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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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Communism to Flourish,” sermon by Billy Graham, © 1949 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Author’s transcription from audio recording.
ON A CHILLY FALL MORNING IN 1950, LOUIE WALKED UP a long, level road toward a complex of unadorned buildings. As he approached the archway that marked the entrance to the complex, his whole body tingled. On the arch were painted the words SUGAMO PRISON, and beyond it waited Louie’s POW camp guards. At long last, Louie had returned to Japan.
In the year that had passed since he had walked into Billy Graham’s tent, Louie had worked to keep a promise. He had begun a new life as a Christian speaker, telling his story all over America. The work brought him modest honoraria and offerings, enough to allow him to pay his bills and buy a $150 used DeSoto, finally replacing the car that he’d lost as loan collateral. He had scraped together just enough money for a down payment on a house, but was still so poor that Cissy’s crib was the house’s only furniture. Louie did the cooking on a single-coil hot plate, and he and Cynthia slept in sleeping bags next to the crib. They were barely getting by, but their connection to each other had been renewed and deepened. They were blissful together.
In the first years after the war, a journey back to Japan had been Louie’s obsession, the path to murdering the man who had ruined him. But thoughts of murder no longer had a home in him. He had come here not to avenge himself but to answer a question.
Louie (right) at Sugamo. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
Louie had been told that all of the men who had tormented him had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned here in Sugamo. He could speak about and think of his captors, even the Bird, without bitterness, but a question tapped at the back of his mind. If he should ever see them again, would the peace that he had found prove resilient? With trepidation, he had resolved to go to Sugamo to stand before these men.
On the evening before, Louie had written to Cynthia to tell her what he was about to do. He had asked her to pray for him.
The former guards, 850 of them, sat cross-legged on the floor of a large, bare common room. Standing at the front of the room, Louie looked out over the faces.
At first he recognized none of them. Then, far in the rear, he saw a face he knew, then another and another: Curley, the Weasel, Kono, Jimmie Sasaki. And there was the Quack, who was petitioning to have his death penalty commuted. As Louie looked at this last man, he thought of Bill Harris.
There was one face missing: Louie couldn’t find the Bird. When he asked his escort where Watanabe was, he was told that he wasn’t in Sugamo. Over five years, thousands of policemen had scoured Japan in search of him, but they had never found him.
As Louie had been packing to come to Japan, the long-awaited day had arrived in the life of Shizuka Watanabe: October 1, 1950, the day her son had promised to come to her, if he was still alive. He had told her to go to the Shinjuku district in Tokyo, where he would meet her at the same restaurant where they had last seen each other, two years before. At 10:05 that morning, police saw Shizuka climb aboard a train bound for the Shinjuku district. At the restaurant, Mutsuhiro apparently never showed up.
Shizuka went to Kofu and checked into a hotel, staying alone, taking no visitors. For four days, she wandered the city. Then she left Kofu abruptly, without paying her hotel bill. The police went in to question the hotel matron. Asked if Shizuka had spoken of her son, the matron said yes.
“Mutsuhiro,” Shizuka had said, “has already died.”
In the corner of a sitting room in her house, Shizuka would keep a small shrine to Mutsuhiro, a tradition among bereaved Japanese families. Each morning, she would leave an offering in memory of her son.
In Sugamo, Louie asked his escort what had happened to the Bird. He was told that it was believed that the former sergeant, hunted, exiled and in despair, had stabbed himself to death.
The words washed over Louie. In prison camp, Watanabe had forced him to live in incomprehensible degradation and violence. Bereft of his dignity, Louie had come home to a life lost in darkness, and had dashed himself against the memory of the Bird. But on an October night in Los Angeles, Louie had found, in Payton Jordan’s word, “daybreak.” That night, the sense of shame and powerlessness that had driven his need to hate the Bird had vanished. The Bird was no longer his monster. He was only a man.
In Sugamo Prison, as he was told of Watanabe’s fate, all Louie saw was a lost person, a life now beyond redemption. He felt something that he had never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized that it was compassion.
