My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a fantastic read that tells the story of Louie Zampirini, a World War II airman who epitomized the Greatest Generation. Zampirini, the son of Italian immigrants, spends his childhood engaged in shenanigans and petty theft. He later converts his talent for running away from the scene of the crime into a career as a record-setting runner for high school and then the Olympics. Before he could return for his second Olympics, World War II began and he instead ended up as an airman stationed in the South Pacific.
Louie is on a search and rescue mission when his plane goes down in the middle of the Pacific. Only 3 crew members survive and drift helplessly for 37 days. Constantly surrounded by sharks, the 3 men fight dehydration, starvation, and the elements in 2 rubber rafts with virtually no supplies and no shelter. At one point, Louie jumps into the water and hides under the raft, punching and fighting off sharks, as a Japanese plane flies by several time, strafing the raft. The men eventually drift some 2,000 miles and wind up in the Marshall Islands, which were under Japanese control.
Louie then spends the next 2 years as a Japanese POW, living under some of the most deprived and miserable conditions while being mentally and physically tortured by camp commanders. One Japanese officer in particular, whom they called The Bird, was a sociopath who targeted Louie in particular.
Zampirini’s story was enlightening on many fronts. I had no idea that more US airmen were killed due to faulty equipment and accidents than by enemy action in WWII. I didn’t realize how inadequately our soldiers, airmen, and marines were equipped to fight a war or to survive accidents. Zampirini’s life raft, for instance, had a fish hook, a few pints of water, non-melting chocolate bars, and a patch kit.
I also didn’t know how badly our POWs were treated by the Japanese, who had no regard for the Geneva Convention or any other measures of decency or humanity. It was common practice for them to issue “all-kill” orders if they felt invasion was imminent, which would mean executing all POWs in the camp. At one camp, they had the POWs build tunnels and bunkers only to herd them in, douse them with gasoline, and then light them on fire. Escapees were gunned down and bayoneted. It’s sad to know that the US didn’t fully prosecute and punish these Japanese soldiers for war crimes in order to enlist Japanese support to defend against Russia.
The author does an excellent job at telling a very difficult story with sensitivity, yet it reads almost like a suspense novel. To have a glimpse into these men’s bravery and determination to survive was inspiring and humbling.
My only complaint was that I thought there was too much page count devoted to his running career early in the book, with excessive detail about competitors, meets, practices, and times.