Chapter 17 of Laura Hillenbrand’s story of Louie Zamperini’s life as athlete, military aviator, and prisoner-of-war during World War II, Unbroken, is the part of Zamperini’s story where he and Phil are captured by the Japanese after spending 46 days at sea, struggling against the elements and against hunger. Hillenbrand describes their condition after that long day adrift at sea, with both men emaciated from their ordeal:
“Phil had weighed about 150 pounds when he had stepped aboard Green Hornet. Louie’s war diary, begun shortly afterhe arrived in Hawaii, noted that he weighed 155 pounds. He believed that weight training had added another 5 pounds by the time of the crash. Now Phil weighed about 80 pounds. According to different accounts, five-foot, ten-inch Louie weighed 67 pounds, 79.5 pounds, or 87 pounds. Whatever the exact number, each man had lost about half of his body weight, or more.”
When first captured, they are initially physically abused by the Japanese sailors who pull them from their raft. Soon, however, the Japanese ship’s captain, more educated and humane than the seamen and bound by a code of conduct to which few of his countrymen similarly adhered, came to their rescue, ordering his crew to treat the captives properly: “These are American fliers,” he said. “Treat them gently.” Louie and Phil’s treatment while under this naval officer’s control was far better than they could have expected, but the humane treatment was, another of the ship’s officers noted, only a temporary reprieve:
“Louie and Phil stayed in the infirmary for two days, attended by Japanese who cared for them with genuine concern for their comfort and health. On the third day, the deputy commanding officer came to them. He brought beef, chocolate, and coconuts—a gift from his commander—as well as news. A freighter was coming to transport them to another atoll. The name he gave sent a tremor through Louie: Kwajalein. It was the place known as Execution Island.
“After you leave here,” Louie would long remember the officer saying, “we cannot guarantee your life.”
Once transferred to a Japanese freighter, however, their treatment became extremely inhumane, with torture and sustained deprivation the norm:
“As the freighter drew up to Kwajalein on July 16, the Japanese became harsh. On came the blindfolds, and Louie and Phil were taken onto what seemed to be a barge. When the barge stopped, they were picked up, heaved overmen’s shoulders, and carried. Louie felt himself bobbing through the air, then slapped down on a hard surface. Phil was dropped beside him. Louie said something to Phil, and immediately felt a boot kick into him as a voice shouted, “No!”
An engine started, and they were moving. They were on the flatbed of a truck. In a few minutes, the truck stopped, and Louie was tugged out and flung over a shoulder again. There was walking, two steps up, a darkening, the sense that Phil was no longer near him, and the disorienting feeling of being thrown backward. Louie’s back struck a wall, and he fell to a floor. Someone yanked off his blindfold. A door slammed, a lock turned.”
What followed, of course, is the story of Louie and Phil’s captivity in a series of prisoner-of-war camps, each brutal, with torture a routine part of their daily lives. As Hillenbrand recounts in Chapter 20 of Unbroken:
“AT FIRST, THERE WAS ONLY SILENCE AND ISOLATION. AT night, all Louie could see were walls, stripes of ground through the gaps in the floorboards, and his own limbs, as slender as reeds. The guards would stomp down the aisles, occasionally dragging a man out to be beaten. There were men in cells around Louie, but no one spoke. Come daylight, Louie was suddenly among them, hustled outside and herded in crazy circles; with his eyes trained obediently on the ground and his mouth obediently closed, Louie was no less alone.”
“Each day, Louie and Harris hung together, laboring through forced exercise, bearing blows from the guards, and whispering.”
That both Louie Zamperini and 1st Lieutenant Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips survived their ordeals and lived out their lives in freedom was testament to their courage and strength.