At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.
Before Louie left Sugamo, the colonel who was attending him asked Louie’s former guards to come forward. In the back of the room, the prisoners stood up and shuffled into the aisle. They moved hesitantly, looking up at Louie with small faces.
Louie was seized by childlike, giddy exuberance. Before he realized what he was doing, he was bounding down the aisle. In bewilderment, the men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face.
ON A JUNE DAY IN 1954, JUST OFF A WINDING ROAD IN California’s San Gabriel Mountains, a mess of boys tumbled out of a truck and stood blinking in the sunshine. They were quick-fisted, hard-faced boys, most of them intimately familiar with juvenile hall and jail. Louie stood with them, watching them get the feel of earth without pavement, space without walls. He felt as if he were watching his own youth again.
So opened the great project of Louie’s life, the nonprofit Victory Boys Camp. Beginning with only an idea and very little money, Louie had found a campsite where the bargain-basement rent compensated for the general dilapidation, then talked a number of businesses into donating materials. He’d spent two years manning backhoes, upending boulders, and digging a swimming pool. When he was done, he had a beautiful camp.
Victory became a tonic for lost boys. Louie took in anyone, including one boy so ungovernable that Louie had to be deputized by a sheriff to gain custody of him. He took the boys fishing, swimming, horseback riding, camping, and, in winter, skiing. He led them on mountain hikes, letting them talk out their troubles, and rappelled down cliffs beside them. He showed them vocational films, living for the days when a boy would see a career depicted and whisper, “That’s what I want to do!” Each evening, Louie sat with the boys before a campfire, telling them about his youth, the war, and the road that had led him to peace. He went easy on Christianity, but laid it before them as an option. Some were convinced, some not, but either way, boys who arrived at Victory as ruffians often left it renewed and reformed.
Louie demonstrates rappelling to his campers. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
When he wasn’t with his campers, Louie was happily walking the world, telling his story to rapt audiences in everything from grade school classrooms to stadiums. Improbably, he was particularly fond of speaking on cruise ships, sorting through invitations to find a plum voyage, kicking back on the first-class deck with a cool drink in hand, and reveling in the ocean. Concerned that accepting fat honoraria would discourage schools and small groups from asking him to speak, he declined anything over modest fees. He made just enough money to keep Cissy and her little brother, Luke, in diapers, then blue jeans, then college. On the side, he worked in the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, supervising the senior center.
Over the years, he received an absurd number of awards and honors. Lomita Flight Strip, which had been renamed Zamperini Field while Louie was languishing in Naoetsu, was rededicated to him not once more, but twice. A plaza at USC was named after him, as was the stadium at Torrance High. In 1980, someone named a great big barge of a racehorse after him, though as a runner, Zamperini was no Zamperini. The house on Gramercy became a historic landmark. Louie was chosen to carry the Olympic torch before five different Games. So many groups would clamor to give him awards that he’d find it difficult to fit everyone in.
His body gave no quarter to age or punishment. In time, even his injured leg healed. When Louie was in his sixties, he was still climbing Cahuenga Peak every week and running a mile in under six minutes. In his seventies, he discovered skateboarding. At eighty-five, he returned to Kwajalein on a project, ultimately unsuccessful, to locate the bodies of the nine marines whose names had been etched in the wall of his cell. “When I get old,” he said as he tossed a football on the Kwajalein beach, “I’ll let you know.” When he was ninety, his neighbors looked up to see him balancing high in a tree in his yard, chain saw in hand. “When God wants me, he’ll take me,” he told an incredulous Pete. “Why the hell are you trying to help him?” Pete replied. Well into his tenth decade of life, between the occasional broken bone, he could still be seen perched on skis, merrily cannonballing down mountains.
