Louis Zamperini

A juvenile delinquent in his hometown of Torrance, California, Zamperini became a world famous track sensation, competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics when only a teenager.  After World War II began, he suspended his running career and became an Army Air Corps bombardier, surviving several harrowing combat missions flown out of his base in Hawaii.  On May 27, 1943, Zamperini’s bomber crashed in the Pacific, leaving Zamperini and two other survivors stranded on a raft surrounded by sharks.  An epic journey had begun.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini.

Pete Zamperini

As famous for his straight-arrow ways as his brother was for artful dodging, Pete Zamperini recognized that Louie had wondrous but untapped athletic talent.  By strong-arming Louie into running, Pete transformed his little brother’s life. Riding his bicycle behind Louie as he trained, swatting him with a stick to keep him going, Pete developed Louie’s speed, and would be his devoted coach and champion. When Louie was declared dead after his plane disappeared, Pete would help hold his family together, and would never abandon hope.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini.

Lt. Russell Allen Phillips

This quiet, gentle-tempered Indianan was Louie’s pilot, roommate and best friend.  A tremendously skilled airman, he guided his crew through dramatic combat missions, including one in which their plane was riddled with some six hundred bullet and cannon holes, crippling its steering, tearing off much of its rudder, flattening a tire, taking out its brakes and seriously wounding half the crew. Later, when the crew’s bomber crashed in the Pacific, Phillips survived, joining Zamperini and one other crewman in a tiny life raft.

Photo credit: Karen Loomis.

Super Man

This B-24, assigned to Zamperini’s crew, was beloved to the men, and it carried them faithfully through the worst of combat.  ”It was our baby,” Zamperini would say.  ”It was our home.”

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini.

Green Hornet

A veteran of the bloody campaign for Guadalcanal, this B-24 bomber was barely airworthy, so underpowered that it flew with its tail dangling far below its nose.  Avoided by wary airmen, it was relegated to errands around Hawaii, and the ground crews poached its parts for other bombers.  But on May 27, 1943, when another bomber disappeared somewhere south of Oahu, Green Hornet was the only plane available for a search.  Zamperini and his crew were ordered to fly it.  It was a fatal decision.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini.

Sgt. Francis McNamara

This tail-gunner was the third man to survive the May, 1943 plane crash that killed most of his crew and left him stranded on a raft with Phillips and Zamperini.  On the first night on the raft, in a panic, McNamara would make a mistake that would put his life, and those of his raftmates, in deepest jeopardy.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini.

Lt. William Harris

Captured by the Japanese at Corregidor, this brilliant and daring marine general’s son escaped his captors, embarked on an eight-and-a-half hour swim across Manila Bay to the Bataan Peninsula, and made a run for China, hiking through jungles and over mountains, navigating the coast in boats donated by sympathetic Filipinos, hitching rides on burros, and surviving in part by eating ants.  Betrayed by Indonesian civilians, he was recaptured by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp in Japan, where he befriended Zamperini.  There, Harris, Zamperini and American lieutenant Frank Tinker would hatch a plot to escape.

Photo credit: Katey Meares.

Mutsuhiro Watanabe, “the Bird.”

Known by prisoners as “the Bird,” this POW camp guard was consumed in bitterness over his failure to become an officer.   An ardent sadist, he was especially provoked by POWs who were officers, who were successful in civilian life, or who refused to grovel before him.  When he encountered Louis Zamperini, a lieutenant, a world-famous Olympian, and a ferociously defiant man, Watanabe was immediately obsessed with breaking him.  The two men began a yearlong battle of wills that would culminate in a murder plot.

Cynthia Applewhite

When Louie first saw this beautiful Miami Beach debutante, he had the wild thought that he had to marry her.  Years later, Cynthia would save Louie’s life.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini.