Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Louis Zamperini (1917-2014) Born to Italian immigrants, Louie Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California. After a turbulent youth, he channeled his energy into track and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. During World War II, he was a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. His plane suffered mechanical difficulties and crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Of the 11 men on board, only 3 survived the crash. This excerpt describes what happened after the crash.
The ocean was a jumble of bomber remains. The lifeblood of the plane — oil, hydraulic fluid, and some one thousand gallons of fuel — slopped about on the surface. Curling among the bits of plane were threads of blood. Louie heard a voice. He turned toward it and saw Phil, a few dozen feet away, clinging to what looked like a fuel tank. With him was the tail gunner, Mac. Blood spouted in rhythmic arcs from Phil's head and washed in sheets down his face. His eyes lolled about in dazed bewilderment. Phil looked at the head bobbling across the debris field and registered that it was Louie. None of the other men had surfaced.
Louie saw one of the life rafts bobbing on the water. It was possible that the raft had been thrown loose by the disintegrating plane, but it was much more likely that the engineer, in the last act of his life, had yanked the raft-release handle just before the crash. The raft had inflated itself and was drifting away rapidly.
Louie knew that he had to get Phil's bleeding stopped, but if he went to him, the raft would be lost and all of them would perish. He swam for the raft. His clothing and shoes weighed him down, and the current and wind carried the raft away faster than he could swim. As it slipped farther and farther from reach, Louie gave up. He looked back at Phil and Mac, sharing the recognition that their chance was lost. Then he saw a long cord trailing off the raft, snaking not two feet from his face. He snatched the cord, reeled the raft to him, and climbed aboard.
He rowed to Phil and Mac. Louie pulled Phil aboard, and Mac climbed up under his own power. Both men, like Louie were filmy with fuel and oil. With all three of them in one raft, it was cramped; the raft was only about six feet long inside and a little more than two feet wide.
There were two gashes on the left side of Phil's forehead, by the hairline. Blood was spurting from the wounds and, mixed with seawater, sloshing in the bottom of the raft. Remembering what he had learned in Boy Scouts and his Honolulu first aid course, Louie ran his fingers down Phil's throat until he felt a pulse, the carotid artery. Louie dipped Phil's T-shirt in the water, folded it into a compress, and pressed it to the wounds. He took the other T-shirts and tied them tightly around Phil's head.
Phil's mind was woozy. He knew that he'd crashed, that someone had pulled him from the water, that he was in a raft, and that Louie was with him. He felt frightened, though not panicked. As the pilot, he was officially in command, but he grasped his situation well enough to know that he was in no condition to make decisions. He could see that Louie had a nasty cut on his finger, near his USC ring, but was otherwise unhurt and lucid. He asked Louie to take command, and Louie agreed.
"I'm glad it was you, Zamp," Phil said softly.
Phil felt as if he were on fire. The equatorial sun lay upon the men, scalding their skin. Their upper lips burned and cracked, ballooning so dramatically that they obstructed their nostrils, while their lower lips bulged against their chins. Their bodies were slashed with open cracks that formed under the corrosive onslaught of sun, salt, wind, and fuel residue.
Whitecaps slapped into the fissures, a sensation that Louie compared to having alcohol poured onto a wound. Sunlight glared off the ocean, sending barbs of white light into the men's pupils and leaving their heads pounding. The men's feet were cratered with quarter-sized salt sores. The rafts baked along with their occupants, emitting a bitter smell.
The water cans were empty. Desperately thirsty and overheated, the men could do no more than use their hands to bail seawater over themselves. The coolness of the ocean beckoned and couldn't be answered, for the sharks circled. One shark, six or eight feet long, stalked the rafts without rest, day and night. The men became especially wary of him, and when he ventured too close, one of them would jab him with an oar.
On the third day without water, a smudge appeared on the horizon. It grew, darkened, billowed over the rafts, and lidded the sun. Down came the rain. The men threw back their heads, spilled their bodies back, spread their arms, and opened their mouths. The rain fell on their chests, lips, faces, tongues. It soothed their skin, washed the salt and sweat and fuel from their pores, slid down their throats, fed their bodies. It was a sensory explosion.