Louie on the torch run for the 1984 Summer Olympics. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
Louie, skateboarding at eighty-one. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
He remained infectiously, incorrigibly cheerful. He once told a friend that the last time he could remember being angry was some forty years before. His conviction that everything happened for a reason, and would come to good, gave him a laughing equanimity even in hard times. In late 2008, when he was about to turn ninety-two, he was moving a slab of concrete on a dolly down a flight of stairs when the dolly wheels broke, sending Louie and the concrete crashing down the steps. He wound up in the hospital with a minor hip fracture and a shattered thumb. As his daughter came down the hospital corridor toward his room, she heard shouts of “Hey Louie!” from the crowd of friends that her father had made among the hospital staff. “I never knew anyone,” Pete once said, “who didn’t love Louie.” As soon as he was out of the hospital, Louie went on a three-mile hike.
With the war over, Phil became Allen again. After a brief stint running a plastics business in Albuquerque, he and Cecy moved to his boyhood hometown, La Porte, Indiana, where they eventually took jobs at a junior high, Allen teaching science, Cecy teaching English. They were soon parents to a girl and a boy.
Allen hardly ever mentioned the war. His friends kept their questions to themselves, fearful of treading upon a painful place. Other than the scars on his forehead from the Green Hornet crash, only his habits spoke of what he’d been through. After having lived for weeks on raw albatross and tern, he never again ate poultry. He had a curious affinity for eating food directly out of cans, cold. And the onetime king hot dog of his squadron wouldn’t go near an airplane. As the jet age overtook America, he stayed in his car. Only many years later, when his daughter lost her husband in an auto accident, did he brave the air to go to her.
He never returned to Japan, and he seemed, outwardly, free of resentment. The closest thing to it was the flicker of irritation that people thought they saw in him when he was, almost invariably, treated as a trivial footnote in what was celebrated as Louie’s story. If he was rubbed wrong by it, he bore it graciously. In 1954, when the TV program This Is Your Life feted Louie and presented him with a gold watch, a movie camera, a Mercury station wagon, and a thousand dollars, Allen traveled to California to join Louie’s family and friends on stage, wearing a neat bow tie and looking at the floor as he spoke. When the group posed together, Allen slipped to the back.
Allen Phillips with his children, Chris and Karen, bedtime, 1952. Courtesy of Karen Loomis
As Allen grew old, he settled into retired life with Cecy. He walked quite a few back nines, changed his rooting interests from the Sox to the Cubs, and spent whole days just sitting in silence. “Dad must have swung a thousand miles on that front porch swing,” said his daughter, Karen Loomis. “What he was thinking, I don’t know.”
In the 1990s, diabetes and heart disease converged on him. In 1998, a few months before he died, he was moved to a nursing home. When the staff learned his war story, they scheduled an event to honor him. It was probably the first time that what he’d done during the war was publicly recognized not simply in reference to Louie, but for its own sake. For the only time in his life, Allen became an open book. As people gathered to listen to his story, spellbound, Karen saw a lovely light come to her father’s face. There was, she said, “a little grin underneath.”
The men who had befriended Louie in captivity found their way back into civilian life. Some flourished; some struggled for the rest of their lives. There was one terrible loss.
Bill Harris ended the war in grand style, plucked from Omori to stand on the Missouri as Japan surrendered. His singular intellectual acuity, lost in the beatings from the Quack, returned to him. He went home, fell irretrievably in love with a navy captain’s daughter, married her, and became a doting father to two little girls. After leaning toward retirement, he opted to stay with the marines, rising to lieutenant colonel. He and Louie sent letters back and forth, laying plans to see each other one day soon.
In September 1950, Harris was driving down a highway when the police pulled him over. He was being called to command a battalion in Korea and had to leave the next day. Before he left, he told his wife that if his luck went bad, he wouldn’t allow himself to be captured again.
Before dawn on December 7, 1950, Harris stood on a frozen Korean mountain with his weary battalion, which had seen such horrendous fighting that it had lost three-quarters of its men. That morning, it was serving as the rear guard for a convoy. As the convoy crossed an open area in the dark, a vast, entrenched Chinese force ambushed it from point-blank range. What Harris did next became Marine Corps legend. He gathered his men and, under murderous fire, led them straight at the Chinese. They took heavy casualties but held the Chinese off long enough for the convoy to escape.
