If the love of family and friends and a newfound peace of mind alone could sustain me, what a wonderful world it would be. However, I also needed a job, preferably one that would not only support my family but allow me to serve the Lord as I had promised on the raft.
A Christian college in Hawaii inquired about my taking a teaching position. Another, on the East Coast, offered me work as a coach. But I was too busy speaking all over the country to take advantage of the many opportunities that came my way. Once I gave twelve talks in a day. It was almost as if I were campaigning for office.
In 1951 I toured from the Northwest to Florida. Miami was supposed to be my last stop, but I got booked from there through the West Indies. In Nassau they didn’t have a place big enough for the thousands who came, so we used a huge vacant lot. In Jamaica I circled the island, speaking often. I also went to Cuba—this was before Castro took power—and appeared for two nights at a church in Havana. The first talk was “Devil at My Heels,” my war story. The second was “Communism versus Christianity in Japan,” based on my experience at Waseda University. Both were advertised in the newspaper. The second night a bearded young man and his friends, all dressed in khaki but with no official designation, sat in the back of a church and listened. Afterward Pastor Rodriguez walked Cynthia and me to his house, where we were guests. On the way, one of the bearded young men who’d been in the back of the church called to Rodriguez from across the street. I watched while they talked; the conversation seemed heated. When the pastor came back, he grinned sheepishly. “What was that all about?” I asked.
“That’s a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro,” he explained. “He didn’t like your comments about communism.”
Fulgencio Batista still ran the country, but young activists could cause problems, like setting churches on fire. That concerned me. “Is this going to get you in trouble?” I asked.
“No,” Pastor Rodriguez said with a smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
Seven years later Castro took over, and communism was his religion. But I’ll always remember that when he heard the gospel, he heard it from me.
ONE OF MY favorite activities was visiting prisons and camps for delinquent and/or troubled young people. Each time I felt as if I gave my younger self the support and advice that would have once benefited me. I had a wonderful rapport with kids and prisoners, especially when I told my tale of incarceration in Japan. They were amazed to hear about the conditions; by comparison, their prison stays were soft, and I’d hear comments like, “Hey, after listening to your story, I can do my five years standing on my head.”
As a result I was put in charge of Lifeline Christian camps, which ran several sites on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. I bounced from location to location, talking to kids only eight to twelve years old. Then I was asked to speak to a State Youth Authority detention home in Whittier, where kids sixteen to twenty were in for major crimes, including homicide. I’d start my talk by admitting I was a problem kid, too, with some of the same difficulties they had now.
The response inspired me to open my own camp for troubled kids. I called it the Victory Boys Camp and hired two other Olympians as counselors. At first I had an actual location on the Angeles Crest Highway, in the Southern California mountains near Lake Arrowhead, but it cost too much to maintain. I ended up restructuring the program so that I could take about thirty-five kids a week into the Sierras for a real wilderness experience that included fishing, camping, rappeling over cliffs, skiing, mountaineering—whatever seemed adventurous. Dave McCoy of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area provided skis and lift tickets for free. Others donated food and lodging to help defray the cost.
The experience always offered big surprises for the kids. At first they’d sit in the bus on the way up, talking only to one other. I had to get them on my side, so after a few hours we’d stop in volcanic country and someone would ask, “What are we gonna do here?”
“We’re going to go to a dry waterfall called Fossil Falls,” I’d say. “You hike in about a mile.” There I’d throw a rope over the top and rappel down—three big jumps to the bottom. I’d come back up and say, “Every one of you guys is going to do that before the week is out.”
“Oh, no, not me!”
But back in the bus they would no longer talk sullenly among themselves. They yakked and asked me all kinds of questions. Now I had them, and I didn’t let go for a week. I did it because I believe everybody in the world should try to help somebody else. Let’s say half the people in the world are successful. If they help the other half, hey, you’ve got no problem.
In my experience, juvenile delinquents never accomplish much of anything. They quit high school, get in trouble, wind up in Youth Authority. So my approach emphasized various interests and accomplishments, and when the kids were successful, boy, they were thrilled to death. I saw what happened to my life because of sports, and I thought, Well, if it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. I think of my camps as the first Outward Bound–type program, back in 1953.
We also provided counseling. That’s the important part. I’d get the kids up to the cabins, sit them around a fire, and get them to talk about their lives. At some point I’d offer the Scriptures, but I applied no pressure. The rest was up to the boys. Most listened, a few didn’t; either way they usually got it together.
Now I’ll speak to a group and inevitably some older guy with gray temples will come up and say, “I was in your camp when I was fourteen, and you really straightened me out.” That’s a thrill.
SOMETIMES THE PEOPLE interested in Christianity surprised even me.