They knew it wouldn't last. They had to find a way to save the water. The narrow water tins, opened to the downpour, caught virtually nothing. Louie, keeping his head tipped up and his mouth open, felt around the raft for something better. He dug into the raft pockets and pulled out one of the air pumps. It was sheathed in a canvas case about fourteen inches long, stitched down one side. He tore the seam open, spread the fabric to form a triangular bowl, and watched happily as the rain pooled on the fabric.
He had collected some two pints of water when a whitecap cracked into the raft, crested over, and slopped into the canvas, spoiling the water.
Louie tried a new technique. Instead of allowing large pools of water to gather, he began continuously sucking the captured water into his mouth, then spitting it in the cans.
Once the cans were full, he kept harvesting the rain, giving one man a drink every thirty seconds or so. They tore open the second pump case to form another rain catcher. When the sun emerged, they found that the canvas cases also made excellent hats. The men were ravenous. As hunger bleated inside them, the men experienced a classic symptom of starvation, the inability to direct their thoughts away from food. They stared into the ocean, undulating with edible creatures; but without bait, they couldn't catch even a minnow. Occasionally, a bird passed, always out of reach. The men studied their shoes and wondered if they could eat the leather. They decided that they couldn't.
Days passed. Each evening, the roasting heat gave way to cold. One day, nine or ten days into their odyssey, Louie felt something alight on his hood, and saw its shadow fall before him. It was an albatross. With Louie's head hidden, the bird hadn't recognized that he was landing on a man.
Slowly, slowly, Louie raised his hand toward the bird, his motion so gradual that it was little more noticeable than the turning of a minute hand on a clock. The bird rested calmly. In time, Louie's hand was beside the bird, his fingers open. All at once, Louie snapped his hand shut, clamping down on the bird's legs. The bird pecked frantically, slashing his knuckles. Louie grabbed its head and broke its neck.
Louie used the pliers to tear the bird open. A gust of fetid odor rose from the body, and all three men recoiled. Louie handed a bit of meat to Phil and Mac and took one for himself. The stench hung before them, spurring waves of nausea. Gagging, they couldn't get the meat into their mouths. Eventually, they gave up.
Though they couldn't eat the bird, they finally had bait. Louie took out the fishing gear, tied a small hook to a line, baited it, and fed it into the water. In a moment, a shark cruised by, bit down on the hook, and severed the line, taking the bait, the hook, and a foot or two of line with him. Louie tried with another hook, and again, a shark took it. A third try produced the same result. Finally, the sharks let a hook hang unmolested. Louie felt a tug and pulled up the line. On its end hung a slender pilot fish, about ten inches long. As Louie pulled it apart, everyone felt apprehensive. None of them had eaten raw fish before. They each put a bit of meat into their mouths. It was flavorless. They ate it down to the bones.
It was the first food to cross their lips in more than a week. Between three men, a small fish didn't go far, but the protein gave them a push of energy. Louie had demonstrated that if they were persistent and resourceful, they could catch food, and both he and Phil felt inspired. Only Mac remained unchanged…
As time passed, Phil began thinking about an article, written by the World War I ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, that he had read in Life magazine that winter. The previous October, a B-17 carrying Rickenbacker and a crew over the Pacific had become lost and run out of fuel. The pilot had ditched the plane, and it had floated long enough for the men to get into rafts. The men had drifted for weeks, surviving on stores in the rafts, rainwater, fish, and bird meat.
It seemed that Rickenbacker's crew had stretched the capacity for human survival as far as it would go. Rickenbacker had written that he had drifted for twenty-one days (he had actually drifted for twenty-four), and Phil, Louie, and Mac believed that this was a survival record.
At first, Phil gave no thought to counting days, but when time stretched on, he began paying attention to how long they'd been out there. He had no trouble counting days without confusion because they were on the raft for only part of the day they crashed. Phil and Louie counted the following day as day one. With each new day, Phil told himself that surely they'd be picked up before reaching Rickenbacker's mark. When he considered what they'd do if they passed that mark, he had no answer.
Rickenbacker's story, familiar to Louie also, was important for another reason. Exposure, dehydration, stress, and hunger had quickly driven many of Rickenbacker's party insane, a common fate for raft-bound men. Louie was more concerned about sanity than he was about sustenance. Louie was determined that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control.
