Sachsenhausen concentration camp.


On the evening of September 2, when Louie arrived in Torrance, he was plunked onto a throne on the flatbed of a truck and paraded to the depot, where four thousand people, whipped up by a band, sirens, and factory whistles, cheered. Louie shook hands and grinned for pictures. “I didn’t only start too slow,” he said, “I ran too slow.”

As he settled back into home, Louie thought of what lay ahead. Running the 1936 Olympic 5,000 at nineteen on four races’ experience had been a shot at the moon. Running the 1940 Olympic 1,500 at twenty-three after years of training would be another matter. The same thought was circling in Pete’s mind. Louie could win gold in 1940, and both brothers knew it.

A few weeks before, officials had announced which city would host the 1940 Games. Louie shaped his dreams around Tokyo, Japan.

* Louie would later recall eating at a restaurant only once, when a family friend bought him a sandwich at a lunch counter, but according to his Olympic diary, after his 5,000-meter trial, a fan treated him to dinner in a Manhattan skyscraper. The meal cost $7, a staggering sum to Louie, who had been paying between 65 cents and $1.35 for his dinners, carefully recording the prices in his diary.


Into War

AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, LOUIE found himself on a campus infested with world-class track athletes. He spent mornings in class and afternoons training with his best friend, Payton Jordan. A sensationally fast sprinter, Jordan had seen nothing but Jesse Owens’s back at the 1936 Olympic trials and, like Louie, was aiming for gold in Tokyo. In the evenings, Louie, Jordan, and their teammates wedged into Louie’s ’31 Ford and drove to Torrance for Louise Zamperini’s spaghetti, considering themselves so close to family that Sylvia once found a high jumper asleep on her bed. In his spare time, Louie crashed society weddings, worked as a movie extra, and harassed his housemates with practical jokes, replacing their deviled ham with cat food and milk with milk of magnesia. He pursued coeds by all means necessary, once landing a date with a beauty by hurling himself into the side of her car, then pretending to have been struck.

Between classes, Louie, Jordan, and their friends congregated near the administration building, sitting at the foot of the statue of Tommy Trojan, the symbol of USC. On some days, they were joined by a neatly dressed Japanese émigré who lingered on the edges of the group. His name was Kunichi James Sasaki. Known as Jimmie, he had come to America in his late teens and settled in Palo Alto, where he had endured the social misery of attending elementary school as an adult. Among Louie’s friends, no one would remember what Sasaki studied at USC, but they all recalled his quiet, anodyne presence; saying almost nothing, he smiled without interruption.

Sasaki was an ardent track fan, and he sought Louie’s acquaintance. Louie was especially impressed with Sasaki’s scholarliness; prior to coming to USC, Jimmie said, he had earned degrees at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Bonding over shared interests in sports and music, the two became good friends.

Training for the Olympics, 1940. Bettmann/Corbis

Louie and Jimmie had something else in common. Sometime over the course of the friendship, Louie learned that his friend was making daily trips to Torrance. He asked Jimmie if he lived there, and Jimmie said no. He explained that he was concerned about the poverty of his Japanese homeland and was going to Torrance to give lectures to locals of Japanese ancestry, encouraging them to send money and foil from cigarette packs and gum wrappers to Japan to help the poor. Louie admired his friend for his efforts, but found it odd that he would travel to Torrance every day, given how few Japanese lived there.

Jimmie Sasaki wasn’t what he seemed. He had never attended Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. His friends thought him about thirty; he was in fact nearly forty. He had a wife and two daughters, though neither Louie nor his friends knew that they existed. Though he spent a lot of time on campus and led everyone to believe that he was a student, he was not. He had graduated from USC some ten years earlier, with a B.A. in political science. Neither Louie nor anyone else knew that Jimmie’s attempts to pass as a student were apparently an elaborate ruse.


On USC’s track team, Louie was a juggernaut. Focused on winning in Tokyo in 1940, he smashed record after record at multiple distances and routinely buried his competition by giant margins, once winning a race by one hundred yards. By the spring of 1938, he’d whittled his mile time down to 4:13.7, some seven seconds off the world record, which now stood at 4:06.4. His coach predicted that Louie would take that record down. The only runner who could beat him, the coach said, was Seabiscuit.

