Remembering An 'Unbroken' Hero Of WWII

In 2010, NPR's Scott Simon interviewed Laura Hillenbrand about her book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. The hero of that book, Louis Zamperini, died this week.

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Tamara Keith. Louis Zamperini died this week at the age of 97. He was a world-class Runner and a World War II hero whose story was immortalized a few years back in the best-selling book "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. When Scott Simon interviewed her in November of 2010, she detailed Louis Zamperini incredible story of survival in the Pacific Ocean.

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SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: So in May, 1943, Louis and his crew fly a plane called the Green Hornet - not even their plane which is under repair - to look for a downed plane. The Green hornet began to fall apart and they ditched. Help us understand how daunting it was to find the wreckage of a ditched plane in 1943.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: The odds of being rescued, if you ended up on a life raft, were terrible. It was very, very hard to find people, the rafts were very poorly equipped. The raft that Louis ended up on was especially badly equipped. It had a few cans of water and a few bars of chocolate. It had no knife. And for some reason, it had a set of pliers and screwdrivers. And Louis sat there looking at that thinking why do I need a set of screwdrivers on a raft? They were in desperate, desperate trouble the minute they hit the water.

SIMON: How did they live?

HILLENBRAND: It took a lot of ingenuity to stay alive - just the physical part of it. One of the things Louis did is, there were air pumps on the rafts in case they sprung leaks, and he took the cases that they came in and made little rain catchers out of them and because whitecaps kept slopping over the edge of the raft and spoiling the water, 'cause you couldn't drink any seawater. He couldn't just hold the water in the bowls. He would have to constantly suck it out and spit it into the little cans of water they had in the raft. And that is how they hydrated themselves. They barely got along that way. And in terms of food, a few birds landed on their heads and they caught them. Louis actually used his lieutenants pin as a fishhook. He tied fishhooks to his finger and grabbed a fish once. And they actually wrestled sharks onto the raft and killed them with the pliers.

SIMON: They were rescued by a Japanese boat - crew kind of identified with them and treated them well, but then that they were sent to prison camps.

HILLENBRAND: They were held in cells that Louis referred to as a dungeon. And their food was balls of rice that was thrown in onto the floor. And there was feces on the floor. And there were maggots. And they would have to pick the rice out. Their water was a tiny cup of tea every day. They were so desperate, they wished they were back out on the raft.

SIMON: And of course they were beaten.

HILLENBRAND: They were beaten. Medical experiments were conducted on them and they were actually very fortunate to survive them because the Japanese conducted medical experiments on tens of thousands of people - prisoners of war and civilians - and killed most of them.

KEITH: But Louis Zamperini did survive and returned home after the war. However, peacetime was a struggle for him. He had violent nightmares about his captivity And he drank.

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SIMON: How do I make sense of the fact that somebody who clearly, heroically figured out exactly what he had to do to survive should be so flummoxed by peace?

HILLENBRAND: I think what he was dealing with when he was in crisis in the war - these were all physical things that he had to get over. He had to figure out how to get water on the raft. He had to figure out how to catch that next fish. And these were all kind of immediate concerns that he could deal with physically. And, you know, meanwhile the damage was being done to him emotionally. It was something I think a lot of these men could kind of put off at the time in the crisis, but once the crisis was over, that's when it all kind of exploded inside them.

KEITH: Mr. Zamperini he was eventually able to defeat the demons that plagued him. And in 1998, he returned to Japan for the Nagano Olympics where he carried the torch through the very same town where he had been held prisoner.

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SIMON: And there were people cheering for him.

HILLENBRAND: There were many, many Japanese people cheering for him. And there were actually Japanese soldiers there. There were many children there. And they were all clapping for him and taking pictures of him. And it was a beautiful experience for him to come back and have that closure and have all of that hatred behind him.

KEITH: Author Laura Hillenbrand speaking to Scott Simon in 2010 about the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini. Mr. Zamperini died this week in Los Angeles. He was 97.

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