Mickey Cohen, the Los Angeles mobster, loved athletes. Jim Vaus, his former wiretapper, who’d come to the Lord at the same time I had and now just did electronic security consulting, said Cohen wanted to meet me. I guess Jim had laid the groundwork, because we had a nice conversation about sports, the war, and my conversion. Cohen wanted to know all the details. Afterward, he kept calling and Cynthia and I even met him for lunch at the Brown Derby, on Wilshire. Then he wanted to introduce me to his new girlfriend; I met them at his haberdasher. He was a former boxer, a thug, so I wondered what kind of a girl he’d be attracted to. She was a big, buxom blonde, sweet and friendly but kind of naïve. I guess that after he’d met Cynthia he wanted me to know he had a nice girlfriend, too. I also figured out pretty quickly that he just wanted to be around people associated with culture. He wanted to move easily in other parts of society.
One night Cohen called me very late and asked me to come to his home. I drove up, alone. Floodlights went on automatically as I pulled into the driveway. A henchman opened the door. Inside, I saw a half-eaten turkey in the dining room, and a ham, like he’d had a party. Jim Vaus was there. Mickey offered me food, then took me on a tour of his closet, which seemed more like a room-length hallway. On one side he had about a hundred suits, plus overcoats and shoes. He said, “Anything that’ll fit you, you can have.” Vaus, a fat guy, took a beautiful overcoat. Nothing fit me, which was just as well, since I wouldn’t have taken his clothes anyway.
Then Cohen showed me his escape chute. If there was a raid on his place or if some other gang guys tried to get him, he’d go down this chute. The door would lock behind him automatically, and he’d end up in the basement.
After we chatted for a while, I said, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting tomorrow at noon.” I dismissed myself and went home. Two weeks later I was at the Coliseum for a football game and I saw former USC All-American John Ferraro, then police commissioner who later became a Los Angeles councilman. He yelled, “Hey, Zamperini! What were you doing at Mickey Cohen’s house Saturday night?” Evidently they’d had a stakeout.
All I could say was, “You know what I was doing there!” I was there to tell Mickey about Christ.
IN 1954 I got one of the greatest surprises of my life when someone in sportscaster Elmer Peterson’s office said he’d like to interview me. I’d done the show a few times and thought nothing of it.
A man picked me up at my home and took me to the studio. We went to Peterson’s door and it was locked. My driver said, “Well, we’ll have to wait until Mr. Peterson gets here, I guess.” We stood around outside, in the shadow of the huge soundproof doors of the El Capitan Theater, and after a while I got fidgety, so I said, “Are you sure you have the right time?”
“Oh, yeah, he should be here any minute.”
All of a sudden the big doors slid open. A bright light shone in my face, blinding me, and I backed away. Then, I heard a voice saying, “Louie Zamperini!” two or three times. The driver walked me toward the light, and when my eyes adjusted I stood there in stunned silence. There was TV host Ralph Edwards, calling to me. When I crashed during the war I handled that pretty well, and though I’d been beaten almost daily in prison camp, I still took that in stride. But now I was so astonished that I couldn’t move.
“Louie Zamperini,” Edwards said again, “This is your life!”
The driver shoved me forward, and I walked onto the set of This Is Your Life. I sat on the couch, stunned and shaking my head. The show was at its peak. I’d watched it so often, and listened to my friends tell me over and over that with my story I should be on it, that I figured I knew every angle and if they ever chose me, they’d never be able to fool me as they just had.
Then voices came from behind the curtain and I was asked if I recognized them: One was my old Olympic team buddy Jesse Owens. Another was my coach Dean Cromwell. And my pilot, Russell Phillips. And my family. They gave me a beautiful gold wristwatch, a Bell and Howell movie camera, a thousand dollars in cash, and a 1954 Mercury station wagon. I used the money to help my Victory Boys Camp program.
IN 1955, DUTTON asked me to write a book about my life. I did, and it was published the following year. I called it Devil at My Heels. But as time passed and I remembered more of my experience and—most important—discovered crucial details and answers to enigmas about my incarceration, and about what had determined my fate during the war, I began to think of my book as telling hardly any story at all, especially after finding my long-lost World War II diary. I hoped one day to get the chance to redo my book, expand it, and add another chapter to the history of The Greatest Generation.
Still, just after publication I got a call from Universal Pictures, telling me that Tony Curtis wanted to play me and had asked them to buy the book. I was about to sell my house and I needed some cash to purchase a new one in the hills, so I agreed. Universal drew up a contract, but when I read it I said it wasn’t good enough.
“That’s a standard Hollywood contract,” they said. “It’s all we can give you.”
