for most of it. But as he ran, he found that his body was so light that carrying it was surprisingly easy. All around the compound, the captives watched him, breathless. As the finish approached, they started cheering.

Louie looked ahead at the Japanese runner and realized that he had it within himself to pass the man. He knew what would happen if he won, but the cheering and the accumulation of so many months of humiliation brought something in him to a hard point. He lengthened his stride, seized the lead, and crossed the finish line. The captives whooped.

Louie didn’t see the club coming at his skull. He just felt the world tip and go away. His eyes opened to the sight of the sky, ringed with the faces of captives. It had been worth it.

The guards thought they had taught him a lesson. Another runner, his girlfriend in tow, arrived. Louie was ready to beat him too, but before the race, the runner spoke to him kindly, in English, offering to give him a rice ball if he’d throw the race. It would mean a lot to him, he said, to win in front of his girlfriend. Louie lost, the girlfriend was impressed, and the runner delivered one rice ball, plus a second as interest. The payment, Louie said, “made me a professional.”


In March, Phil was taken away. It seemed that he had at last gotten lucky; officials said that he was being sent to a POW camp called Zentsuji. Every captive longed to be transferred to a POW camp, where, it was said, men were registered with the Red Cross and could write home and enjoy vastly better living conditions. Of all POW camps, Zentsuji was rumored to be the best. The interrogators had long dangled this “plush” camp before the captives as a reward for cooperation.

Phil and Louie had only a brief good-bye. They spoke of finding each other again someday, when the war was over. Phil was led through the gate and driven away.

The Zentsuji story was false. Phil was sent to Ashio, a camp north of Tokyo. The POWs of Ashio were handed over to a wire-and-cable firm, which herded them underground to mine copper in conditions that were almost unlivable. This work was usually, but not always, restricted to enlisted POWs. Whether or not Phil was forced into slavery is unknown.

There was, it seemed, one good thing about Ashio. Phil hadn’t seen Cecy or his family in well over two years, and knew that they probably thought he was dead. At Ashio, he was told that he could write home. Given paper and pen, he wrote about his days on the life raft with Zamp, his capture, and his yearning for home. “The first night home will hear some interesting tales,” he wrote. “Much love til we’re together again. Al.”

Sometime after Phil turned in his letter, someone found it in a garbage heap, burned. Though the edges were charred, the text was still visible. Phil took back his letter and tucked it away. If he got out of this war alive, he’d deliver it in person.

* Future Indiana governor Edgar Whitcomb.

* They may have been right. Later, two other captives were given similar injections, and both died. The doctor’s intent may have been compassionate; mercy killing was then an accepted practice in Japan.



BEHIND TORRANCE HIGH SCHOOL STOOD A HUDDLE OF trees. On many evenings in the months after her brother went missing, Sylvia Zamperini Flammer would drive to the school, turn her car under the trees, and park there, then sit in the quiet and the dimness, alone. As the car cooled over the pavement, tears would stream down Sylvia’s cheeks. Sometimes she’d let herself sob, knowing that no one would hear her. After a few minutes, she’d dab away her tears, straighten herself, and start the car again.

On the drive home, she’d think of a lie to explain why her post office trip had again taken so long. She never let anyone know how frightened she was.


In Torrance, the June 4, 1943, telegram announcing Louie’s disappearance was followed by excruciating silence. Many weeks passed, and the military’s search yielded no trace of Louie, his crew, or his plane. In town, hope dissolved. When the Zamperinis went out, they saw resignation in their neighbors’ faces.

Inside the white house on Gramercy Avenue, the mood was different. In the first days after the telegram arrived, Louise Zamperini had been seized with the conviction that her son was alive. Her husband and children had felt the same. Days passed, then weeks; spring became summer; and no word came. But the family’s conviction remained unshaken. To the family, Louie was among them still, spoken of in the present tense, as if he were just down the street, expected at any moment.

What the Zamperinis were experiencing wasn’t denial, and it wasn’t hope. It was belief. Louise, Anthony, Pete, and Virginia still sensed Louie’s presence; they could still feel him. Their distress came not from grief but from the certainty that Louie was out there, in trouble, and they couldn’t reach him.