One afternoon in 1938, Glenn Cunningham stood in the Los Angeles Coliseum locker room, talking with reporters after winning a race. “There’s the next mile champion,” he said, leveling his eyes across the room. “When he concentrates on this distance, he’ll be unbeatable.” The reporters turned to see who Cunningham was looking at. It was Louie, blushing to the roots of his hair.

In the 1930s, track experts were beginning to toss around the idea of a four-minute mile. Most observers, including Cunningham, had long believed that it couldn’t be done. In 1935, when Cunningham’s record of 4:06.7 reigned, science weighed in. Studying data on human structural limits compiled by Finnish mathematicians, famed track coach Brutus Hamilton penned an article for Amateur Athlete magazine stating that a four-minute mile was impossible. The fastest a human could run a mile, he wrote, was 4:01.6.

Pete disagreed. Since the Olympics, he’d been certain that Louie had a four-minute mile in him. Louie had always shaken this off, but in the spring of ’38, he reconsidered. His coach had forbidden him to run hills on the mistaken but common belief that it would damage his heart, but Louie didn’t buy the warnings. Every night that May, he climbed the coliseum fence, dropped into the stadium, and ran the stairs until his legs went numb. By June, his body was humming, capable of speed and stamina beyond anything he’d ever known. He began to think that Pete was right, and he wasn’t alone. Running pundits, including Olympic champion sprinter Charlie Paddock, published articles stating that Louie could be the first four-minute man. Cunningham, too, had changed his mind. He thought that four minutes might be within Louie’s reach. Zamperini, Cunningham told a reporter, was more likely to crack four minutes than he was.

In June 1938, Louie arrived at the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, gunning for four minutes. Spilling over with eagerness, he babbled to other athletes about his new training regimen, his race strategy, and how fast he might go. Word spread that Louie was primed for a superlative performance. On the night before the race, a coach from Notre Dame knocked on Louie’s hotel room door, a grave expression on his face. He told Louie that some of his rival coaches were ordering their runners to sharpen their spikes and slash him. Louie dismissed the warning, certain that no one would do such a thing deliberately.

He was wrong. Halfway through the race, just as Louie was about to move for the lead, several runners shouldered around him, boxing him in. Louie tried repeatedly to break loose, but he couldn’t get around the other men. Suddenly, the man beside him swerved in and stomped on his foot, impaling Louie’s toe with his spike. A moment later, the man ahead began kicking backward, cutting both of Louie’s shins. A third man elbowed Louie’s chest so hard that he cracked Louie’s rib. The crowd gasped.

Bleeding and in pain, Louie was trapped. For a lap and a half, he ran in the cluster of men, unable to get free, restraining his stride to avoid running into the man ahead. At last, as he neared the final turn, he saw a tiny gap open before him. He burst through, blew past the race leader, and, with his shoe torn open, shins streaming blood, and chest aching, won easily.

He slowed to a halt, bitter and frustrated. When his coach asked him how fast he thought he had gone, Louie replied that he couldn’t have beaten 4:20.

The race time was posted on the board. From the stands came a sudden Woooo! Louie had run the mile in 4:08.3. It was the fastest NCAA mile in history and the fifth-fastest outdoor mile ever run. Louie had missed the world record by 1.9 seconds. His time would stand as the NCAA record for fifteen years.

Weeks later, Japan withdrew as host of the 1940 Olympics, and the Games were transferred to Finland. Adjusting his aspirations from Tokyo to Helsinki, Louie rolled on. He won every race he contested in the 1939 school season. In the early months of 1940, in a series of eastern indoor miles against the best runners in America, he was magnificent, taking two seconds and two close fourths, twice beating Cunningham, and getting progressively faster. In February at the Boston Garden, he ran a 4:08.2, six-tenths of a second short of the fastest indoor mile ever run.* At Madison Square Garden two weeks later, he scorched a 4:07.9, caught just before the tape by the great Chuck Fenske, whose time equaled the indoor world record. With the Olympics months away, Louie was peaking at the ideal moment.