I knew they could give me whatever I wanted, and they probably thought I wanted more money. I didn’t. “I need money to buy a new house,” I explained, “but that’s not the problem. Money is not as important as a guarantee not to minimize my conversion or its influence on my life. I have to have some protection for my faith.” I told him that they’d made a picture called Battle Hymn in which Rock Hudson played Colonel Dean Hess. A World War II flying ace, the real Hess came home and joined the ministry; then they drafted him back into the Korean War and nobody knew he was a minister. I knew Hess, and he had told me, “If they ever make a movie of your life, get a separate contract to protect your faith. I have to live with my movie for the rest of my life, and believe me, it’s not pleasant. Don’t let them do it to you.” I didn’t want much, just a moment to show Christ as in Isaiah 9:6, as both God and Savior. The producer wrote a couple drafts of the contract, but Cynthia and I turned them both down until he came up with something we liked. Then I made the deal and a script was commissioned. Tony Curtis went to Europe to make Spartacus, then to South America for another film. When he got back the script was ready, but I didn’t like it and neither did Universal, so they put it on the back burner.
IN THE YEARS that followed my return from Japan my faith was strong and my life was full, and included occasional stories in newspaper and magazines remembering and honoring me. I’ve always been superactive, never bored, looking for new challenges, confronting those that found me.
Yet the daily dramas were of a different sort, more like everyone else’s: kids, school, vacations, jobs. We had a wonderful son, Luke, and Cynthia and I helped him and Cissy grow up happy, inquisitive, and bright. We lived a Christian life, and I continued telling my story, as usual. But my appearances, while well attended, no longer brought in enough money to support us. Fortunately, the Lord provided many other opportunities to earn a living. I went into commercial real estate. I worked as a youth director at a church. I was chaplain for a corporation and ran a program for retired people at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.
Cynthia bloomed, too, and never lost her independent spirit. She was a painter first, and at her one-person show she sold everything. Then she became a writer, penning three well-reviewed novels. She also traveled around the world. To pay for it she did whatever she had to, like drive a delivery truck until she had the money she needed. Then she’d come back, pick up another job, then take another trip. To tell you the truth, I used to worry about her traveling alone, and once when she came home I asked, “What’s the worst thing that happened?
“I was on a tour and this guy, when he walked by me, patted me on the left cheek.”
I said, “As a good Christian you should have turned the other cheek.”
“Well, I did throw a stone at him,” she said.
“That’s also scriptural,” I said.
EVEN THOUGH I no longer ran, I made it my priority to stay in shape. Today I’m still in great condition. I fly planes, ski double-diamond runs, trail-bike, and climb, though I gave up skateboarding a few years ago, just to be on the safe side.
To this day, people ask me how, after all I’ve been through, I managed to do it. It’s a valid question. I say I eat right and exercise—both are necessary and true—but really, it’s all about attitude. The war, the raft, prison camp, drinking—they took ten years off my life. I simply made up my mind to get those ten years back.
For instance, in 1957 Olympic ski jumper Keith Wageman and I climbed 14,000-foot Gannett Glacier, the largest ice field in the North American continent, in the Wind River area of Wyoming, and almost got killed in the process.
We figured it would take all day long to climb, but a storm delayed us until noon, so we had to hurry, and go without much of our safety gear. Between the rope, the crampons, and the ice ax, we had to decide which we’d use the most. We picked the ice ax. Our clothes were khakis and army boots.
Unfortunately we got caught in an electrical storm and nearly froze, but when we got to the top after eight hours, the clouds lifted, and we could see the glory of the ice field and the Grand Tetons seventy miles away. It seemed like heaven. The beauty of the vistas far outweighed the struggle and the cold. There was only one problem: the sun was setting. We’d have to scramble down quickly by boot-skiing and glissading. Keith and I made it in thirty minutes, and shot footage on the way. At the bottom we found the mule and the gear we’d left behind, but by then it was dark and, worse, overcast. We struck a match, tied a rope to each other and to the mule, then tried to find our way back to Cynthia. We fell into streams and slipped on rocks—it was pretty terrible—until we saw a big blaze in the distance. Cynthia had started a bonfire, and when she saw us she came running up with tears in her eyes. Later she told me she’d thought we were dead. Two days later we climbed the glacier again, this time taking our skis. The return trip took only minutes. At the bottom, the ranger said he’d “never heard of anyone skiing Gannett before. You two are most likely the first to do so.”
LATER I PUT those same survival techniques to good use one summer at Squaw Valley, where for two weeks I’d been given free food and lodging plus use of the facilities for the Victory Boys Camp program.
Large sheets of ice still covered the north slopes, and one morning I taught the kids how to use an ice ax both for climbing and as a survival weapon when slipping and sliding on the floes. In the middle of the class I heard a man’s voice call frantically for help. I saw him up the mountain, outlined against the sky, waving his arms and shouting. “My girlfriend’s fallen over the cliff!” Turning the kids over to an assistant, I grabbed the ice ax, and headed for the summit.
Panicked, the young man explained the situation as we made our way to where his girlfriend had fallen. I could see her on a rock out-cropping. “Don’t move!” I shouted. “Take a deep breath, relax. I’m coming to get you.” I also told her to protect her head from the rocks that might come her way during my descent.