Bill Harris with his daughter Katey in 1950. He disappeared a few months later. Courtesy of Katherine H. Meares
When dawn came, no one could find Harris. The last time anyone had seen him, he’d been heading up a road, carrying two rifles. His men searched for hours but found no trace of him. They concluded that he’d again been captured.
For his actions that night, Harris won the Navy Cross, an award second only to the Medal of Honor. General Clifton Cates kept the medal in his desk in hopes that Harris would come home to receive it. He would not. Thirty-two-year-old William Harris was never seen again. When America’s Korean War POWs were released, none of them reported having seen him. He was simply gone.
Many years later, Harris’s family received a box of bones, apparently returned by North Korea. The remains inside were said to match those of Harris, but the reports were so incomplete that the family was never sure if it was really Bill whom they buried in a church cemetery in Kentucky. What actually happened on that morning in 1950 remains unknown.
After the war, Pete married a Kansas City beauty named Doris, had three kids, and devoted his life to the work he’d been born to do. He coached football at Torrance High, winning the league championship, then moved on to Banning High, in Wilmington, to coach track and football. In thirty years of Banning track, he had only one losing season. Coach Zamperini was so beloved that upon his retirement in 1977, he was feted by eight hundred people on the Queen Mary.
“I’m retired; my wife is just tired,” Pete used to say, and he loved the motto so much that he had it printed on his business cards. But in truth, retirement never really took. At ninety, Pete had the littlest kids in his neighborhood in training, fashioning dumbbells out of old cans, just as his dad had done for Louie. He’d lead the kids onto his sidewalk and cheer them on through sprints, handing out a dime for each race run, a quarter for a personal best.
Pete was more troubled by Louie’s war experience than Louie was. In 1992, he served as escort for a group of students on an ocean fishing trip. Though the vessel was a spanking new, ninety-foot ship, the prospect of being at sea terrified Pete. He showed up with a ridiculously comprehensive assortment of safety items, including a heavy-duty plastic bag to use as a flotation device, a floatable flashlight, a six-foot lanyard, a whistle, and a pocketknife, which he imagined flailing at any sharks who tried to eat him. He spent the trip staring ambivalently at the water.
At the end of his life, Pete remained as dedicated to Louie as he’d been in boyhood. He assembled a scrapbook thick with clippings and photographs of Louie’s life, and would happily give up his afternoons to talk about his brother, once spending nearly three hours on the phone with a reporter while sitting in a bath towel. At ninety, he still remembered the final times of Louie’s races, to the fifth of a second, three-quarters of a century after Louie had run them. Like Payton Jordan, who went on to coach the 1968 U.S. Olympic track and field team, Pete never stopped believing that Louie could have run a four-minute mile long before Roger Bannister became the first man to do it, in 1954. Many decades after the war, Pete was still haunted by what Louie had endured. When describing Louie’s wartime ordeal to an audience gathered to honor his brother, Pete faltered and broke down. It was some time before he could go on.
On a May day in 2008, a car pulled to a stop before Pete’s house in San Clemente, and Louie stepped out. He had come to say good-bye to his brother; Pete had melanoma, and it had spread to his brain. Their younger sister Virginia had died a few weeks before; Sylvia and Payton Jordan would follow months later. Cynthia, as gorgeous and headstrong as ever, had succumbed to cancer in 2001, drifting off as Louie pressed his face to hers, whispering, “I love you.” Louie, declared dead more than sixty years earlier, would outlive them all.
Pete was on his bed, eyes closed. Louie sat beside him. Softly, he began to talk of his life with Pete, tracing the paths they had taken since pneumonia had brought them to California in 1919. The two ancient men lingered together as they had as boys, lying side by side on their bed, waiting for the Graf Zeppelin.