With a cracked rib and puncture wounds to both legs and one foot, Louie celebrates his record-setting NCAA Championship victory. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini


As Louie blazed through college, far away, history was turning. In Europe, Hitler was laying plans to conquer the continent. In Asia, Japan’s leaders had designs of equal magnitude. Poor in natural resources, its trade crippled by high tariffs and low demand, Japan was struggling to support a growing population. Eyeing their nation’s resource-rich neighbors, Japan’s leaders saw the prospect of economic independence, and something more. Central to the Japanese identity was the belief that it was Japan’s divinely mandated right to rule its fellow Asians, whom it saw as inherently inferior. “There are superior and inferior races in the world,” said the Japanese politician Nakajima Chikuhei in 1940, “and it is the sacred duty of the leading race to lead and enlighten the inferior ones.” The Japanese, he continued, are “the sole superior race of the world.” Moved by necessity and destiny, Japan’s leaders planned to “plant the blood of the Yamato [Japanese] race” on their neighboring nations’ soil. They were going to subjugate all of the Far East.

Japan’s military-dominated government had long been preparing for its quest. Over decades, it had crafted a muscular, technologically sophisticated army and navy, and through a military-run school system that relentlessly and violently drilled children on the nation’s imperial destiny, it had shaped its people for war. Finally, through intense indoctrination, beatings, and desensitization, its army cultivated and celebrated extreme brutality in its soldiers. “Imbuing violence with holy meaning,” wrote the historian Iris Chang, “the Japanese imperial army made violence a cultural imperative every bit as powerful as that which propelled Europeans during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.” Chang cited a 1933 speech by a Japanese general: “Every single bullet must be charged with the Imperial Way, and the end of every bayonet must have National Virtue burnt into it.” In 1931, Japan tested the waters, invading the Chinese province of Manchuria and setting up a fiercely oppressive puppet state. This was only the beginning.

In the late 1930s, both Germany and Japan were ready to move. It was Japan that struck first, in 1937, sending its armies smashing into the rest of China. Two years later, Hitler invaded Poland. America, long isolationist, found itself pulled into both conflicts: In Europe, its allies lay in Hitler’s path; in the Pacific, its longtime ally China was being ravaged by the Japanese, and its territories of Hawaii, Wake, Guam, and Midway, as well as its commonwealth of the Philippines, were threatened. The world was falling into catastrophe.

On a dark day in April 1940, Louie returned to his bungalow to find the USC campus buzzing. Hitler had unleashed his blitzkrieg across Europe, his Soviet allies had followed, and the continent had exploded into total war. Finland, which was set to host the summer Games, was reeling. Helsinki’s Olympic stadium was partially collapsed, toppled by Soviet bombs. Gunnar Höckert, who had beaten Louie and won gold for Finland in the 5,000 in Berlin, was dead, killed defending his homeland.* The Olympics had been canceled.


Louie was unmoored. He became ill, first with food poisoning, then with pleurisy. His speed abandoned him, and he lost race after race. When USC’s spring semester ended, he collected his class ring and left campus. He was a few credits short of a degree, but he had all of 1941 to make them up. He took a job as a welder at the Lockheed Air Corporation and mourned his lost Olympics.

As Louie worked through the summer of ’40, America slid toward war. In Europe, Hitler had driven the British and their allies into the sea at Dunkirk. In the Pacific, Japan was tearing through China and moving into Indochina. In an effort to stop Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt imposed ever-increasing embargoes on matériel, such as scrap metal and aviation fuel. In the coming months, he would declare an oil embargo, freeze Japanese assets in America, and finally declare a total trade embargo. Japan pushed on.

Lockheed was on a war footing, punching out aircraft for the Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force. From the hangar where he worked, Louie could see P-38 fighters cruising overhead. Ever since his trip in the air as a boy, he’d been uneasy about planes, but watching the P-38s, he felt a pull. He was still feeling it in September when Congress enacted a draft bill. Those who enlisted prior to being drafted could choose their service branch. In early 1941, Louie joined the Army Air Corps.*

Sent to the Hancock College of Aeronautics in Santa Maria, California, Louie learned that flying a plane was nothing like watching it from the ground. He was jittery and dogged by airsickness. He washed out of the air corps, signed papers that he didn’t bother to read, and got a job as a movie extra. He was working on the set of They Died with Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, when a letter arrived. He’d been drafted.

Louie in training. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

The induction date fell before the Flynn film would wrap, and Louie stood to earn a bonus if he stayed through the shoot. Just before his army physical, he ate a fistful of candy bars; thanks to the consequent soaring blood sugar, he failed the physical. Ordered to return a few days later to retake the test, he went back to the set and earned his bonus. Then, on September 29, he joined the army.

When he finished basic training, he had an unhappy surprise. Because he hadn’t read his air corps washout papers, he had no idea that he’d agreed to rejoin the corps for future service. In November 1941, he arrived at Ellington Field, in Houston, Texas. The military was going to make him a bombardier.