I had only the ax; what I really needed was my climbing rope. Nonetheless, I clambered down to the rock, gripped her arm, and lowered her onto a narrow ledge. From there I led her along the ledge to safety. She was one grateful girl. Meanwhile, my assistant had moved the class across the mountain so they could watch. Seeing the girl saved had a profound impact on the kids. And that, of course, is what I’ve always been and always hope to be about.
I COULD GO on and tell you about other adventures, personal triumphs, difficult situations, inspirational moments, emotional struggles, and best of all the everlasting rewards of helping others. After all, this story stops when I was about forty years old. I’m eighty-six now. But that’s another book. Let’s just say that I took my place as, I hope, a respected member of the community. I stayed active as a former Olympian and serviceman. I cherished my family. That’s the way life is and is supposed to be. I’ve probably had enough excitement for one man. Smooth seas aren’t so bad. However, one day, in early 1997…
THE PHONE RANG at my house in the Hollywood Hills, and Cynthia answered. Draggan Mihailovich, an Emmy Award–winning senior producer with the Olympic Features Unit of CBS Sports, was on the line—and for some reason he wanted to speak with me.
But I’ll let Draggan tell it:
I’d followed the Olympics and read David Wallechinsky’s books, which had anecdotes about these great Olympic heroes, but I’d never heard of Louie. By sheer chance—it was the luckiest thing in the world—talk about divine intervention or whatnot—I was working on a story and I just happened to go to the news library because I wanted to research the Army’s great football team of 1945 for a piece about their fiftieth anniversary. I wanted to check out the New York Times from then on microfilm, and find out if maybe on the day Army played Navy, did MacArthur land somewhere, or whatever.
So I’m flipping through the pages, and out of the corner of my eye I see the word Olympic and wonder what it was, since 1945 wasn’t an Olympic year and they hadn’t even held an Olympics since 1936. And on the front page of the New York Times, on September 10, I read, ZAMPERINI, OLYMPIC MILER, SAFE AFTER EPIC ORDEAL. I wondered, who is this guy? I started to read the story and realized the reporter had talked to Louie just days after he’d been released. My production assistant was with me, and we were blown away. But we also thought, None of these guys can be alive, so how do you even tell this story?
To be honest—and I hate to admit it—I sat on it for about six months because the prospect of Louie being alive and being able to tell the story anyway was just so out there. Finally, I thought maybe I’ll just give it a shot. I’ll make sure he’s dead; I’ll at least sleep better knowing I gave it my best shot.
I found an address for Louie in Hollywood from 1979, then made a call. Cynthia answered the phone. I’d just had an experience where I called a widow and found out her husband was dead and she took it really badly, so I was already apprehensive. But I introduced myself and said, “Can I speak to Mr. Louis Zamperini?”
She said, “Oh, well…”
And I thought, Oh gosh. Not again.
“…he’s not home right now.”
I said, “Are you kidding? The Louie Zamperini, war hero, prisoner of war, Olympic runner?”
“That’s him. He’s down at the church. He’d love to talk to you.”
And that’s how it started. I called back, spoke to Louie, told him I’d be in California in a couple of weeks and would he mind sitting down and telling me his story.
My story? For nearly fifty years I’d lived my life the way God wanted me to. I’d been active in the church and sports and raising my family. I’d also been honored to run with the Olympic Torch before the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and the Atlanta Games in 1996, and occasionally the newspapers did a nostalgia piece about me.
I’d even unearthed new facts about my war story, among them, why I could never help get James Sasaki out of prison.
A couple of years earlier, at the Zamperini Field air fair, a young policeman came up to me while I greeted pilots. He said, “Oh, Mr. Zamperini, I have your book. Could you autograph it for me?”
When I opened it I saw it was already autographed “to Ernie Ashton,” a guy I went to high school with, who later became a policeman. The young man said Ernie had died and he’d come by the book and read it. I signed it again, and then he said, “Oh, by the way, Ernie wrote something on another page.” I flipped through the book, and on the page where I mentioned Sasaki, this is what he’d written at the bottom: “Jimmy Sasaki had a powerful radio transmitter in a field off Torrance Boulevard near a Southern California Edison substation, which was in constant radio contact with the Japanese government. He left the USA by boat before a raid by the FBI and CIA.”
Sasaki had been a spy.
No wonder he had bragged so often at Ofuna about his fondness for Long Beach and San Pedro. He’d go there, then to his transmitter, and broadcast a report about ship movement in the harbor.
When Draggan called, I saw an opportunity to complete the record. We met, he took some notes, realized he’d found more than he expected. He put together a little outline and proposed a segment about me to air during the Winter Olympics. CBS loved it and allotted ten minutes.
