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Unbroken

Unbroken

Unbroken/11

Sometime on the fifth day, Mac snapped. After having said almost nothing for days, he suddenly began screaming that they were going to die. Wild-eyed and raving, he couldn’t stop shouting. Louie slapped him across the face. Mac abruptly went silent and lay down, appearing strangely contented. Maybe he was comforted by Louie’s assertion of control, protected thereby from the awful possibilities that his imagination hung before him.

Mac had good reason to lose faith. Their water was gone. After the B-24 had passed over, no more planes had come, and the current was carrying them far from the paths trafficked by friendly aircraft. If the search for them hadn’t been called off, the men knew, it soon would be.

That night, before he tried to sleep, Louie prayed. He had prayed only once before in his life, in childhood, when his mother was sick and he had been filled with a rushing fear that he would lose her. That night on the raft, in words composed in his head, never passing his lips, he pleaded for help.

——

As the lost men drifted farther and farther out of reach, their last letters reached their families and friends, who did not yet know that they were missing. It was apparently military policy to wait for initial searches to be conducted before informing loved ones.

On the day after the crash, Phil’s final letter to his father arrived in Virginia. Reverend Phillips—who called his son by his middle name, Allen—had joined the army and was now Chaplain Phillips at Camp Pickett. The last news of Allen had reached him weeks earlier, in newspaper stories about Super Man’s saga over Nauru. Chaplain Phillips had carried clippings about the raid to the offices of a local newspaper, which had run a story on Allen’s heroism. As proud as he was, Chaplain Phillips was also frightened. “I sure hope that is the closest call he ever has,” he wrote to his daughter.

It was probably this fear that had led Chaplain Phillips to write to Allen to ask about the fate of the raft-bound men his crew had found, encircled by sharks, that spring. In his last letter to his father, Allen was reassuring: The men were all safe. As for himself, Allen wrote, “I’m still in the same place I have been … I’ll write again soon. So long for now. —Al.”

On the weekend after the crash, Pete, Virginia, and Louise Zamperini made an impromptu visit to the home of Cuppernell’s parents, who lived in Long Beach. It was a merry meeting, and they all talked of their boys. After the visit, Pete wrote to Louie, asking him to tell Cuppernell that his parents were doing great. Before sealing the envelope, he tucked in a photo of himself, smiling. On the back, he had scribbled an inscription: “Don’t let ’em clip your wings.”

In Saranap, California, Payton Jordan opened the letter that Louie had tossed out the window of Green Hornet as the plane taxied for its last takeoff. “Dear Payton and Marge,” it read. “I am still alive and kickin around, why I don’t know.”

That little turkey’d better take care of himself, Jordan thought.

Phil’s last letter to Cecy reached her in Princeton, Indiana, where she was finishing her first year as a high school teacher. In his letter, Phil had written of the moon over Hawaii and how it reminded him of the last time he was with her. “I never will forget that time I spent there with you. There are a lot of things which I’ll never forget while I was with you, sweet—I’m waiting for the day when we can begin doing things together again as we used to do.” He had closed this letter as he had so many others: “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

No more messages would come from the lost men. Pete’s letter to Louie made its way to the postmaster in San Francisco, where the 11th Bomb Group’s mail was sorted. Someone wrote Missing at sea on the outside and dropped it back in the mail to Pete.

——

A week had passed since Green Hornet had vanished. Intensive searching had yielded nothing. Every man on Phil’s crew was officially declared missing, and in Washington, the process of informing family members was set in motion. The men from Daisy Mae were told to return the plane from Palmyra to Oahu. The search had been abandoned. The crew was dejected—they wanted to go on looking. As they flew back to Oahu, they talked of the lost men.

At Kualoa, a second lieutenant named Jack Krey walked into the cottage to perform the grim duty of cataloging the men’s things and sending them to their families. Louie’s room was mostly as it had been when Louie had walked out that Thursday morning: clothes, a footlocker, a diary that ended with a few words about a rescue mission, a pinup of actress Esther Williams on the wall. The note that Louie had left on the locker was gone, as was the liquor. Among Louie’s things, Krey found photographs that Louie had taken inside his plane. In some of them, Louie had forgotten to aim the camera away from the Norden bombsight, so Krey had to confiscate those. The rest of Louie’s belongings were packed into his footlocker and readied to be sent to Torrance.