On July 13, Louise felt a wave of urgency. She penned a letter to Major General Willis Hale, commander of the Seventh Air Force. In it, she begged Hale not to give up searching; Louie, she wrote, was alive. Unbeknownst to Louise, on that same day, Louie was captured.

Several weeks later, a reply came from Hale’s office. The letter said that given the failure of the search to yield any clues, the military had been forced to accept that Louie and the rest of the men on the plane were gone. It was hoped, the letter said, that Louise would accept this also. Louise ripped up the letter.

Pete was still in San Diego, training navy recruits. The stress wore on him. Sometimes he drove to Torrance to visit his family, and when he arrived, everyone quietly worried about how thin he was. In September, his last letter to Louie, mailed hours before his family was notified of his crash, came back to him. Scribbled on the front were the words Missing at sea. On the back, there was a stamp: CASUALTY STATUS VERIFIED. The photograph of Pete was still sealed in the envelope.

That same month, Sylvia’s husband, Harvey, left for the war. He wouldn’t see his wife again for two years. Living alone, Sylvia was racked with anxiety for her brother and her husband, and she had no one to share it with. Like Pete, she was barely able to eat. Her body had become a slender, taut line. Yearning to connect with someone, she decided to move back in with her parents.

Sylvia held a yard sale to get rid of all of her possessions. She had a clothes washer and dryer, both rationed items that were almost impossible to buy new. One woman wanted to buy them, but Sylvia refused, in hopes that she could sell everything in one lot. The woman promptly bought the entire house’s contents for $1,000, just to get the appliances. Sylvia took what little she had left and drove to Torrance.

She found her father just as he had been since the news had come: chin up, smiling bravely, sometimes through tears. Virginia, living at home and building military ships at Western Pipe and Steel, was as distraught as Sylvia. Their mother was the biggest worry. At first Louise cried often. Then, as the months passed, she hardened down. The weeping rash on her hands, which had appeared almost the moment she’d learned of Louie’s disappearance, raged. She couldn’t wear gloves, and could no longer do anything with her hands. Sylvia and her father took over the cooking.

Sylvia quit her job in a dentist’s office and took a new one as a dental assistant in an army hospital, hoping that the job might give her access to information about Louie. There, she heard talk of a plane shortage in the military, so she took a second job, moonlighting on the evening shift in the blueprint office of an aircraft factory. She was almost unbearably tense. One night, leaving work late, she came upon a group of workers sitting under a plane, gambling. She suddenly found herself shouting at them, saying that her brother was missing, America needed planes, and here they were goofing off. Sylvia was startled by her outburst, but she didn’t regret it. It made her feel better.


On October 6, Louie’s army trunk bumped onto his parents’ doorstep, heavy and final. Louise couldn’t bring herself to look inside. She had it dragged to the basement and covered with a blanket. It would sit there, unopened, for the rest of her life.

Everyone in the family was suffering, but the children wanted to insulate their mother. They never cried together, instead telling each other invented stories of Louie’s adventures on a tropical island. Most of the time, Anthony simply couldn’t talk about Louie. Sylvia spent a lot of time in church, praying for Louie and Harvey. Sometimes she and Virginia drove to San Diego to see Pete, and they’d all go out for a drink to cheer one another up. They never discussed the possibility that Louie was dead. When Sylvia walked through downtown Torrance with her family, she noticed oblique glances from passersby. Their expressions seemed to say that they pitied the Zamperinis for being unable to accept the truth.

Every evening, Sylvia wrote a letter to her husband. Every week or so, she wrote one to Louie. She made a point of writing as if everything were normal, sharing the trivial news of home. She had an address for Harvey; for Louie she had nothing, so she addressed his letters to the Red Cross. She’d tell her mother that she was mailing letters, get in the car, drive to the post office, and drop the letters in the box. Then she’d drive to Torrance High, park under the trees, and cry.

At night, when the lights were out and she was alone in her childhood bed, Sylvia often broke down again. When sleep came, it was fitful and haunted. Because she knew nothing of what had happened to her brother, her mind latched onto the image she had seen in the newspaper after Nauru: Louie peering through a hole in the side of Super Man. The image had fixed in her mind the idea of Louie being shot, and this was the point around which her nightmares circled: never a crash, never water, only bullets bloodying Louie as he sat in his plane. Sylvia was always trying to get to Louie, but she was never able. As bad as the nightmares were, in them, Louie was never killed. Even Sylvia’s imagination didn’t allow for her brother’s death.