As part of his research—Draggan loves research—he flew to Japan and started digging. He went to Wotje and filmed. He went to Naoetsu, now renamed Joetsu, and discovered that in October 1995 the site of Camp 4-B had been turned into a Peace Park, with a memorial dedicated to the Allied prisoners of war who died there. Kids who were in school when I was a prisoner had grown up, made some money, pooled their resources, pitched in to buy the land, and created the park. They didn’t want their kids or their kids’ kids to forget what had happened.
He also wanted me to go to Japan and carry the Olympic Torch again, this time for a kilometer at the 1998 Winter Games in nearby Nagano. I suggested I do it right alongside the old prison camp, but as it didn’t exist, I ran through town just a few miles away, and later he filmed me visiting the Peace Park memorial.
I’m a die-hard pack rat, and as the piece took shape Draggan and I spent days going through so much of the stuff I’ve kept all my life: letters, documents, magazines, newspapers, films, pictures, scraps of this and that, and finally, my World War II diary. He didn’t mind. “Everything has to be authentic,” he said. “We have to confirm everything.”
For instance, when I told Draggan about the Bird and the time I had to hold up the wooden beam, he asked, “Who else saw that?” Most of the guys were dead, but Draggan got ahold of Tom Wade in England, and Wade gave him his book, Prisoner of the Japanese, in which he just happened to write that very story.
I also told Draggan, “My whole life is serving God. If you want this to be authentic, you have to have my conversion in there.”
“There’s no story without that,” he said immediately. “We’re basing this all on a theme of forgiveness.”
I was greatly relieved. “Besides my conversion,” I said, “I want you to show a picture of Billy Graham to confirm it. When people hear the name Billy Graham they think of one thing: the gospel.”
He said, “You got it,” and he took care of everything.
Based on the material I’d archived, and the proof of events from his research, CBS gave Draggan five more minutes of airtime. Then another five. Lucky me. After all I’d been through, I thought it couldn’t get better than that.
I WAS WRONG.
While I was answering mail in my office at the church, the phone rang. Draggan was on the line from Tokyo, where he’d gone to verify more of my story and to shoot footage. “Are you sitting down?” he asked.
“Well, hold on to your chair.”
I grabbed the edge of my seat. “Okay. What’s up?”
“We found the Bird,” Draggan said. “And he’s alive.”
When I could finally speak, all I said was, “What!?”
“Yeah, we found him. He’s retired and wealthy from selling life insurance. We’re going to try and get an interview.”
“Would you like to see him?”
AFTER WE HUNG up I flashed back to the final week at Camp 4-B. The Bird had left two days before we knew the war was over, and no one had seen him since. Even his mother, when questioned, said the family hadn’t heard from him. Eventually she built a shrine to her son and we assumed Watanabe was simply dead.
Draggan had somehow tracked him down, called the Bird’s home, spoken to his wife, and asked for an interview. She said he was sick. A couple of days later he tried again, and this time she said, “He’s on a trip.” Draggan and his crew, including veteran CBS reporter Bob Simon, who fronted the story, decided to hide and watch the house. They discovered that Watanabe took long walks, so they set up a camera across the street and hid another in someone’s hat, just in case. When the Bird came out, they approached him and, speaking through a translator, asked if he was Watanabe.
“Yes, I’m Matsuhiro Watanabe,” he said. After the usual formalities he agreed to speak.
“When you were in charge of Omori do you remember Tom Henling Wade?” Simon asked.
“No, I don’t remember. So many prisoners.”
I don’t know why he didn’t. Wade spoke Japanese and was always interpreting for us. “No, I don’t remember Wado,” he said.
“Do you remember Louis Zamperini?”
“Ah, Zamperini-ka. Orympi-ka. I remember him well. Good prisoner.”
“Would you like to see him?”
To my surprise the Bird said yes.
They also solved the mystery of Watanabe’s whereabouts after the war. He said he’d hidden in a mountain cabin way back in the hills of Nagano, which was wilderness before it became a big ski area. He stayed for seven or eight years, until the general amnesty. I don’t understand how he could have survived that long without a job or at least supplies. The story just increased my suspicion that his parents had known where he was. Where had he gotten the mountain cabin? They had money; they probably owned it. Besides, what kind of man would let his parents think he was dead for seven years?
In the middle of the interview/confrontation, Watanabe’s son and grandson came out of the house and discovered what was going on. They listened in and heard Bob Simon say, “Well, if [Zamperini] was such a good prisoner, why did you beat the hell out of him?”
Watanabe spoke very little English, but he understood. “He said that?”
“Zamperini and the other prisoners remember you in particular as being the most brutal of all the guards,” Simon asked. “How do you explain that?” “Beating and kicking in Caucasian society are considered cruel, cruel behavior,” the Bird explained. “However, there were some occasions in the prison camp in which beating and kicking were unavoidable. I wasn’t given military orders, but because of my own personal feelings…I treated the prisoners strictly as enemies of Japan. Zamperini was well known to me. If he says he was beaten by Watanabe, then such a thing probably occurred at the camp, if you consider my personal feelings at the time.”