——

On the evening of Friday, June 4, 1943, Phil’s mother, Kelsey, was in Princeton, Indiana. In the absence of her husband and son, she had sold the family house in Terre Haute and moved to Princeton to be closer to her daughter, Martha, and future daughter-in-law, Cecy, with whom she had become dear friends. That evening, when Kelsey was visiting Martha, someone brought her a telegram:

I REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT THE COMMANDING GENERAL PACIFIC AREA REPORTS YOUR SON—FIRST LIEUTENANT RUSSELL A PHILLIPS—MISSING SINCE MAY TWENTY-SEVEN. IF FURTHER DETAILS OR OTHER INFORMATION OF HIS STATUS ARE RECEIVED YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED



The telegram reached the Zamperinis that same evening. Louise called Sylvia, who had recently married a firefighter, Harvey Flammer, and now lived in a nearby suburb with her husband. Upon hearing that her brother was missing, Sylvia became hysterical, sobbing so loudly that her neighbor ran to her. When the neighbor asked her what was wrong, Sylvia was crying too hard to speak. Eventually she pulled herself together enough to call Harvey at the fire station. She was frantic and confused and didn’t know what to do. Harvey told her to go to her mother. Sylvia put the phone down and ran straight out the door.

Sylvia sobbed for the entire forty-five-minute drive. Weeks before, just after the Nauru raid, she had picked up her morning paper and seen, on the front page, a photograph of Louie, looking haunted, staring through a gaping hole in the side of Super Man. The image had horrified her. Now, as she absorbed the news that Louie was missing, she couldn’t stop seeing that image. When she pulled up at her parents’ house, she had to compose herself before she walked in.

Her father was calm but quiet; her mother was consumed in anguish. Sylvia, who, like the rest of the family, assumed that Louie had gone down in the ocean, told her mother not to worry. “With all those islands,” Sylvia said, “he’s teaching someone hula.” Pete arrived from San Diego. “If he has a toothbrush and a pocket knife and he hits land,” he told his mother, “he’ll make it.”

Perhaps that day, or perhaps later, Louise found the tiny snapshot that had been taken on the afternoon Louie had left, when he had stood beside her on her front steps, his arm around her waist. On the back of the photograph, Louise wrote, Louis Reported missing—May 27, 1943.

——

The news of Louie’s disappearance headlined California newspapers and led radio broadcasts on June 5. The Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express ran a feature on the “Life of Zamp,” which looked an awful lot like an obituary. Payton Jordan, now a navy officer, was driving to his base when he heard the news on the radio. Jordan gasped. He drove into the base feeling numb, and for a while did nothing at all. Then he started speaking to his fellow officers. Jordan’s job was to train cadets in survival techniques, and he and the others considered the possibilities that might face Louie. All of the officers agreed that if Louie had the right training, he might survive.

Pete called Jordan, and they talked about Louie. As Pete spoke of his hope that Louie would be found, Jordan could hear his voice wavering. Jordan thought about calling Louie’s parents, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had no idea what to say. That evening, he drove home and told his wife, Marge, who had known Louie well at USC. They moved through their routines in a quiet fog, then went to bed and lay awake, in silence.

In Torrance, Anthony Zamperini remained stoic. Louise cried and prayed. From the stress, open sores broke out all over her hands. Sylvia thought her hands looked like raw hamburger.

Somewhere in those jagged days, a fierce conviction came over Louise. She was absolutely certain that her son was alive.

——

On Samoa, Stanley Pillsbury and Clarence Douglas were still in the hospital, trying to recover from the wounds incurred over Nauru. Douglas’s shoulder was far from healed, and to Pillsbury, he seemed emotionally gutted. Pillsbury was in considerable pain. The doctors had been unable to remove all of the shrapnel from his leg, and he could feel every shard, burning. He wasn’t close to being able to walk. In his dreams, planes dove at him, endlessly.

Pillsbury was in his bed when Douglas came in, his face radiating shock.

“The crew went down,” he said.

Pillsbury could barely speak. His first emotion was overwhelming guilt. “If I had only been there,” he said later, “I could have saved it.”

Douglas and Pillsbury said little more to each other. They parted, each man swimming in grief. Douglas would soon be granted transfer back to the States. Pillsbury would linger on his cot in Samoa, hoping that he would one day walk again.*

On Oahu, Louie’s friends gathered in a barracks. In the corner of one of the rooms, they hung a small flag in memory of Zamp. It would hang there as Louie, Phil, and Mac drifted west and the Allies, the 11th Bomb Group’s 42nd squadron among them, carried the war across the Pacific and into the throat of Japan.


