose name had been honored for generations in Carolina history, her mom was quite society-conscious. I was Italian; she’d made it clear they don’t have Italians in American high society. Italians were pushcart peddlers or cheap-restaurant owners. Why, I could even be part of some Mafia family. Apparently many stormy fights followed, along with threats of Cynthia’s being sent away to school in the Northeast, like some of her friends. Her parents were understandably protective, since hordes of soldiers roamed Miami’s beaches and streets and didn’t exactly have marriage in mind but would say so if it helped them. Nothing new there. Yet with us it was different.
Back home I moved in temporarily with Harry Read and his mother and resumed my life. After the war nobody really expected much from my running career. They figured I’d had a rough time and it was all over—until I opened my big mouth and told them different. So now I got up every morning at five-thirty and worked out in the arroyo nearby. My body tested out okay as I ran up and down the little canyon, again and again, and managed to clock a 4:18 mile in heavy tennis shoes, which meant I could probably run a 4:13 in competition. I’d have to press harder to get into world-class shape, so I doubled up my workouts.
At night, instead of carousing as usual with Harry, I sent him off alone. Sometimes he’d try to set me up, but I wasn’t interested.
One morning, out of the blue, Harry’s mother said, “Louie, how come every day I see the same car parked in front of my house, with the same guy in the car?”
Good question. Later I found out that Cynthia’s father wanted to catch me misbehaving and discourage the relationship, so he’d hired a private eye to see if I went out with other girls. (When I told Cynthia about the stakeout, she laughed too hard to be mad. “Well, I wouldn’t put it past my father to have me watched,” she said.)
When Cynthia and I couldn’t stand being apart any longer, she told her parents that she planned to visit me in Los Angeles. Naturally they forbade it and refused to give her the money. Only when Cynthia threatened to get a job and earn her fare did the Applewhites finally understand their daughter’s determination.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” her mother asked. “You know we only want you to be happy. I’ll buy your plane ticket and you stay out there for a week and find out about his family. You know, there could be insanity or something.”
Mr. Applewhite wasn’t that easy to convince. In fact, he reacted furiously to the plan, but it was too late. I’d met Cynthia in March 1946. In May she came west to visit and I met her at the airport. News of our engagement had already hit the papers. We’d set the date for August, but the Los Angeles Times ran a picture of her getting off the plane and another of us on a running track, with the caption, “Will they jump the gun?”
Why would they even care? They just did. Everywhere Cynthia and I drove in my convertible, people would stop and stare. While we waited at the stop sign at the intersection of Wilshire and Western Boulevards, the busiest in town at the time, people at all four corners waved and shouted, “Have a great marriage!”
Cynthia’s trip wasn’t all flashbulbs and fun, though. When she saw my family’s little house—a shack to her—and met my dad with his Italian accent, I could tell she had misgivings. Doubts. Questions. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t stop stewing. I got mad and said, “Maybe we better call the whole thing off.” Neither of us wanted that, so we talked it through and realized that our life together was pretty well clinched.
We decided not to put off the wedding any longer. I had accumulated about $10,000 in back pay and been allowed to keep almost $1,600 in life insurance payments, so we had no immediate financial worries. We got blood tests and a marriage license, sidestepped a few other technicalities, and on May 25, 1946, we were married in the Episcopal church Cynthia had attended as a child.
After the reception, at a friend’s house, we went to the Chatham Hotel. Everyone thought we were across the street at the world-famous Ambassador. I brought a magnum of champagne I’d borrowed from the party.
“I want to call my mother first,” Cynthia said as I popped the cork. Her parents had a fit at the news, and she stayed on the phone for over an hour, crying. I sat there, disgusted, saying, “Call her back in the morning,” to no avail. Instead, I drank all the champagne myself. I didn’t pass out, but I went to bed drunk. Heck of a marriage night.
BEFORE THE WEDDING Victor McLaglen, the actor, and Jim Jeffries, the prizefighter, gave me some advice. They said that the surefire way to know whether or not my wife really loved me was to honeymoon in the wilderness for a couple weeks, alone. “You’ll really get to know each other,” McLaglen said. “If she loves you afterward, she always will.”
I gave Cynthia a choice of going to Hawaii or to a friend’s cabin forty miles past Red Bluff, near the Eel River. Cynthia said she knew enough about the ocean, so with a short stop in Reno to get supplies, we headed straight into the hills.
We swam, caught fish, rode horses. Cynthia got to be a crack shot hitting cans with the .22. When she almost stepped on a rattlesnake, she whipped out the pistol and plugged it in the head. We loved every minute, and Cynthia would have been happy to rough it for a year, but I had grown restless and missed my life in the city. I wanted to keep running and stay in the action. Also, the nightmares continued. Evidently, marriage would not be the cure-all. Cynthia had heard about many of my POW experiences from Harry Read, though never in great detail. I’d never told her about the nightmares, and during our courtship she asked me about my ordeal from time to time but never pressed, figuring I’d talk about it if I wanted to. I didn’t, really.
