level, so airsickness wasn’t a problem. Best of all, women found the flyboy uniform irresistible. While Louie was out walking one afternoon, a convertible fringed in blondes pulled up, and he was scooped into the car and sped off to a party. When it happened a second time, he sensed a positive trend.

Louie was trained in the use of two bombsights. At that time, the military was experimenting with dive-bombing tactics for heavy bombers. For dive-bombing training, he had a $1 handheld sight consisting of an aluminum plate with a peg and a dangling weight. For flat runs, he had the Norden bombsight, an extremely sophisticated analog computer that, at $8,000, cost more than twice the price of the average American home. On a bombing run with the Norden sight, Louie would visually locate the target, make calculations, and feed information on air speed, altitude, wind, and other factors into the device. The bombsight would then take over flying the plane, follow a precise path to the target, calculate the drop angle, and release the bombs at the optimal moment. Once the bombs were gone, Louie would yell “Bombs away!” and the pilot would take control again. Norden bombsights were so secret that they were stored in guarded vaults and moved under armed escort, and the men were forbidden to photograph or write about them. If his plane was going down, Louie was under orders to fire his Colt .45 into the bombsight to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, then see about saving himself.

In August 1942, Louie, graduated from Midland, was commissioned a second lieutenant. He jumped into a friend’s Cadillac and drove to California to say good-bye to his family before heading into his final round of training, then war. Pete, now a navy chief petty officer stationed in San Diego, came home to see Louie off.

On the afternoon of August 19, the Zamperinis gathered on the front steps for a last photograph. Louie and Pete, dashing in their dress uniforms, stood on the bottom step with their mother between them, tiny beside her sons. Louise was on the verge of tears. The August sun was sharp on her face, and she and Louie squinted hard and looked slightly away from the camera, as if all before them was lost in the glare.

A last family photograph as Louie leaves to go to war. Rear, left to right: Sylvia’s future husband, Harvey Flammer; Virginia, Sylvia, and Anthony Zamperini. Front: Pete, Louise, and Louie. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

Louie and his father rode together to the train station. The platform was crowded with uniformed young men and crying parents, clinging to one another, saying good-bye. When Louie embraced his father, he could feel him shaking.

As his train pulled away, Louie looked out the window. His father stood with his hand in the air, a wavering smile on his face. Louie wondered if he’d ever see him again.


The train carried him to a perpetual dust storm known as Ephrata, Washington, where there was an air base in the middle of a dry lakebed. The lakebed was on a mission to bury the base, the men, and all of their planes, and it was succeeding. The air was so clouded with blowing dirt that men waded through drifts a foot and a half deep. Clothes left out of duffel bags were instantly filthy, and all of the meals, which the crews ate outside while sitting on the ground, were infused with sand. The ground crews, which had to replace twenty-four dirt-clogged aircraft engines in twenty-one days, resorted to spraying oil on the taxiways to keep the dust down. Getting the lakebed off the men was problematic; the hot water ran out long before the men did, and because the PX didn’t sell shaving soap, practically everyone had a brambly, dust-catching beard.

Not long after his arrival, Louie was standing at the base, sweating and despairing over the landscape, when a squarish second lieutenant walked up and introduced himself. He was Russell Allen Phillips, and he would be Louie’s pilot.

Born in Greencastle, Indiana, in 1916, Phillips had just turned twenty-six. He had grown up in a profoundly religious home in La Porte, Indiana, where his father had been a Methodist pastor. As a boy, he’d been so quiet that adults must have thought him timid, but he had a secret bold stripe. He snuck around his neighborhood with bags full of flour, launching guerrilla attacks on windshields of passing cars, and one Memorial Day weekend, he wedged himself into a car trunk to sneak into the infield of the Indy 500. He had gone to Purdue University, where he’d earned a degree in forestry and conservation. In ROTC, his captain had called him “the most unfit, lousy-looking soldier” he’d ever seen. Ignoring the captain’s assessment, Phillips had enlisted in the air corps, where he’d proven to be a born airman. At home, they called him Allen; in the air corps, they called him Phillips.

The first thing people tended to notice about Phillips was that they hadn’t noticed him earlier. He was so recessive that he could be in a room for a long time before anyone realized that he was there. He was smallish, short-legged. Some of the men called him Sandblaster because, said one pilot, “his fanny was so close to the ground.” For unknown reasons, he wore one pant leg markedly shorter than the other. He had a tidy, pleasant, boyish face that tended to blend with the scenery. This probably contributed to his invisibility, but what really did it was his silence. Phillips was an amiable man and was, judging by his letters, highly articulate, but he preferred not to speak. You could park him in a crowd of chattering partygoers and he’d emerge at evening’s end having never said a word. People had long conversations with him, only to realize later that he hadn’t spoken.