“When you were at Omori, according to Tom Henling Wade,” Simon continued, and he brought up the belt buckle, the brutality, the testimony of Wade and Frank Tinker.
The Bird denied none of it.
Watanabe’s family, however, was astonished. They didn’t know the Bird had been a prison guard during the war and were horrified by what they heard and by the old man fighting to find the words. The son and grandson were probably pretty nice people. You can imagine their shock.
“No more!” they shouted. Watanabe’s son said, “You can’t see my father anymore. Leave and do not come back.”
I can’t blame them for that. Any son, no matter whether his father is right or wrong, is going to back his father. The Bird probably wishes he’d never been interviewed, too, because it exposed his past to the family: that he was a guard accused of being the worst of all guards; that there was a reward for his capture and General MacArthur had searched for him; that he was a class-A war criminal, number twenty-three of the top forty wanted men, which means execution. This was heavy stuff.
Draggan stopped filming but asked Watanabe if he still wanted to meet with me. Again he said yes.
DRAGGAN TRIED AGAIN to arrange a get-together, but the son adamantly refused. “Mr. Zamperini will expect my father to bow and scrape and ask forgiveness.”
When I heard, I said, “No. I’m not going to ask him to ask for forgiveness. I’ve already forgiven him.” Draggan called back, but Watanabe’s son wouldn’t talk to him. Draggan told me, “We want you two together, but the only way we could get him again is to hide a block from the house and grab him if he walks by.”
“No, I can’t do that,” I said. “That’s not me. I’m not sneaky.”
Draggan agreed. “You’re right. It wouldn’t look good for you, and it wouldn’t look good in the story.”
Of course, I’ve thought about what I might have said or done had I just happened to be outside the house when the Bird went for his walk. What if I just said, “Mr. Watanabe? I’m Louis Zamperini.” I don’t think there would be any fuss; we’d just stand there and chat. I’d suggest we have lunch. I’d ask about his family, children, grandchildren, wife. What they’re doing. That’s all. If he brings up the war, I’d say it’s unfortunate that we even had a war. Otherwise, I wouldn’t speak of it or accuse him of crimes. The one who forgives never brings up the past to that person’s face. When you forgive, it’s like it never happened. True forgiveness is complete and total.
WHEN DRAGGAN FOUND the Bird, CBS gave him forty minutes of airtime and virtually a blank check. Draggan went all out. He even dropped a raft into the ocean from a helicopter and did a telephoto shot that pulled away until the raft looked just like another whitecap on the water.
He also decided to keep the story a secret until the broadcast, which, when CBS realized what an award-winning job Draggan had done, they rescheduled to air on the final day, before the closing ceremony.
THE LAST PIECE of film Draggan needed was of me running with the Olympic torch. First I met the mayor of Joetsu, who had made my run possible, and with the Peace Park people, who said they would continue to try and get me together with the Bird.
The mayor asked, “Did anything good come out of your two and a half years as a prisoner of war?”
“Yes,” I said. “It prepared me for fifty-three years of married life.” He roared with laughter. I could have gone into detail about being reborn, but he wouldn’t have understood. The Bible says all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord. If it hadn’t been for the Bird, I never would have been converted. My life would have never changed. But my torments about him drove me to destruction, and when my whole world completely crumbled around me, it was like on the life raft—there was nowhere else to turn. Like I’ve said, everybody looks up.
The next morning, at about eight o’clock, the mayor said, “Welcome to Joetsu, under different circumstances,” and lit my torch from his. I wore a beautiful red, white, and blue running suit, with long pants and long-sleeved jacket. It was cold.
As I ran with that symbol of international sportsmanship and cooperation held high, I kept thinking about Camp 4-B and the war, and the contrast between my life then and now. Then I was beaten almost daily and all around me people died. Now I ran with thousands of people lining the road, most of them the kids or grandkids of the war generation, cheering and screaming. Then I hated Japan and wanted revenge. Now I thought about the Bird getting away scot-free and felt no bitterness at all. I forgave and, even better, understood what forgiveness had done for me. Forgiving myself and others was the story of my life.
People called me Lucky Louie, and I knew it was true.
The love and graciousness I experienced on that trip to Japan was unbelievable. Being treated like a king had always blown my mind, but this felt different from before. I had, after all this time, learned to live with my “fame” and get comfortable with recognition. That’s what had made me a runner in the first place: I wanted to be acknowledged for something besides getting into trouble. My fans made me; I’ve always known that. My classmates cheering for me when I didn’t even think they knew my name, when I didn’t think I had the energy to go all the way, spurred me on as I came down that first of many final stretches and finished the race.
I’d always finished the race.