That fall, while Louie was on his way to becoming an airman, an urgent letter landed on the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. It had come from a brigadier general at the War Department, Military Intelligence Division. The letter said that a credible informant had warned military officials that a California man, believed to be working for an innocuous local Japanese organization, had in fact been an employee of the Japanese navy, on assignment to raise money for Japan’s war effort. Japanese naval superiors had recently transferred the man to Washington, D.C., the informant said, to continue acting under their orders. According to the informant, the man was known as “Mr. Sasaki.” It was Louie’s friend Jimmie.

Though the surviving records of the informant’s report contain no details of Sasaki’s alleged activities, according to notes made later by a captain of the Torrance police, Sasaki had been making visits to a field adjacent to a power station, just off of Torrance Boulevard. There, he had erected a powerful radio transmitter, which he had used to send information to the Japanese government. If the allegation was true, it would explain Sasaki’s mysterious trips to Torrance. Louie’s good friend may have been a spy.

Sasaki had indeed moved to Washington, D.C., in the employ of the Japanese navy. He worked in the Japanese embassy and lived in an apartment building popular among congressmen. He made himself well known among the Washington elite, mixing with legislators at building cocktail parties, playing golf at the Army Navy Country Club, socializing with police officers and State Department officials, and volunteering to serve as chauffeur after parties. Just whose side he was on is unclear; at a cocktail party, he gave a congressman sensitive information on Japanese aircraft manufacturing.

The letter to the FBI set off alarm bells. Hoover, concerned enough to plan on informing the secretary of state, ordered an immediate investigation of Sasaki.


Not long after sunrise on a Sunday in December, a pilot guided a small plane over the Pacific. Below him, the dark sea gave way to a strand of white: waves slapping the northern tip of Oahu Island. The plane flew into a brilliant Hawaiian morning.

Oahu was beginning to stir. At Hickam Field, soldiers were washing a car. On Hula Lane, a family was dressing for Mass. At the officers’ club at Wheeler Field, men were leaving a poker game. In a barracks, two men were in the midst of a pillow fight. At Ewa Mooring Mast Field, a technical sergeant was peering through the lens of a camera at his three-year-old son. Hardly anyone had made it to the mess halls yet. Quite a few were still sleeping in their bunks in the warships, gently swaying in the harbor. Aboard the USS Arizona, an officer was about to suit up to play in the United States Fleet championship baseball game. On deck, men were assembling to raise flags as a band played the national anthem, a Sunday morning tradition.

Far above them, the pilot counted eight battleships, the Pacific Fleet’s full complement. There was a faint sheet of fog settled low to the ground.

The pilot’s name was Mitsuo Fuchida. He rolled back the canopy on his plane and sent a flare skidding green across the sky, then ordered his radioman to tap out a battle cry. Behind Fuchida, 180 Japanese planes peeled away and dove for Oahu.* On the deck of the Arizona, the men looked up.

In the barracks, one of the men in the pillow fight suddenly fell to the floor. He was dead, a three-inch hole blown through his neck. His friend ran to a window and saw a building heave upward and crumble down. A dive-bomber had crashed straight into it. There were red circles on its wings.


Pete Zamperini was at a friend’s house that morning, playing a few hands of high-low-jack before heading out for a round of golf. Behind him, the sizzle of waffles on a griddle competed with the chirp of a radio. An urgent voice interrupted the broadcast. The players put down their cards.

In Texas, Louie was in a theater, on a weekend pass. The theater was thick with servicemen, taking breaks from the endless drilling that was the life of the peacetime soldier. Midway through the showing, the screen went blank, light flooded the theater, and a man hurried onto the stage. Is there a fire? Louie wondered.

All servicemen must return to their bases immediately, the man said. Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor.

Louie would long remember sitting there with his eyes wide, his mind floundering. America was at war. He grabbed his hat and ran from the building.


* Because indoor tracks are shorter than outdoor ones, forcing runners to make more turns to cover the same distance, indoor records are generally slower. In 1940, the outdoor mile world record was one second faster than the indoor record.

* Höckert’s teammate Lauri Lehtinen, the 1932 5,000-meter Olympic champion, gave his gold medal to another Finnish soldier in Höckert’s honor.