Russell Allen Phillips. Courtesy of Karen Loomis

If he had a boiling point, he never reached it. He rolled along with every inexplicable order from his superiors, every foolish act of his inferiors, and every abrasive personality that military life could throw at an officer. He dealt with every manner of adversity with calm, adaptive acceptance. In a crisis, Louie would learn, Phillips’s veins ran icewater.

Phillips had one consuming passion. When he had entered college, his father had taken a new pastorship in Terre Haute. There, Phillips’s sister had introduced him to a girl from the church choir, a college student named Cecile Perry, known as Cecy. She had blond hair, a curvy figure, a buoyant disposition, a quick mind, and a family cat named Chopper. She was studying to be a teacher. At a prom in Terre Haute, Allen kissed Cecy. He was a goner, and so was she.

On a Saturday night in November 1941, when he left for the air corps, Phillips spent five last minutes with Cecy at the Indianapolis train station. When the fighting was over, he promised, he’d make her his bride. He kept her photo on his footlocker and wrote her love letters several times a week. When she turned twenty-one, he sent her his pay and asked her to find an engagement ring. Allen’s ring was soon on Cecy’s finger.

In June 1942, just after her graduation, Cecy traveled to Phoenix to see Allen get his wings. Crazy in love, the two talked about running off to get hitched right then, but reconsidered, deciding to marry at his next training venue and live together there until he was deployed. That venue was Ephrata, and when Phillips saw it, he kicked himself. “I’ve wished 100 times that we had gotten married when we were at Phoenix,” he wrote to her, “but I wouldn’t ask you now to come out here + live in a dump like Ephrata.” Again, they postponed their wedding. In the fall, Allen’s training would be finished. Then, they hoped, they’d have one more chance to see each other before he went to war.

In Ephrata, Louie and Phillips fell in together. Phillips floated along contentedly in Louie’s chatty bonhomie; Louie liked Phillips’s quiet steadiness, and thought him the kindest person he’d ever met. They never had a single argument and were almost never apart. Phillips called Louie “Zamp”; Louie called Phillips “Phil.”

Phil’s crew. Left to right: Phillips, temporary copilot Gross, Zamperini, Mitchell, Douglas, Pillsbury, and Glassman. Moznette, Lambert, and Brooks are not pictured. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

The rest of Phil’s bomber crew assembled. Serving as engineer and top turret gunner would be twenty-two-year-old Stanley Pillsbury, who’d been running his family’s Maine farm before joining up. The other engineer was Virginia native Clarence Douglas, who would operate one of the two side-directed waist guns, behind the wings. The navigator and nose gunner would be Robert Mitchell, a professor’s son from Illinois. Tiny Frank Glassman, with his tightly curled hair, was a dead ringer for Harpo Marx. He would be their radioman and, later, their belly gunner. Because Frank hailed from Chicago, the men called him Gangster. Ray Lambert of Maryland would man the tail gun. The crew’s girl magnet was Harry Brooks, a good-looking, ebullient radioman and waist gunner from Michigan. The copilot would be George Moznette, Jr. Because copilots were rotated from plane to plane as they qualified to be pilots, Moznette wouldn’t stay with the crew, but he became fast friends with Phil and Louie.

Moznette, Mitchell, Phil, and Louie were officers; the others were enlisted. All were bachelors, but Harry Brooks, like Phil, had a steady girl back home. Her name was Jeannette, and before the war, she and Harry had set their wedding date for May 8, 1943.


The men were issued heavy sheepskin jackets and wool clothing, assembled, and photographed. They would make up crew No. 8 in the nine-crew 372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, Seventh Air Force. All they needed was a plane.

Louie was hoping to be assigned to a B-17 Flying Fortress. It was the kind of plane that men wanted to be seen in: handsome, masculine, nimble, fiercely armed, reliable, long-winded, and practically indestructible. The plane that no one wanted was a new bomber, Consolidated Aircraft’s B-24 Liberator. On paper, it was generally comparable to the B-17, but for one major advantage. Thanks to auxiliary fuel tanks and slender, ultraefficient Davis wings, it could fly literally all day, a decisive asset in the sprawling World War II theaters.