Louie spoke of what a feral boy he had once been, and all that Pete had done to rescue him. He told of the cascade of good things that had followed Pete’s acts of devotion, and the bountiful lives that he and Pete had found in guiding children. All of those kids, Louie said, “are part of you, Pete.”
Pete’s eyes opened and, with sudden clarity, rested on the face of his little brother for the last time. He couldn’t speak, but he was beaming.
In the fall of 1996, in an office in the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, a telephone rang. Louie, then a nudge short of eighty, picked up the receiver.
The voice on the telephone belonged to Draggan Mihailovich, a producer for CBS television. The 1998 Winter Olympics had been awarded to Nagano, and Louie had accepted an invitation to run the torch past Naoetsu. Mihailovich was filming a profile of Louie, to be aired during the Olympics, and had gone to Japan to prepare. While chatting with a man over a bowl of noodles, he had made a startling discovery.
Mihailovich asked Louie if he was sitting down. Louie said yes. Mihailovich told him to grab hold of his chair.
“The Bird is alive.”
Louie nearly hit the floor.
The dead man had walked out of the darkness late one night in 1952. He’d been gone for nearly seven years. Watanabe stepped off a train in Kobe, walked through the city, and stopped before a house with a garden bisected by a stone path. Before his disappearance, his mother had spent part of each year living in this house, but Watanabe had been gone for so long that he didn’t know if she came here anymore. He strode about, searching for a clue. Under the gate light, he saw her name.
In all the time in which he’d been thought dead, Watanabe had been hiding in the countryside. He’d spent the previous summer pedaling through villages on a bicycle fitted with a cooler, selling ice cream, envying the children who played around him. When summer had ended, he’d gone back to farm work, tending rice paddies. Then, one day in March 1952, as he read a newspaper, his eyes had paused over a story. The arrest order for suspected war criminals had been lifted. There on the page was his name.
The lifting of the apprehension order was the result of an unlikely turn in history. Immediately after the war, there was a worldwide outcry for punishment of the Japanese who had abused POWs, and the war-crimes trials began. But new political realities soon emerged. As American occupiers worked to help Japan transition to democracy and independence, the Cold War was beginning. With communism wicking across the Far East, America’s leaders began to see a future alliance with Japan as critical to national security. The sticking point was the war-crimes issue; the trials were intensely unpopular in Japan, spurring a movement seeking the release of all convicted war criminals. With the pursuit of justice for POWs suddenly in conflict with America’s security goals, something had to give.
On December 24, 1948, as the occupation began to wind down, General MacArthur declared a “Christmas amnesty” for the last seventeen men awaiting trial for Class A war crimes, the designation for those who had guided the war. The defendants were released, and some would go on to great success; onetime defendant Nobusuke Kishi, said to be responsible for forcibly conscribing hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Koreans as laborers, would become prime minister in 1957. Though American officials justified the release by saying that it was unlikely that the defendants would have been convicted, the explanation was questionable; more than two dozen Class A defendants had been tried, and all had been convicted. Even in Japan, it was commonly believed that many of the released men were guilty.
Ten months later, the trials of Class B and C defendants—those accused of ordering or carrying out abuse or atrocities—were ended. An army officer named Osamu Satano was the last man tried by the United States. His punishment fit the reconciliatory mood; convicted of beheading an airman, he was sentenced to just five years. In early 1950, MacArthur ruled that war criminals’ sentences would be reduced for good behavior, and those serving life sentences would be eligible for parole after fifteen years. Then, in 1951, the Allies and Japan signed the Treaty of Peace, which would end the occupation. The treaty waived the right of former POWs and their families to seek reparations from Japan and Japanese companies that had profited from their enslavement.* Finally, in March 1952, just before the treaty took effect and the occupation ended, the order for apprehension of fugitive war criminals was lifted. Though Watanabe was on the fugitive list, hardly anyone believed that he was still alive.
When he saw the story, Watanabe was wary. Afraid that the police had planted the story as a trap, he didn’t go home. He spent much of the spring working as a fishmonger, all the while wondering if he was free. Finally, he decided to sneak back to his mother.