Within a few days of the crash, Louie began peppering the other two with questions on every conceivable subject. Phil took up the challenge, and soon he and Louie turned the raft into a nonstop quiz show. They shared their histories, from first memories onward, recounted in minute detail. They told and retold stories… Every answer was followed by a question. Phil sang church hymns; Louie taught the other two the lyrics to "White Christmas." They sang it over the ocean, a holiday song in June, heard only by circling sharks.
Every conversation meandered back to food. Louie had often boasted to Phil about his mother's cooking, and at some point, Phil asked Louie to describe how she made a meal. Louie began describing a dish, and all three men found it satisfying, so Louie kept going, telling then about each dish in the greatest possible detail. Soon, Louise's kitchen floated there with them: Sauces simmered, spices were pinched and scattered, butter melted on tongues.
Once the imaginary food was eaten and the past exhausted, they moved to the future. Louie laid plans to buy the Torrance train depot and turn it into a restaurant. Phil fantasized about getting back to Indiana, maybe to teach school. He couldn't wait to see the Indy 500 again…
As Louie and Phil grilled each other, Mac usually sat in silence. Sometimes he'd ask Louie to describe a recipe, and occasionally he would interject, but getting him to fully participate was rough going. He shared few memories, and though the other two encouraged him, he couldn't imagine a future. To him, it seemed the world was too far gone.
For Phil, there was another source of strength, one of which even Louie was unaware. Phil was a deeply religious man, carrying a faith instilled in him by his parents. Phil never spoke of his faith, but as he sang hymns over the ocean, conjuring up a protective God, perhaps rescue felt closer, despair more distant. From earliest childhood, Louie had regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness, and his determination to rebel. The result had been a mutinous youth. As maddening as his exploits had been for his parents and town, Louie's success in carrying them off had given him the conviction that he could think his way around any boundary. Now, as he was cast into extremity, despair and death became the focus of his defiance. The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance were keeping him alive in the greatest struggle of his life.
Two weeks had passed. The men's bodies slowly wasted away. Their cheeks, now bearded, had sunken into concavity. Their bodies were digesting themselves. The two-week mark was a turning point for Louie. He began to pray aloud. He had no idea how to speak to God, so he recited snippets of prayers he'd heard in movies. Phil bowed his head as Louie spoke, offering "Amen" at the end. Mac only listened...
The men grew thinner. Phil was gradually regaining his strength after his initial state of concussed exhaustion; Mac's body grew weaker, following his broken spirit. Then the rains stopped and the water tins dried up. They reached day twenty-one. They caught a fish and had a little celebration for passing what they thought was Rickenbacker's mark.
Louie was out of bait. Other than the sharks, the only fish that ventured near the rafts were pilot fish, which hugged the sides of the sharks as they circled. They were within easy reach, only when Louie tried to grab them, they squirted away. The sharks had stolen every hook small enough to fit the mouths of the pilot fish, so Louie tried albatross bones, but the fish spat them out.
Looking at the fish that he had left, he got an idea. He cut off small portions of line, tied them to large fishhooks, and then tied three hooks to the fingers of one hand, one on his pinkie, one on his middle finger, one on his thumb, orienting them as if they were claws. He held his hand over the water's surface and waited.
A shark, attended by a pilot fish, swam by. Once its head had passed, Louie sank his hand into the water. When the unsuspecting pilot fish moved under his hand, he snapped his fingers shut around its back, the hooks dug in, Louie yanked the fish out of the water, jubilant.
On the sixth day without water, the men recognized that they weren't going to last much longer. Mac was failing especially quickly. They bowed their heads together as Louie prayed. If God would quench their thirst, he vowed, he'd dedicate his life to him. The next day by divine intervention or the fickle humors of the tropics, the sky broke open and rain poured down. Twice more the water ran out, twice more they prayed, and twice more the rain came. The showers gave them just enough water to last a short while longer. If only a plane would come.
After a month at sea, Mac perished. On the 47th day at sea, Louie and Phil were picked up by Japanese sailors after drifting 2,000 miles. Louie managed to survive two years in a Japanese prison camp and was released in 1945. Louie went on to become a prominent inspirational speaker and wrote two memoirs. Angelina Jolie directed a movie about Louie's life in 2014.