Flat-faced, rectangular, and brooding, the B-24 had looks only a myopic mother could love. Crewmen gave it a host of nicknames, among them “the Flying Brick,” “the Flying Boxcar,” and “the Constipated Lumberer,” a play on Consolidated Liberator. The cockpit was oppressively cramped, forcing pilot and copilot to live cheek by jowl for missions as long as sixteen hours. Craning over the mountainous control panel, the pilot had a panoramic view of his plane’s snout and not much else. Navigating the nine-inch-wide bomb bay catwalk could be difficult, especially in turbulence; one slip and you’d tumble into the bay, which was fitted with fragile aluminum doors that would tear away with the weight of a falling man.

Taxiing was an adventure. The B-24’s wheels had no steering, so the pilot had to cajole the bomber along by feeding power to one side’s engines, then the other, and working back and forth on the left and right brakes, one of which was usually much more sensitive than the other. This made the taxiways a pageant of lurching planes, all of which, sooner or later, ended up veering into places nowhere near where their pilots intended them to go, and from which they often had to be extricated with shovels.

A pilot once wrote that the first time he got into a B-24 cockpit, “it was like sitting on the front porch and flying the house.” The sentiment was common. The Liberator was one of the heaviest planes in the world; the D model then in production weighed 71,200 pounds loaded. Flying it was like wrestling a bear, leaving pilots weary and sore. Because pilots usually manned the yoke with their left hands while their right hands worked the other controls, B-24 pilots were instantly recognizable when shirtless, because the muscles on their left arms dwarfed those on their right arms. The plane was so clumsy that it was difficult to fly in the tight formations that were critical to fending off attack. A squiggle of turbulence, or a crewman walking inside the fuselage, would tip the plane off its axis.

The B-24 was plagued with mechanical difficulties. If one of the four engines quit, staying airborne was challenging; the failure of two engines was often an emergency. Shortly after the plane was introduced, there were several incidents in which B-24 tails dropped off in midair. And though the war was young, the plane was winning a reputation for being delicate, especially in the skinny wings, which could snap off if struck in combat. Some of the men at Ephrata thought of the B-24 as a death trap.

After a long wait, the 372nd squadron’s planes flew into Ephrata. Phil’s crew walked out and squinted at the horizon. Even from a distance, there was no mistaking the silhouettes. As the men grumbled, Louie heard one voice pipe up.

“It’s the Flying Coffin.”


They were assigned to a B-24D that looked like all the others. For the next three months—in Ephrata in August and September and Sioux City in October—they practically lived in it. They flew in formation, fired at targets pulled by tow planes, simulated combat runs, and dive-bombed. One day they buzzed so low over Iowa that the propellers kicked up a storm of sand, skinning the paint off the plane’s belly and scouring the legs of Pillsbury, who was sitting by the open hatch in the tail, trying to photograph their dummy bombs as they fell into target nets. Throughout it all, Louie perched in the glass-windowed “greenhouse” in the plane’s nose, bombing targets. The COs soon learned of the squadron’s prowess; angry farmers came calling after the 372nd’s hundred-pound bombs flattened an outhouse and one unfortunate cow.

Phil’s crew had their first scare at Ephrata. On a training flight, they had radio trouble and got lost, flew around in a blind confusion for hours, and ended up landing at nearly midnight in Spokane, half a state away from their slated destination. They’d been missing for three and a half hours, and the entire West Coast air corps had been hunting for them. When Phil stepped off the plane, he got one chewing out from a colonel. When he flew back to Ephrata, he got another, in stereo, from a colonel and major. “I grew a little older that night, sweet, believe me,” he wrote to Cecy.

The panic had been justified, for accidents were common and deadly. Before Louie had begun his bombardier training, he had received a letter from a friend who was an air corps cadet.

I guess you read about the cadet and instructor who was killed here last week. The poor devils never had a chance. They stalled their ship while turning from base leg onto landing approach. The ship made a one-turn spin and then really hit the ground … When they hit it tore their bodies to peaces. The safety belt cut the instructor half in-two. All over the wrecked part of the airplane it look like somebody took and threw about three pans of tomatoes and crakers all over it (blood and flesh) They were mangled to bits, couldn’t even identify them looking at them.

It was the kind of story that was filling the letters of would-be airmen all over the country. Pilot and navigator error, mechanical failure, and bad luck were killing trainees at a stunning rate. In the Army Air Forces, or AAF,* there were 52,651 stateside aircraft accidents over the course of the war, killing 14,903 personnel. Though some of these personnel were probably on coastal patrol and other duties, it can be presumed that the vast majority were trainees, killed without ever seeing a combat theater. In the three months in which Phil’s men trained as a crew, 3,041 AAF planes—more than 33 per day—met with accidents stateside, killing nine men per day. In subsequent months, death tallies exceeding 500 were common. In August 1943, 590 airmen would die stateside, 19 per day.

