Former Track Star, POW, Doesn’t Get Closure at 81 in His Return to Japan


The old wounds, physical and spiritual, healed long ago.

When Lou Zamperini returned to Japan recently, it was in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

If any American during World War II had earned the right to hate, it was Louis Silvie Zamperini.

Once one of America’s best track and field athletes, he was beaten almost daily for 2 1/2 years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps and fed a near-starvation diet.


But there was no hate in his heart when he visited Japan recently, to appear in a CBS feature about his POW experience, to be shown during the Winter Olympics.

The other focal point of the CBS piece was to have been a Japanese sergeant, Matsuhiro Watanabe. It was Watanabe who kicked, beat and whipped Zamperini and other Americans almost daily during their internment.

“Watanabe was classified as a Class A war criminal after the war, but he avoided trial by hiding out in the mountains near Nagano in a cabin, until the statute of limitations ran out,” said Zamperini, who lives in Hollywood and is a youth counselor at Hollywood First Presbyterian Church.

CBS, which had planned the Zamperini/Watanabe piece for more than a year, hoped to film the two in a moment of reconciliation, but it didn’t happen on Zamperini’s first visit two weeks ago.

“A lot of people in Japan would see this piece and I wanted to meet with him, and smooth it out for him and his family,” Zamperini, 81, said.

“I didn’t want him to do any bowing and scraping. I just wanted to tell him I’d forgiven him--just the two of us, maybe over lunch, talking about the Olympics, the future of our families and such.


“But his son said no to any meeting. That was a mistake, because now he’ll be seen as a bad guy in his own country, and I wanted to spare him that. See, guys who worked under him were hanged as war criminals. Watanabe avoided all that.”

During his Japan visit, townspeople where one of the camps was located honored Zamperini with a banquet.

“I was overwhelmed, literally swept off my feet,” he said.

“They were beautiful people. They wanted me to speak, but I choked up. I couldn’t get a word out.

“That warmth they showed me more than compensated for the suffering I had in those camps.”

“The Zamp,” as track teammates at Torrance High and USC called him, was a big-name Los Angeles athlete in the 1930s.

After setting a national high school mile record of 4 minutes 21.2 seconds, he went to USC and made the 1936 U.S. Olympic team as an 18-year-old. At Berlin, he finished eighth in the 5,000 meters.

Zamperini’s World War II imprisonment is heartbreaking, considering how he got there.

Some headlines, from the Zamperini clipping file:

“Lt. Zamperini Missing in Action; Reported Lost in South Pacific Since May 27”--June 2, 1943.


“Zamperini Voice Reported Heard on Enemy Broadcast”--Nov. 21, 1944.

“Zamperini Alive! Sends Message Home”--March 7, 1945.

“Zamperini Survived 47 Days on Raft in Pacific; Gives Details of Crash, Survival Ordeal in Ocean, Capture, Prison Camp Torture”--Sept. 9, 1945.

Zamperini was a bombardier on a rescue mission south of Hawaii on May 27, 1943, when his plane crashed. He spent 47 days drifting in the Pacific in a life raft, beginning the ordeal with two other crew members, completing it with only one.

They had little water and tried to fish for food, often unsuccessfully because the sharks around them would bite off what they had caught.

On the 33rd day, one of the three men died and was buried at sea. And on the 47th day, after drifting perhaps 1,500 miles, they were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat at the southernmost part of the Marshall Islands.

By that time, Zamperini was down to about 70 pounds, unable to stand.

In 1984, Zamperini gave a detailed look at his ordeal to The Times. Portions of that are repeated here:

“There were 11 of us and eight were killed outright [in the crash]. I was trapped under a machine gun mount and slipped briefly into unconsciousness while my part of the plane began to sink.


“I came up swallowing sea water, fuel and oil. . . . I was groping blindly with my hands, trying to get a handhold. My SC ring got hung up on broken glass on a window. It cut my finger to the bone, but I had a handhold.

” . . . On the 27th day a Japanese bomber appeared overhead. It made several strafing passes over us and we all got in the water, under the raft. Not one of us was hit, but the raft was full of holes.

“In the survival kit, we had patching gear but no knife. So we fashioned a pair of pliers.

“The seawater had washed the sand off the sandpaper, so the patches leaked. For the rest of the drift, we had water in the raft and had to hand-pump around the clock. One guy would pump 10 minutes, then rest 20. That’s when the sharks showed up.

“During the day, it was blue and mako sharks all over the place. At night, 15-footers came in.

“I don’t know what kind they were, but we were in constant, horrible fear. Sometimes one would put its head right up on the raft and look at us. We’d whack them on the nose with the paddles.

” . . . We knew we were headed toward either the Marshalls or the Gilberts, and our biggest fear was we’d drift right between them. After the war, I figured we’d drifted a minimum 1,250 miles to a maximum 1,500.


“We paddled to the nearest of about 15 islands we could see. We got close enough to count the coconuts on the palms. They looked like steaks. . . . Then we saw a Japanese patrol boat fishing, with trolling gear. They picked us up and took us ashore.”

Zamperini is now among the fittest octogenarians in America.

Near his Hollywood Hills home, he runs a mile uphill every day.

“I gave up skateboarding last week,” he quips.

At the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, he runs a seniors lunch program and counsels troubled teens.

“With a lot of the kids, it’s problems getting along with the parents,” he said.

“I try to get them to understand some of the pressures of being a parent today, what it’s like coping with financial problems . . . that things aren’t always going to go the way you want.”

Very few of the teens, Zamperini said, know anything of his World War II service.

Some, in fact, have never heard of World War II, he said.