The Olympic spirit is like the wind. We don’t see it coming or going, but we do hear its voice and feel the power of its presence, and we enjoy the results of its passing. Then, it becomes a memory, and echoes of our Days of Glory.
In Nagano I didn’t set any records.
For once, I didn’t need to.
AFTER WHAT I’VE lived through it’s easy to understand that it’s almost impossible to get the better of me. Yet on April 10, 2001, when my flight from Hawaii to Manila landed for a routine refueling stop on Kwajalein chills went up my spine and it was tough to control my emotions.
Even though I’d forgiven the Japanese long before, any mention of Kwajalein was still like hearing the name of someone who had killed my entire family. The thought of going back to that hellhole, even after fifty-eight years, was almost unbearable. It didn’t matter that the island was no longer the Kwajalein I remembered, the place where, to put it as plainly as possible, I’d been treated like a sewer rat and spent the most miserable days of my life.
By the way, Kwajalein today is not on any regular tourist itinerary. Set a few degrees north of the Equator and about fifteen hundred miles east of Guam, the island is a seven-square-mile U.S. military installation, home to a “Star Wars” intercept launch site that’s part of our antimissile defense program. Huge antenna dishes track the skies, and the entire area is highly restricted. None but the handful of security-cleared passengers who already lived and worked on the island would be allowed off the plane.
Except for me. And as much as I had hated the place, I’d come of my own accord.
A few months earlier, a woman who attends my church told me that her sister worked on Kwajalein. When she came to Los Angeles to visit, she discovered that I’d been imprisoned there and saw a video of my life story that aired on CBS’s 48 Hours. The sister left me a Kwajalein magazine and her phone number. I called, and she told me that she’d shown the tape on the island and everyone was very excited. The colonel in charge invited me to return to speak at a Veterans Day ceremony. I didn’t want to, but Cynthia told me I should go, and she’d come, too. As usual, she made sense.
We’d planned to go in November 2000. Unfortunately, Cynthia began to lose her battle with cancer. I canceled the trip, and a few months later she died. Everybody who loved her—and there were many—came to the service in her honor. It was a beautiful day, with beautiful words about Cynthia offered both in private and from the podium. I miss her terribly, but I have faith I’ll see her again someday.
Now ground workers rolled a huge staircase up to the jet door, and over the intercom the pilot said, “Mr. Zamperini will be the last one to leave the ship.”
Cissy—she’d come with me in Cynthia’s place—smiled and said, “Daddy. They’re going to have a greeting for you.”
I stepped out of the plane and stood at the top of the steps. The day was perfect. Balmy trade winds ruffled the American flag. I could see homes and buildings in the distance. Someone took my bags. A pipes-and-drum band marched on the field. The commanding officer and his assistant stood at attention, as if I were royalty. Suddenly I felt sheepish. Real sheepish. I folded my hands in front of me and thought, I’m eighty-four. I long ago forgave the Japanese for what they did to me, not only on Kwajalein but during the war. It’s just that I never wanted to come back to this place, and now I’m here. Is it too late for me? Can I really shake off the past and see Kwajalein in a different light?
Ignoring the handrail—and my age—I came down snappy. I knew I had to try.
I walked briskly onto the tarmac. The colonel in command saluted and shook my hand, then escorted me and Cissy to a room and presented us with a book on Kwajalein.
“This is our gift to you,” he said.
I thanked him and reached into my bag and brought out a bottle of French champagne. They’d had a little contest among the four hundred passengers on our flight over: “We’ve been flying at a certain air speed, head winds have been this much—how long have we been aloft?” Easy. I wrote down two hours and twenty-eight minutes. Half an hour later they announced, “The French champagne has been won by the person sitting in seat 41-E.”
I wasn’t paying attention, but Cissy said, “Daddy, you won the champagne!”
The flight attendant brought me a bottle wrapped in a white cloth napkin. I’d put it in my bag and had forgotten about it until now.
“Here,” I said to the colonel. “I won this on the flight over. My gift to you.”
THEY LEFT US alone for a couple of hours, to relax. My room had cherry furniture with a high-gloss shine. A huge TV. Better than the Hilton. I lay on the very comfortable bed and kept thinking about the Kwajalein cell I’d once occupied. Now I was on cloud nine. It was my finest hour. The only thing missing was Cynthia.
Whatever Preston, the protocol chief, scheduled for us, I drank it all in. Would you like to play golf? Great! Can you get up at five-thirty? Sure! We had a ball. A lot happened. They found an old map of the island from before it had been bombed, pieced it together from sections, and ran it through a huge laminator. Preston asked if I could pick out my old prison quarters. I remembered coming off the boat, blindfolded, riding in a truck, driving to the right. I pointed to where I thought I’d lived for forty-three days, and Preston took me to the spot. Nothing was the same, of course. It was a well-paved street. Trees, houses, families.
Nothing was the same for me, either. I was greeted, honored, loved, fed.