DUE TO A severe housing shortage we had no place to live, so we stayed with Harry and his mother, which was far from ideal. The situation only made me more irritable, and I occasionally took it out on Cynthia. To make matters worse, we’d heard that Cynthia’s father, who had been in the hospital with bronchial asthma when we got married, had suffered a severe relapse when he heard the news of our union. Only my mother-in-law spoke to us, and she left no doubt about their feelings when she told us that our wedding day had been the worst Sunday of their lives and that they had simply closed the doors when the inevitable reporters came nosing around for a quote.
Finally, through a friend, we found a cheap apartment—more just a room—in Edgemont Manor, by Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. It was not the best place to commence the responsibilities of marriage. I found it too depressing and went out as much as possible, seeing friends, drinking, partying. I had officially separated from the army Air Corps that August, but the great and would-be great in Hollywood still invited me to their homes and postwar celebrations. I went, glad for the liquor and the company, yet frustrated by knowing I could never repay their hospitality. Little by little I slipped back into my old negative personality patterns.
Cynthia went to the parties, but she didn’t drink and drew the line at going from bar to bar. In some ways she fit perfectly into my lifestyle. We went to USC football games. She met my college buddies. We got along fine and were very much in love. But mostly she didn’t agree with my friends’ idea of a good time. As a result, she got fed up and withdrew more and more into herself. Soon the evening came when she told me I could go out by myself—if I had to.
Cynthia was better off staying home or going to a movie with her friends. One night, I had a couple of beers with some Olympic buddies at a restaurant called Nickodell’s. I left to see a pal but felt more woozy than two beers’ worth. I don’t remember leaving his place later, but apparently I was so drunk that I drove aimlessly through the Hollywood Hills not knowing where I was headed. Hours later I parked the car, got out, took a leak against a tree, and walked to what I thought was my apartment nearby. It wasn’t. Finally, at four in the morning, after walking for miles in circles and wearing down the heels of my new shoes, I stumbled onto the right street. The next morning I reported my car stolen. Two days later the police found it miles away.
I thought someone had spiked my beer and I never went back to Nickodell’s, but the truth was that I had begun to experience alcoholic blackouts and couldn’t remember what I’d done for hours at a time. For example, I remember sitting at a bar with a friend and a young couple one evening when the lights suddenly went out and the next I knew someone was helping me into a car.
“What’s the matter?” I asked nervously. “What happened?”
“You learned a little lesson,” my friend told me. “Someone walked by with a lady friend and you patted her in the wrong place. The guy she was with didn’t like the idea and patted you once—in the right place.” My fighting also got worse. At a Newport Beach bar with buddies I got shoved accidentally by a guy who weighed about fifty pounds more than I did. I didn’t care. My blood boiled for revenge. I got him out on the sand and danced around him until he was winded. Then I attacked, punching him until he went down, then pushing his face in the sand for good measure. Suddenly I was like the kid who had beat the bakery-truck driver to a pulp and left him by the roadside, not knowing whether he was dead or alive.
Realizing that I needed help, Cynthia put aside her fears and anger and tried to calm me and to help me restore some measure of self-respect. But all that helped, though only temporarily, was another dose of recognition, like when Torrance held a ceremony dedicating Zamperini Field. Sitting there with my wife and family, listening to the mayor and some military bigwigs give me the most generous compliments imaginable, I wondered what they’d do if they knew the truth about my high life and my low life and all the demons in between.
DURING A SMALL dinner party on Harry’s yacht I seriously lost control. Cynthia agreed to cook the steaks on a tiny, slow butane stove, and we joshed her mercilessly as she struggled. When dinner was served I made one more joking, disparaging comment. That did it. Cynthia told us off, left the boat, and went to the car. I followed. “Get back on board,” I ordered. “You’re spoiling the party.”
“I will not,” she said. “Either take me to your parents’ place or give me money for a bus ticket home.” She got in the car. I did, too, furious, and repeated my demand. She ignored me. Without realizing it, I grabbed her and…let’s just say she was coughing and choking when I let go of her. In shock, I ran back to the boat and the bottle. Cynthia went to my parents’ house.
That night, as I lay alone in bed, the nightmares returned with unusual ferocity. Just as my fingers clutched the Bird’s windpipe and crushed it, I woke with a start and sat up in bed shouting. Had Cynthia been there she’d have calmed me, but she wasn’t. Sweat poured off my body, and I remembered what had happened earlier in the car. I froze. I couldn’t get even with the Bird or avenge my life in Japan, so I got even with everybody else. What if by mistake I reached out for Cynthia’s neck in the middle of a bad dream? I couldn’t go back to sleep. I sat up, staring out the window at the streetlights and then the dawn, then went running, pushing myself during my workout as if I were trying to get away from everything that had happened to me.
CYNTHIA AND I made up, and I decided that a rededication to racing would help me get better. I bought some new running shoes and worked out at Los Angeles City College. Cynthia came and timed me.