In December 1943, the family prepared to celebrate their first Christmas without Louie. The mailman knocked at the door each day to deliver a harvest of cards and letters, most of them offering sympathy. The holiday tree was strung with popcorn and cranberries, and beneath it sat a collection of gifts for Louie. The gifts would be tucked away in the belief that one day, Louie would come home to open them himself.

Louise bought a little Christmas card depicting a cherub in a red dress blowing a horn as she stood surrounded by lambs. Inside, she wrote a message.

Dear Louis. Where ever you are, I know you want us to think of you as well and safe. May God be with you, + guide you. Love from all. Mother Dad Pete Sylvia and Virginia. Christmas 25-43.


Two months later, after a campaign of saturation bombing, America seized Kwajalein. The island’s dense jungle had been bombed away; in its place were massive craters, burned tree stumps, and churned earth. “The entire island looked as if it had been picked up twenty thousand feet and then dropped,” said one serviceman. In what was left of an administrative building, someone found a stack of documents. Outside, a serviceman, climbing through the remains of a wooden structure, saw something in the wreckage and dug it out. It was a long splinter of wood. Etched along the slat, in capital letters, was the name LOUIS ZAMPERINI.

On Oahu, Joe Deasy was summoned to Hickam Field. When he arrived, he was handed translations of some of the Japanese documents that had been taken from Kwajalein. He began to read. Two American airmen, the documents said, had been fished from a life raft and brought to Kwajalein. Their names weren’t given, but they were described as a pilot and a bombardier. They’d been in a plane crash—the date was apparently provided—and three men had survived, but one had died on the raft. The other two had drifted for forty-seven days. Included among the papers were interrogation reports and drawings of B-24s made by the captives. The report stated that the men had been beaten, then sent to Japan by boat.

The moment that Deasy read the report, he knew who the men were. Deasy had been long at war, and the experience had ground away his emotions, but this revelation broke through: Phillips and Zamperini had survived their crash. Deasy’s elation was tailed by a sinking sense of guilt: In their painstaking search of the ocean, they had missed seeing the lost men, but the enemy had not.

“I was happy to have found them,” Deasy recalled, “but the next thing is, where the hell are they?” If the report of their transport to Japan was correct, it still didn’t mean they had gotten there alive, or that they had survived whatever lay in store for them there.

The military now knew with a fair amount of certainty that everyone who had gone up on Green Hornet, with the exception of Zamperini and Phillips, was dead. Apparently because of the sketchiness of the reports and the fact that Louie’s and Phil’s fates were still unknown, the families of the dead and the two still missing weren’t notified.

Like the Zamperinis, the Phillips family had been largely in the dark since Allen had disappeared. Allen’s father was at Camp Pickett in Virginia; his mother, Kelsey, rattled around in her empty house in Princeton, Indiana. After the telegram informing them that Allen was missing, they received a letter from an adjutant from the 42nd squadron, giving details on how Allen had disappeared. The adjutant wrote with a tone of finality, speaking of “your hour of grief,” noting that Allen “will always be revered by the members of this organization” and offering to “extend myself to you to ease your sorrow.” The next month, a package came to Allen’s father at Camp Pickett. In it were two bronze oak-leaf clusters, awarded to Allen for his valor in the missions of Makin, Tarawa, and Nauru. “Pending final determination of your son’s status,” the cover letter read, “the Oak Leaf Clusters are being sent to you for safe-keeping.” Though the Phillipses didn’t know it, the medals arrived the same week Allen was captured.

Chaplain Phillips wanted to send the oak-leaf clusters to his wife but feared losing them in the mail, so he kept them with him in Virginia. He took a picture of them, along with Allen’s service ribbons, wings, insignia, and Air Medal, attached the picture to a maroon piece of felt he’d cut from a lady’s hat, and glued the felt to a walnut plaque. When he got back to Indiana, he planned to attach the actual medals and ribbons to the felt and stand the plaque on the bookcase, under Allen’s picture. “It certainly is swell,” he wrote to his daughter.