* There was one spot directly west, about halfway to the Marshall Islands, where the ocean floor was just sixteen feet below the surface. It was almost an island, but not quite.

* As soon as he could walk, Pillsbury was assigned to a new crew to replace a dead waist gunner. Superstitious about adding a new man, the crew received him coldly. On a mission, a Zero tried to ram the plane, and one of its rounds exploded inside the fuselage. The engineer found Pillsbury on the floor with a hunk of metal embedded just above his eye, the white of which was clouding with blood. The plane made a hasty landing, and Pillsbury was bandaged up and sent back to his gun. Somehow, Pillsbury survived the war, a fistful of medals and a permanent limp testifying to all he’d endured. “It was awful, awful, awful,” he said through tears sixty years later. “… If you dig into it, it comes back to you. That’s the way war is.”





Fourteen

Thirst


PHIL FELT AS IF HE WERE ON FIRE. THE EQUATORIAL SUN LAY upon the men, scalding their skin. Their upper lips burned and cracked, ballooning so dramatically that they obstructed their nostrils, while their lower lips bulged against their chins. Their bodies were slashed with open cracks that formed under the corrosive onslaught of sun, salt, wind, and fuel residue. Whitecaps slapped into the fissures, a sensation that Louie compared to having alcohol poured onto a wound. Sunlight glared off the ocean, sending barbs of white light into the men’s pupils and leaving their heads pounding. The men’s feet were cratered with quarter-sized salt sores. The rafts baked along with their occupants, emitting a bitter smell.

The water cans were empty. Desperately thirsty and overheated, the men could do no more than use their hands to bail seawater over themselves. The coolness of the ocean beckoned and couldn’t be answered, for the sharks circled. One shark, six or eight feet long, stalked the rafts without rest, day and night. The men became especially wary of him, and when he ventured too close, one of them would jab him with an oar.

On the third day without water, a smudge appeared on the horizon. It grew, darkened, billowed over the rafts, and lidded the sun. Down came the rain. The men threw back their heads, spilled their bodies back, spread their arms, and opened their mouths. The rain fell on their chests, lips, faces, tongues. It soothed their skin, washed the salt and sweat and fuel from their pores, slid down their throats, fed their bodies. It was a sensory explosion.

They knew it wouldn’t last. They had to find a way to save the water. The narrow water tins, opened to the downpour, caught virtually nothing. Louie, keeping his head tipped up and his mouth open, felt around the raft for something better. He dug into the raft pockets and pulled out one of the air pumps. It was sheathed in a canvas case about fourteen inches long, stitched down one side. He tore the seam open, spread the fabric to form a triangular bowl, and watched happily as the rain pooled on the fabric.

He had collected some two pints of water when a whitecap cracked into the raft, crested over, and slopped into the canvas, spoiling the water. Not only had the most productive part of the storm been wasted, but the canvas had to be rinsed in the rain before Louie could resume capturing water. Even when that was done, there was no way to avoid the next whitecap, because Louie couldn’t see them coming.

Louie tried a new technique. Instead of allowing large pools of water to gather, he began continuously sucking the captured water into his mouth, then spitting it in the cans. Once the cans were full, he kept harvesting the rain, giving one man a drink every thirty seconds or so. They tore open the second pump case to form another rain catcher. When the sun emerged, they found that the canvas cases also made excellent hats. They began rotations with them, two men in, one man out.

——

The men were ravenous. It was now clear that Mac’s binge on the chocolate, which had seemed only moderately worrisome at the time, was a catastrophe. Louie resented Mac, and Mac seemed to know it. Though Mac never spoke of it, Louie sensed that he was consumed with guilt over what he had done.

As hunger bleated inside them, the men experienced a classic symptom of starvation, the inability to direct their thoughts away from food. They stared into the ocean, undulating with edible creatures; but without bait, they couldn’t catch even a minnow. Occasionally, a bird passed, always out of reach. The men studied their shoes and wondered if they could eat the leather. They decided that they couldn’t.

Days passed. Each evening, the roasting heat gave way to cold. Sleep was elusive. Phil, alone in his raft and lacking the heat of another man to warm the water around him, suffered particularly badly. He shook through each night, too cold to sleep. In the daytime, exhaustion, heat, and the lolling of the raft made all of them drowsy. They slept through much of each day and spent the rest lying back, saving their precious, evaporating energy.

It occurred to Phil that from the point of view of the birds, their still forms, obscured by canvas hoods, must have looked like lifeless debris. He was right. One day, nine or ten days into their odyssey, Louie felt something alight on his hood, and saw its shadow fall before him. It was an albatross. With Louie’s head hidden, the bird hadn’t recognized that he was landing on a man.