I did it for the self-esteem. I wanted to win again, to fill the gaping hole in my life. And yet, though I approached my workouts with the best positive attitude I could muster, I resented them. Why must I run? Why did people insist I try again? Weren’t my previous achievements enough? Maybe if I hadn’t bragged to the clubs and organizations that had paid good money to hear the Great Zamperini speak that I’d be back for the next three Olympics, I’d have acted differently. In truth, no one had forced me to run but me; I still believed that my only true identity lay with the sport.
One morning I warmed up with some short sprints, then jogged over to Cynthia. She told me I had a “pretty stride” in my new shoes. I snapped, “Cut the remarks and just time me.”
Her face wrinkled up and she began to cry, but my heart remained cold. I’d given her money, a place to live, good times, and soon I’d be a famous runner again. What more could she want? After all, the past few months hadn’t been easy for me either, with the dreams and the drinking and the blackouts. Plus, I’d quit booze to starting training. Couldn’t she see I was trying?
“Set the watch like I told you and call out the times whenever I pass you. And speak up. You have to holler so I can hear you.”
I dropped into starting position, thinking, Well, here goes nothing. I looked down the long straightaway. Time to prove I could to it. I gazed at Cynthia, and when she yelled “Go!” I sprang forward. For a moment my mind was empty, at peace, as my body automatically remembered what to do. I took the first turn and settled in for the long haul. I’d trained for six weeks in heavy tennis shoes, running and hiking in Griffith Park, and taken whirlpool treatments and had my legs massaged. The preparation seemed to be working. My shoes seemed light, and I felt clean in the brisk fall air. Pretty stride, indeed. I stretched out, reaching for the extra inch that meant a better time. But when I passed Cynthia after the first lap, I heard her yell out, “Sixty-eight!”
Sixty-eight? Obviously she’d read the watch wrong. I’d always finished the first quarter faster than that. I pushed harder on the second lap, imagining the stopwatch relentlessly ticking. Then a sudden tug at my chest and a tightening in the back of my legs told me I’d overdone it. I eased up a bit and let my momentum carry me, but my focus had shattered. I thought suddenly of the guard at Naoetsu who knocked me off the plank with a hundred pounds of coal on my back.
“Two-seventeen!” Cynthia called out.
A second slower than my first lap. She must be wrong. I panicked. What if I couldn’t run anymore? What if whatever I had was no longer there? I forgot about pacing and stride and just started sprinting like I had in college when the chips were down.
Immediately a sharp pain tore through my calf and ankle. Too bad, I thought, and pushed ahead. Maybe it just needs a good stretching. Either way, I’ll find out. I ignored the pain and ran another lap, then went all out in the final quarter. I didn’t even hear Cynthia mark the time. I just knew that no matter how bad the pain, I had to keep going.
I should have known better. My leg tightened and throbbed, and I closed my eyes against the agony. As I rounded the final turn I knew my quest was hopeless. I had no kick, no spring, nothing.
I crossed the finish line and collapsed on the grass. Cynthia rushed to my side. “Your time was four twenty-eight,” she said, upbeat. “Pretty good.” I could see in her eyes that she knew better.
I rolled over and sat up. A bad ankle, a sprained knee, a ripped muscle that never healed. All I could do now was give up my dream. Running had been my whole life, and now it was gone. Chalk up another victory for the Japanese. I dropped my head on my folded arms. “It’s all right, honey,” I said. “Just help me over to the car.”
I left the stadium as a runner for the last time, leaning on the shoulder of a 110-pound woman, with no cheers ringing from the stands and only a few curious children watching.
HUMILIATION FOLLOWED MY panic. Because I’d bragged so often in speeches, radio broadcasts, and newspaper articles that my new running career had just begun, I had too much to retract or ignore. Would my fast-moving friends, always ready for a laugh at someone else’s expense, consider me a big joke? Or, even worse, would they smother me with compassionate inquiries and reassuring platitudes? I didn’t really want to find out, and I avoided the parties and functions at which I’d have to admit failure.
When my depression finally dissolved, a fearsome rage replaced it. The nightmares, the headaches, a well-planned career stolen from me. What more could the Japanese have done? “God,” I said aloud, staring out the window of my apartment one afternoon when Cynthia was away, “what more will you let them do to me? What more will you do to me?”
I waited for an answer, but none came. Why should it? This was the first time God had crossed my mind in over a year, and again only in my moment of absolute hopelessness. I’d done the same on the raft and in the prison camps when I’d promised God my life should he let me survive. Had I kept my promise? No. And this time, instead of promises, I had only anger and complaints and blame. But I didn’t blame myself; I blamed God. Maybe he was listening, maybe not, but even if, as I sometimes suspected, God watched over me, I couldn’t blame him for cutting me loose this time.
My solution was to wallow and brood and resent and drink. Yet out of all the self-pity came a strange new resolve. I had achieved many goals, and now only one remained: to make as much money as I possibly could and use some of it to return to Japan and find the Bird and give him the deadly payback he deserved.