In the absence of information, all the Phillipses could do was ponder what little they knew. They, like the Zamperinis, refused to conclude that their boy was dead. “I think I have thought of every conceivable angle to what Allen did and I have not dismissed any of them from my mind yet,” Chaplain Phillips wrote to his daughter in August. “So many things could be true about it all that they build up for me a feeling of confidence that will not be shaken. Some day we are all going to have that reunion we are hoping and waiting for.”

For Cecy Perry, the news that her fiancé was missing was followed by a letter from her old friend Smitty, one of the pilots who had searched for Green Hornet. In his letter, Smitty told Cecy everything that was known about Allen’s disappearance and how dedicated the searchers were to finding him. He didn’t tell her that he had seen what had probably been the provisions box for the lost plane, floating by itself on the ocean. He wrote about having sat with Allen on the night before he disappeared, and how Allen had been thinking of her and hoping to get leave to see her.

Phil’s fiancée, Cecy Perry. Courtesy of Karen Loomis

After Smitty’s letter, no news came. Cecy, desperate for information, felt isolated in Indiana. One of her friends was living in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and Cecy thought that in the capital, she could find out more about Allen. She gave up teaching, traveled east, and moved into her friend’s apartment, which she decorated with pictures of Allen. She got a job with TWA, thinking that through the airline, she might learn something. She spent much of her time asking questions, but learned nothing.

Cecy was a sensible, educated woman, but in her anguish, she did something completely out of character. She went to a fortune-teller and asked about Allen.

The fortune-teller told her that Allen wasn’t dead. He was injured but alive. He would be found, she said, before Christmas. Cecy latched onto those words and believed them.


By the spring of 1944, the mothers of the Green Hornet crewmen, as well as other family members, had begun to correspond. In dozens of letters that crisscrossed America, they shared their emotions and bolstered each other’s hopes about “our boys.” Kelsey would later say that she came to love all of them through those letters.

“This year sure has been an awful long year just waiting of some word from them,” wrote Delia Robinson, the sister of Green Hornet gunner Otto Anderson, that June. “We just have to keep on hoping.” The waiting had taken its toll on crewman Leslie Dean’s mother, Mable—her failing health had sent her to Wichita for weeks of treatment—but she, like the others, had not given up. “We thought surely we would have heard something when the year was up,” she wrote to Louise. “So it seems they are not sure the crew were killed, or they would have notified us long before this. So I feel that we can still have hope of them being alive somewhere.”

Mable Dean wrote those words on June 27, 1944. On that very day, exactly thirteen months after Green Hornet had gone down, messages were typed up at the War Department and sent to the families of the plane’s crewmen. When Louise Zamperini’s message reached her door, she opened it and burst into tears. The military had officially declared Louie, and all the other crewmen, dead.

Kelsey Phillips was not persuaded. She either learned or guessed that the La Porte Herald-Argus, the newspaper of their former hometown, would publish the news. She contacted the paper and asked them not to print the death notice; her son, she told them, was not gone. The editors honored her request. Russell Allen Phillips had officially been declared dead, but no obituary appeared.

The feeling in the Zamperini home was the same as in the Phillipses’. When the initial shock from the death notice faded, all of the Zamperinis realized that it changed nothing. The notice had been generated as a bureaucratic matter of course, a designation made for all missing servicemen after thirteen months had passed. Louie’s official death date was listed as May 28, 1944, a year and a day after his plane had vanished. The notice was just a piece of paper. “None of us believed it. None of us,” Sylvia would say. “Never once. Not underneath, even.”

Inside themselves, the Zamperinis still felt that persistent little echo of Louie, the sense that he was still in the world somewhere. Until it was gone, they would go on believing that he was alive.

During family dinners, Pete and his father began drawing up plans to hunt for Louie. When the war was over, they’d rent a boat and sail from island to island until they found him. They’d go on for as long as it took.


Plots Afoot

THE PLOT BEGAN WITH A QUESTION. IT WAS THE SUMMER of 1944, and Louie and Frank Tinker were walking together in the Ofuna compound. Louie could hear small planes coming and going from an airstrip somewhere in the distance, and the sound started him thinking. If we could get out of here, he asked Tinker, could you fly a Japanese plane?

“If it has wings,” Tinker replied.

From that brief exchange, an idea took root. Louie, Tinker, and Harris were going to escape.