Most of the workers live on Kwajalein, but a lot of people work on Roi-Namur, another island in the atoll, only a half-hour flight away. There all the old Japanese bunkers still stand, with the grass neatly mowed around them. It takes two hours to tour. We saw one building that hadn’t been hit by shells and had iron prison bars on the windows. Today the natives swear they once saw a tall, slender woman with blond hair and a work suit standing behind the bars just around the time Amelia Earhart disappeared. The old-timers today say they’ve never heard of Amelia Earhart but that there was a woman there who matched her description.
If the pleasure of my arrival was a big surprise, the difficulty saying good-bye was another. It was hard to leave those people. They were so gracious and wonderful. They couldn’t do enough for us. Every night a different family threw a dinner for us. We’d have a glass of wine and a toast, and great food. The guests were always fascinating.
Kwajalein was nothing short of a utopia. Everybody rides a bicycle. Nobody’s in a hurry. When I got back to Los Angeles I kept thinking, Would I like to go back? As soon as we hit the freeway and fought rush-hour traffic back to the house, I knew the answer.
Three days later I got a call from Preston. “The people here just love you and your daughter.” He told me that just before we left he’d gone to the colonel and said, “I’ve been doing this for fourteen years. All the people who came here, I couldn’t wait until they left. But as far as I’m concerned, Louie and Cissy can stay forever.”
I NEVER THOUGHT I’d return, but the next day I heard from a man based at Hickam Field on Oahu. “This is Tim Miles,” he said. “I’m in charge of military I.D. We have a staff of anthropologists here. We went to Makin, dug up the remains of fifteen marines there, and did a DNA test on them. Now we want to go to Kwajalein.”
“I just came back from Kwajalein four days ago,” I said.
It seemed Miles had a report from a Kwajalein native who’d said, “Yeah, nine marines were here. They were executed. I saw one of them killed and buried.”
“How did you know they were marines?” he’d been asked.
“Because they were all white,” the native replied.
Miles wanted to look for the remains of the men whose names were carved into my cell wall.
I also got a not especially congenial call from Washington. “How do you know the nine marines were on that island?”
I said, “I’ll quote you what I wrote in my original report.”
“Were the names written in pencil, or were they inscribed?”
I said, “They were inscribed by a sharp object.”
“What happened to them?”
I told them what the native had told me in 1943: “They were all decapitated, samurai-style,” by two guards.
“Did you get the names?” he asked.
I said, “I looked at them every day and pretty well memorized them. But after that, I never had to use the names again, so now I can’t remember whether they were first names or last names. Seems to me they were last names, but I’ve never had any reason to think of them. After that, all I did was explain why the marines were there. But here’s an idea. You’ve got a list of twenty-four missing marines. You dug up the fifteen on Makin Island, so just subtract their names and you’ve got it.”
“Yeah, but there were a couple of other guys missing, too. Two guys on a raft; a plane from another island strafed them at Makin. One died from bullet wounds, the other hit the water and the sharks got him. So we still don’t know.”
Based on the native’s affidavit, Tim Miles thought he had a pretty good idea where to find the marines. He wanted to take a team down to dig and wanted me there when they did it.
In early 2002 I accompanied a National Geographic team to Kwajalein for a dig. I stayed a week but had to leave before they discovered anything more than an array of munitions, military artifacts, and bones of the Japanese and Marshallese. No marines.
As of now, they haven’t found any American remains. If they ever do, part of me would like to be on hand, but a bigger part of me wouldn’t. I’ve lived through a lot, but the thought of staring into a mass grave that could have easily been my final resting place is something I believe I can just live without.
I NEVER MET General MacArthur, but with all due respect, I have never agreed when he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Fade away? You should make your life count right up to the last minute. All I want to tell young people is that you’re not going to be anything in life unless you learn to commit to a goal. You have to reach deep within yourself to see if you are willing to make the sacrifices. Your dreams won’t always come true, but you’ll never know if you don’t try. Either way, you will always discover so much of value along the way because you’ll always run into problems—or as I call them, challenges. The first great challenge of my life was when, as a kid, I made the transition from a dissipated teenager to a dedicated athlete. Another was staying alive for forty-seven days after my plane crashed, then surviving prison camp. The best way to meet any challenge is to be prepared for it. All athletes want to win, but in a raft, in a war, you must win. Luckily, and wisely, I was prepared—and I did win.
I’ve gone through my life drawing from my experiences both positive and negative to try and influence others for the good. I never thought of myself as a hero, more a grateful survivor, and so the verse “To whom much has been given, much is expected” is the nucleus from which I deal with people. God has been so good to me. I didn’t know at first that I had anything to give, but when I see my influence and how appreciative people sometimes are, what can I do? There are no words more gratifying to hear than “The help you gave me is working out.”
GOD HAS GIVEN me so much. He expects much out of me.