Louie, Phil, and their crew saw the dying firsthand. In July, Phil’s close friend had been killed in a B-24, just after Phil had had dinner with him. On another day, Phil’s crew spent part of a rainy morning sitting in a briefing room with another crew as they awaited flights. Both crews went to their planes, but at the last minute, Phil’s crew was ordered back. The other crew took off, flew two miles, and crashed, killing the pilot and navigator. In October in Sioux City, another bomber from their group plowed onto a field, killing two. When he learned that the press was reporting on the crash without giving the crewmen’s names, Phil ran out of a meeting to get word to his family that he hadn’t been on the plane.

The air corps did its best to teach men how to survive a crash. Men were drilled in preparing their planes for impact and equipping themselves for postcrash survival. Each man was assigned to a crash station, which in Louie’s case was by the waist window behind the right wing. They were also schooled in bailout simulations, jumping from parked planes. Some rolled off the catwalk and dropped through the open bomb bay doors; others leapt from the waist windows, wondering how, if jumping from an airborne plane, they’d avoid being cut in two by the twin rudders just behind the windows. They were also taught how to ditch, or make a controlled landing on water. Phil studied dutifully, but he found the idea of landing a giant bomber on water “kind of silly.” The training films surely deepened his doubts; in every film, the ditching B-24 broke apart.

Training was a crucible, and it transformed Phil’s crew. They would not all live through what lay ahead, but the survivors would speak of their good fortune in serving among such skilled men. They worked together with seamless efficiency, and judging by their training scores, in the grim business of bombs and bullets, there was no better crew in the squadron. Among surviving crewmen and men from other crews, the warmest praise would be reserved for Phil. B-24s were built for tall pilots, and though Phil needed a cushion to get his feet to the pedals and his eyes over the control panel, by all accounts he was superb at his job. Phil, Louie told a reporter, was “a damn swell pilot.”

The B-24 assigned to Phil’s crew had its own personality. It had a valve that oozed fuel into the bomb bay, prompting Pillsbury to develop a nervous habit of pacing the fuselage, sniffing the air. It had a curmudgeonly fuel transfer valve that Pillsbury and Douglas had to finesse into place, lest it stick wide open, slow an engine, or trigger a deafening backfire. The fuel gauges were reliable only until the tanks neared empty, at which point they sometimes reported that the plane was magically gaining fuel. One engine, for reasons known only to the plane, was thirstier than the others, so the gauges had to be watched constantly.

In time, the men’s misgivings about the Liberator fell away. In hundreds of hours of intense training, their plane never failed them. For all its ugliness and quirks, it was a noble thing, rugged and inexhaustible. The ground crewmen felt the same, nursing Phil’s plane with affection and fretting while it flew. When it returned, they received it with relief, scolding the crew for any scratches. Airmen talked of “flying boxcars,” but Phil and Louie dismissed them. Louie described it as “our home.”

On the ground, the crew drank together, swam in the local lakes, and cruised around Ephrata and Sioux City. In the latter, Louie discovered that the enlisted ground crewmen, who had preceded them into town, had convinced the local women that their insignia indicated that they were officers. As Louie set off to right this wrong, Phil pulled night duty at the operations office. Sometime one night, he drifted into a troubled dream. In it, he came home from the war only to find that Cecy had given him up.


On a Saturday afternoon in mid-October of 1942, the men of the 372nd were told to pack their bags. Their training was being cut short, and they were to be sent to California’s Hamilton Field, then rushed overseas. Phil was crestfallen; Cecy was about to come see him. He would miss her by three days. On October 20, the squadron flew out of Iowa.

At Hamilton Field, an artist was working his way down the planes, painting each one’s name and accompanying illustration. Naming bombers was a grand tradition. Many B-24 crews dreamed up delightfully clever names, among them E Pluribus Aluminum, Axis Grinder, The Bad Penny, and Bombs Nip On. Quite a few of the rest were shamelessly bawdy, painted with scantily clad and unclad women. One featured a sailor chasing a naked girl around the fuselage. Its name was Willie Maker. Louie had a snapshot taken of himself grinning under one of the more ribald examples.

Phil’s plane needed a name, and no one could think of one. After the war, the survivors would have different memories of who named the plane, but in a letter penned that fall, Phil would write that it was copilot George Moznette who suggested Super Man. Everyone liked it, and the name was painted on the plane’s nose, along with the superhero himself, a bomb in one hand and a machine gun in the other. Louie didn’t think much of the painting—in photographs, the gun looks like a shovel—but Phil loved it. Most crews referred to their planes as “she.” Phil insisted that his plane was all man.