They’d been driven to this point by a long, desperate spring and summer. Every day, the men were slapped, kicked, beaten, humiliated, and driven through forced exercises. There were sudden explosions of violence that left captives spilled over the ground, hoping they wouldn’t be killed. And that spring, the central authorities had cut rations to all prisoners dramatically. With only about half of the official ration ending up in the captives’ bowls, the men were wasting away. When the Japanese weighed the captives, Bill Harris, over six feet tall, tipped the scale at 120 pounds. He had developed beriberi.

Louie was driven to ever more reckless efforts to find food. He stole an onion and secretly cooked it under a water heater, but divided between several men, it didn’t amount to much. He stole a package of miso paste and, when the guards weren’t looking, shoveled it into his mouth and swallowed it in one gulp, not knowing that miso paste is extremely concentrated, meant to be diluted in water. He was soon doubled over behind the barracks, heaving his guts out. He was so mad for food that he snuck from his cell late at night, broke into the kitchen, and crammed his mouth full of chestnuts that were to be served to the guards. When he looked up, Shithead was there, watching him. Louie backed away, then sprinted back to his cell. Shithead didn’t beat him for it, but the guard’s appearance was enough to scare Louie out of another go at the kitchen. The best he could do was volunteer to starch the guards’ shirts. The starch was made from rice water pressed through cloth; after Louie pressed the rice, he spent the rest of his time picking flecks of it off the cloth and eating them.

Finally, opportunity knocked. Camp officials asked for a volunteer to work as barber for the guards, offering payment of one rice ball per job. The idea of working around the guards was intimidating, but Louie had to eat. When he came forward, he was given not just electric clippers but a straight razor. He’d never used one before, and he knew what the guards would do to him if they were nicked. He took the razor to his cell and practiced on himself until he could shave without drawing blood. When he walked out to do his first job, the guard balled up his fist at him, then made a demand that, to an American, seemed bizarre. He wanted his forehead shaved, a standard barbering practice in Japan. All of the guards expected Louie to do this. Louie managed not to cut anyone, and the rice balls kept him alive.

A notoriously cruel guard called the Weasel began coming to Louie for shaves, but every time, he left without paying. Louie knew what he would risk in evening the score, but he couldn’t resist. While shaving the Weasel’s forehead, he let the blade stray a little low. By the time he was done, all that was left of the Weasel’s bushy eyebrows was a coquettish line. The Weasel stood, left without paying, and entered the guardhouse. A moment later, Louie heard a shout.

“Marlene Dietrich!”

Louie backed away, waiting for the Weasel to burst out. Several other guards went into the guardhouse, and Louie could hear laughing. The Weasel never punished Louie, but the next time he needed a shave, he went elsewhere.


For the captives, every day was lived with the knowledge that it could be their last. The nearer the Allies came to Japan, the larger loomed the threat of the kill-all order. The captives had only a vague idea of how the war was going, but the Japanese were clearly worried. In an interrogation session in late spring, an official told Fitzgerald that if Japan lost, the captives would be executed. “Hope for Japan’s victory,” he said. The quest for news of the war took on special urgency.

One morning, Louie was on the parade ground, under orders to sweep the compound. He saw the Mummy—the camp commander—sitting under a cherry tree, holding a newspaper. He was nodding off. Louie loitered near him, watching. The Mummy’s head tipped, his fingers parted, and the paper fluttered to the ground. Louie swept his way over, reached out with the broom, and, as quietly as he could, forked the newspaper to himself. The text was in Japanese, but there was a war map on one page. Louie ran to the barracks, found Harris, and held the paper up before him. Harris stared at it, memorizing the map. Louie then ran the paper to the garbage so they’d have no evidence of the theft. Harris drew a perfect rendering of the map, showed it to the other captives, then destroyed it. The map confirmed that the Allies were closing in on Japan.

In July, the scuttlebutt in camp was that the Americans were attacking the critical island of Saipan, in the Mariana Islands, south of mainland Japan. A spindly new captive was hauled in, and everyone eyed him as a source of information, but the guards kept him isolated and forbade the veterans from speaking to him. When the new man was led to the bathhouse, Louie saw his chance. He snuck behind the building and looked in an open window. The captive was standing naked, holding a pan of water and washing as the guard stood by. Then the guard stepped away to light a cigarette.

“If we’ve taken Saipan, drop the pan,” Louie whispered.

The pan clattered to the floor. The captive picked it up, dropped it again,