Slowly, slowly, Louie raised his hand toward the bird, his motion so gradual that it was little more noticeable than the turning of a minute hand on a clock. The bird rested calmly. In time, Louie’s hand was beside the bird, his fingers open. All at once, Louie snapped his hand shut, clamping down on the bird’s legs. The bird pecked frantically, slashing his knuckles. Louie grabbed its head and broke its neck.

Louie used the pliers to tear the bird open. A gust of fetid odor rose from the body, and all three men recoiled. Louie handed a bit of meat to Phil and Mac and took one for himself. The stench hung before them, spurring waves of nausea. Gagging, they couldn’t get the meat into their mouths. Eventually, they gave up.

Though they couldn’t eat the bird, they finally had bait. Louie took out the fishing gear, tied a small hook to a line, baited it, and fed it into the water. In a moment, a shark cruised by, bit down on the hook, and severed the line, taking the bait, the hook, and a foot or two of line with him. Louie tried with another hook, and again, a shark took it. A third try produced the same result. Finally, the sharks let a hook hang unmolested. Louie felt a tug and pulled up the line. On its end hung a slender pilot fish, about ten inches long. As Louie pulled it apart, everyone felt apprehensive. None of them had eaten raw fish before. They each put a bit of meat into their mouths. It was flavorless. They ate it down to the bones.

It was the first food to cross their lips in more than a week. Between three men, a small fish didn’t go far, but the protein gave them a push of energy. Louie had demonstrated that if they were persistent and resourceful, they could catch food, and both he and Phil felt inspired. Only Mac remained unchanged.

Phil felt uneasy about the albatross. Like many schoolboys of his era, he had read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the poem, a sailor kills a friendly albatross that, it is said, had made the winds blow. In consequence, the sailor and his crew are stranded in infernal, windless waters, tormented by thirst and monstrous creatures. The crewmen all die, and the sailor is left in a hellish limbo, the albatross hung about his neck, his eyes closed against the accusing stares of his dead crewmen.

Louie wasn’t superstitious, but he’d grown fond of albatrosses on that Christmas he’d spent watching them crash-land on Midway. He felt sorry for the bird. Phil reminded Louie that killing an albatross was said to bring bad luck. After a plane crash, Louie replied, what more bad luck could they have?

——

Several more days passed. Louie caught nothing, and his hook supply dwindled. No more birds landed on the raft. Periodically, rain replenished the water tins, but only partway.

The men floated in a sensory vacuum. When the weather was calm, the ocean was silent. There was nothing to touch but water, skin, hair, and canvas. Other than the charred smell of the raft, there were no odors. There was nothing to look at but sky and sea. At some point, Louie stuck his finger in his ear and felt wax there. He smelled his finger, and by virtue of being new, the scent of the wax was curiously refreshing. He developed a habit of twisting his finger in his ear and sniffing it. Phil began doing it too.

When Louie slept, he dreamed of being on land, trying to sleep, but there was never a place to rest safely—only rocks, sucking mud, beds of cactus. He would be on perilous cliffs or unstable boulders, and the ground would heave and shift under his weight. Phil was having the same dreams.

As time passed, Phil began thinking about an article, written by the World War I ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, that he had read in Life magazine that winter. The previous October, a B-17 carrying Rickenbacker and a crew over the Pacific had become lost and run out of fuel. The pilot had ditched the plane, and it had floated long enough for the men to get into rafts. The men had drifted for weeks, surviving on stores in the rafts, rainwater, fish, and bird meat. One man had died, and the rest had hallucinated, babbling at invisible companions, singing bizarre songs, arguing about where to pull over the imaginary car in which they were riding. One lieutenant had been visited by a specter who had tried to lure him to the bottom of the ocean. Finally, the rafts had split up, and one had reached an island. Natives had radioed to Funafuti, and the other men had been rescued.

It seemed that Rickenbacker’s crew had stretched the capacity for human survival as far as it would go. Rickenbacker had written that he had drifted for twenty-one days (he had actually drifted for twenty-four), and Phil, Louie, and Mac believed that this was a survival record. In fact, the record for inflated raft survival appears to have been set in 1942, when three navy plane crash victims survived for thirty-four days on the Pacific before reaching an island, where they were sheltered by natives.*

At first, Phil gave no thought to counting days, but when time stretched on, he began paying attention to how long they’d been out there. He had no trouble counting days without confusion; because they were on the raft for only part of the day they crashed, Phil and Louie counted the following day as day 1. With each new day, Phil told himself that surely they’d be picked up before reaching Rickenbacker’s mark. When he considered what they’d do if they passed that mark, he had no answer.