The men were slated for combat, but they hadn’t been told where they would serve. Judging by the heavy winter gear, Louie thought that they were bound for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, which had been invaded by the Japanese months before. He was happily wrong: they were going to Hawaii. On the evening of October 24, Louie called home for a last good-bye. He just missed Pete, who came for a visit only a few minutes after his brother hung up.

Sometime after speaking to Louie, Louise pulled out a set of note cards on which she kept lists of Christmas card recipients. After Louie’s last visit home, she’d taken out one of the cards and, on it, jotted down the date and a few words about Louie’s departure. This day, she noted Louie’s phone call. These were the first two entries in what would become Louise’s war diary.

Phil at the helm of Super Man. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

Before he left Hamilton Field, Louie dropped a little package in the mail, addressed to his mother. When Louise opened it, she found inside a pair of airman’s wings. Every morning, through all that lay ahead for her, Louise would pin the wings to her dress. Every night, before she went to bed, she’d take them off her dress and pin them to her nightgown.


On November 2, 1942, Phil’s crew climbed aboard Super Man and readied to go to war. They were heading into a desperate fight. North to south, Japan’s new empire stretched five thousand miles, from the snowbound Aleutians to Java, hundreds of miles south of the equator. West to east, the empire sprawled over more than six thousand miles, from the border of India to the Gilbert and Marshall islands in the central Pacific. In the Pacific, virtually everything above Australia and west of the international date line had been taken by Japan. Only a few eastward islands had been spared, among them the Hawaiian Islands, Midway, Canton, Funafuti, and a tiny paradise called Palmyra. It was from these outposts that the men of the AAF were trying to win the Pacific, as the saying went, “one damned island after another.”

That day, Super Man banked over the Pacific for the first time. The crew was bound for Oahu’s Hickam Field, where the war had begun for America eleven months before, and where it would soon begin for them. The rim of California slid away, and then there was nothing but ocean. From this day forward, until victory or defeat, transfer, discharge, capture, or death took them from it, the vast Pacific would be beneath and around them. Its bottom was already littered with downed warplanes and the ghosts of lost airmen. Every day of this long and ferocious war, more would join them.

* In June 1941, the air corps became a subordinate arm of the Army Air Forces. It remained in existence as a combat branch of the army until 1947.


“This Is It, Boys”

OAHU WAS STILL RINGING FROM THE JAPANESE ATTACK. The enemy had left so many holes in the roads that the authorities hadn’t been able to fill them all yet, leaving the local drivers swerving around craters. There were still a few gouges in the roof of the Hickam Field barracks, making for soggy airmen when it rained. The island was on constant alert for air raids or invasion, and was so heavily camouflaged, a ground crewman wrote in his diary, that “one sees only about ⅓ of what is actually there.” Each night, the island disappeared; every window was fitted with lightproof curtains, every car with covered headlights, and blackout patrols enforced rules so strict that a man wasn’t even permitted to strike a match. Servicemen were under orders to carry gas masks in hip holsters at all times. To reach their beloved waves, local surfers had to worm their way under the barbed wire that ran the length of Waikiki Beach.

The 372nd squadron was sent to Kahuku, a beachside base at the foot of a blade of mountains on the north shore. Louie and Phil, who would soon be promoted to first lieutenant, were assigned to a barracks with Mitchell, Moznette, twelve other young officers, and hordes of mosquitoes. “You kill one,” Phil wrote, “and ten more come to the funeral.” Outside, the building was picturesque; inside, Phil wrote, it looked “like a dozen dirty Missouri pigs have been wallowing on it.” The nonstop revelry didn’t help matters. After one four A.M. knock-down, drag-out water fight involving all sixteen officers, Phil woke up with floor burns on his elbows and knees. On another night, as Louie and Phil wrestled over a beer, they crashed into the flimsy partition separating their room from the next. The partition keeled over, and Phil and Louie kept staggering forward, toppling two more partitions before they stopped. When Colonel William Matheny, the 307th Bomb Group commander, saw the wreckage, he grumbled something about how Zamperini must have been involved.

There was one perk to life in the barracks. The bathroom was plastered in girlie pinups, a Sistine Chapel of pornography. Phil gaped at it, marveling at the distillation of frustrated flyboy libido that had inspired it. Here in the pornographic palace, he was a long way from his minister father’s house in Indiana.


Everyone was eager to take a crack at the enemy, but there was no combat to