* Many other great runners also enlisted. When Norman Bright tried to sign up, he was rejected because of his alarmingly slow pulse, a consequence of his extreme fitness. He solved the problem by running three miles, straight into another enlistment office. Cunningham tried to join the navy, but recruiters, seeing his grotesquely scarred legs, assumed that he was too crippled to serve. When someone came in and mentioned his name, they realized who he was and signed him in.

* One hundred and eighty-three planes were launched in this first of two waves, but two were lost on takeoff.


The Flying Coffin

AS JAPANESE PLANES DOVE OVER OAHU, MORE THAN TWO thousand miles to the west, a few marines were sitting in a mess tent on Wake Atoll, having breakfast. Extremely small, lacking its own water supply, Wake would have been a useless atoll but for one enormous attribute: It lay far out in the Pacific, making it a strategically ideal spot for an air base. And so it was home to one runway and about five hundred bored American servicemen, mostly marines. Aside from the occasional refueling stopovers of Pan American World Airways planes, nothing interesting ever happened there. But that December morning, just as the marines were starting on their pancakes, an air-raid siren began wailing. By noon, the sky was streaked with Japanese bombers, buildings were exploding, and a few startled men on less than three square miles of coral found themselves on the front in the Second World War.

All over the Pacific that morning, the story was the same. In less than two hours over Pearl Harbor, Japan badly wounded the American navy and killed more than 2,400 people. Almost simultaneously, it attacked Thailand, Shanghai, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Midway, and Wake. In one day of breathtaking violence, a new Japanese onslaught had begun.

In America, invasion was expected at any moment. Less than an hour after the Japanese bombed Hawaii, mines were being laid in San Francisco Bay. In Washington, Civil Defense Minister Fiorello La Guardia looped around the city in a police car, sirens blaring, shouting the word “Calm!” into a loudspeaker. At the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt dashed off a letter to her daughter, Anna, urging her to get her children off the West Coast. A butler overheard the president speculating on what he’d do if Japanese forces advanced as far as Chicago. Meanwhile, just up Massachusetts Avenue, smoke billowed from the grounds of the Japanese embassy, where Jimmie Sasaki worked. Staffers were burning documents in the embassy yard. On the sidewalk, a crowd watched in silence.

On the night of December 7–8, there were four air-raid alerts in San Francisco. At Sheppard Field air corps school, in Texas, spooked officers ran through the barracks at four A.M., screaming that Japanese planes were coming and ordering the cadets to sprint outside and throw themselves on the ground. In coming days, trenches were dug along the California coast, and schools in Oakland were closed. From New Jersey to Alaska, reservoirs, bridges, tunnels, factories, and waterfronts were put under guard. In Kearney, Nebraska, citizens were instructed on disabling incendiary bombs with garden hoses. Blackout curtains were hung in windows across America, from solitary farmhouses to the White House. Shocking rumors circulated: Kansas City was about to be attacked. San Francisco was being bombed. The Japanese had captured the Panama Canal.

Japan galloped over the globe. On December 10, it invaded the Philippines and seized Guam. The next day, it invaded Burma; a few days later, British Borneo. Hong Kong fell on Christmas; North Borneo, Rabaul, Manila, and the U.S. base in the Philippines fell in January. The British were driven from Malaya and into surrender in Singapore in seventy days.

There was one snag: Wake, surely expected to be an easy conquest, wouldn’t give in. For three days, the Japanese bombed and strafed the atoll. On December 11, a vast force, including eleven destroyers and light cruisers, launched an invasion attempt. The little group of defenders shoved them back, sinking two destroyers and damaging nine other ships, shooting down two bombers, and forcing the Japanese to abort, their first loss of the war. It wasn’t until December 23 that the Japanese finally seized Wake and captured the men on it. To the Americans’ 52 military deaths, an estimated 1,153 Japanese had been killed.

For several days, the captives were held on the airfield, shivering by night, sweltering by day, singing Christmas carols to cheer themselves. They were initially slated for execution, but after a Japanese officer’s intervention, most were crowded into the holds of ships and sent to Japan and occupied China as some of the first Americans to become POWs under the Japanese. Unbeknownst to America, ninety-eight captives were kept on Wake. The Japanese were going to enslave them.


Though Louie had been miserable over having to rejoin the air corps, it wasn’t so bad after all. Training at Texas’s Ellington Field, then Midland Army Flying School, he earned superb test scores. The flying was usually straight and