Rickenbacker’s story, familiar to Louie also, was important for another reason. Exposure, dehydration, stress, and hunger had quickly driven many of Rickenbacker’s party insane, a common fate for raft-bound men. Louie was more concerned about sanity than he was about sustenance. He kept thinking of a college physiology class he had taken, in which the instructor had taught them to think of the mind as a muscle that would atrophy if left idle. Louie was determined that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control.

Within a few days of the crash, Louie began peppering the other two with questions on every conceivable subject. Phil took up the challenge, and soon he and Louie turned the raft into a nonstop quiz show. They shared their histories, from first memories onward, recounted in minute detail. Louie told of his days at USC; Phil spoke of Indiana. They recalled the best dates they’d ever had. They told and retold stories of practical jokes that they’d played on each other. Every answer was followed by a question. Phil sang church hymns; Louie taught the other two the lyrics to “White Christmas.” They sang it over the ocean, a holiday song in June, heard only by circling sharks.

Every conversation meandered back to food. Louie had often boasted to Phil about his mother’s cooking, and at some point, Phil asked Louie to describe how she made a meal. Louie began describing a dish, and all three men found it satisfying, so Louie kept going, telling them about each dish in the greatest possible detail. Soon, Louise’s kitchen floated there with them: Sauces simmered, spices were pinched and scattered, butter melted on tongues.

So began a thrice-daily ritual on the raft, with pumpkin pie and spaghetti being the favorite subjects. The men came to know Louise’s recipes so well that if Louie skipped a step or forgot an ingredient, Phil, and sometimes Mac, would quickly correct him and make him start over. When the imaginary meal was prepared, the men would devour every crumb, describing each mouthful. They conjured up the scene in such vivid detail that somehow their stomachs were fooled by it, if only briefly.

Once the food was eaten and the past exhausted, they moved to the future. Louie laid plans to buy the Torrance train depot and turn it into a restaurant. Phil fantasized about getting back to Indiana, maybe to teach school. He couldn’t wait to see the Indy 500 again. The race had been suspended because of the war, but Phil revived it in his mind, spreading a blanket on the infield grass, heaping it with food, and watching the cars blur past. And he thought about Cecy. It hadn’t occurred to him to tuck her picture in his wallet before he left the cottage, but in his mind, she never left him.

For Louie and Phil, the conversations were healing, pulling them out of their suffering and setting the future before them as a concrete thing. As they imagined themselves back in the world again, they willed a happy ending onto their ordeal and made it their expectation. With these talks, they created something to live for.

In all of these bull sessions, not once did they broach the subject of the crash. Louie wanted to talk about it, but something about Phil stopped him. There were times when Phil seemed lost in troubled thoughts, and Louie guessed that he was reliving the crash, and perhaps holding himself responsible for the deaths of his men. Louie wanted to reassure Phil that he’d done nothing wrong, but he decided that raising the issue would deepen Phil’s preoccupation. So he said nothing.

——

As Louie and Phil grilled each other, Mac usually sat in silence. Sometimes he’d ask Louie to describe a recipe, and occasionally he would interject, but getting him to fully participate was rough going. He shared few memories, and though the other two encouraged him, he couldn’t imagine a future. To him, it seemed, the world was too far gone.

Given the dismal record of raft-bound men, Mac’s despair was reasonable. What is remarkable is that the two men who shared Mac’s plight didn’t share his hopelessness. Though Phil was constantly wondering how long this would go on, it had not yet occurred to him that he might die. The same was true for Louie. Though they both knew that they were in an extremely serious situation, both had the ability to warn fear away from their thoughts, focusing instead on how to survive and reassuring themselves that things would work out.

It remains a mystery why these three young men, veterans of the same training and the same crash, differed so radically in their perceptions of their plight. Maybe the difference was biological; some men may be wired for optimism, others for doubt. As a toddler, Louie had leapt from a train and watched it bear his family away, yet had remained cheerfully unconcerned about his safety, suggesting that he may have been a born optimist. Perhaps the men’s histories had given them opposing convictions about their capacity to overcome adversity. Phil and Louie had survived Funafuti and performed uncommonly well over Nauru, and each trusted the other. “If there was one thing left, he’d a given it to me,” Phil once said of Louie. Mac had never seen combat, didn’t know these officers, and was largely