In summary, and with no cliches and no exaggerations, this is the ultimate story of survival.
From countless childhood romps that would leave any mother worried sick, to the Olympics at age 19, to a startling air battle over Nauru in 1942 that left his ship riddled with 594 bullet holes… this was not the story Louie Zamperini became famous for. It was his, and Russell Allen Phillips (Domhall Gleeson)’s survival on a raft for 47 days, and over 2 years in various Japanese POW camps that made his story of risk-taking, heartbreaking survival so poignant.
There were moments in this book where I audibly erupted, “oh my god” where my brother, on the second floor of the house engrossed in video games, came out to ask what was wrong. There were chapters I had to put the book down because I couldn’t see the words, and I found I’d been sobbing. There were hours I sat entrapped in this horrific story where my jaw ached from hanging agape. In time it wasn’t even the extreme reslience of these men, or the struggles they endured, which had me so amazed: it was the inhumanity of the Japanese, and more disgustingly, the American government’s reactions.
To spare a lengthy, emotional rant, I will simply provide a bullet-point list of the shocking facts I learned through this book. We need to ensure this is taught in all history classes, to our children, friends, family, neighbors… because humanity needs to be aware of its capabilities, on both sides of the spectrum, for good and evil.
- When Zamperini and Phillips crashed their plane, Green Hornet, it was because the government had sent them on a faulty plane that had “passed” inspection by a lieutenant noted for his cruelty and terrible drills. The government did not reprimand him for this fault, and he was not demoted or even taken off inspections.
- The planes were terribly ill-equipped to survive any crashes, and at best they could survive 3 days with the supplies, if they could be retrieved/survive the crash; and there was no way to radio for help from the oceans. Searches were given up after three days and often not conducted in a timely fashion.
- Japanese Zeros, the fighter planes, shot at Louie, Phil, and Mac as they floated on the raft, already at the point for over a month, shooting flares and signaling for help; a terrible breach of their “honorable” military codes.
- The majority of Japanese POW camps were unreported, the Geneva Convention was ignored, at least partially, in all of them, and even in camps that were registered with the Red Cross, the majority of POWs were not because then their dissapearance (murders) would be noticed. 37% of POWs (registered ones in registered camps, mind you) died, mostly of “easily preventable diseases”. Men survived on less than 500 calories a day, zero of it protein, and performed forced labor where they lifted 3-30 TONS of materials (coal, salts, minerals from the mines, etc.) a DAY. The drinking water was often intentionally poisoned by human waste. All POWs had dysentery. Every single one. Over 120,000 men. In German and Italian camps, death rates were less than 1%, and the Geneva Convention never broken. American camps were called “lucky prisons” by the Japanese, often with better conditions than they had on their bases.
- American POWs had an even smaller chance of survival simply because the Japanese beat them more and starved them out of indignation.
- The ‘kill-all’ orders of Emperor Hirohito were carried out on civilians, POWs, Koreans, Chinese… in one instance, 5,000 Koreans were executed in fear of an American invasion that never came. The guards celebrated. In another, American POWs were told to dig shelters, one man wide. When the next air raid came, they tunneled in. The Japanese set them on fire in the tunnels.
And finally, the biggest atrocity: the American government in the early 1950s, less than 10 years since the end of the war, decided that Japan would be a valuable ally against the Russians in the growing Cold War. General Douglas MacArthur "functioned, in effect, as a defense team for the emperor” (in the words of historian John Dowe) by releasing all war criminals — men convicted of murder and sentenced to death, life sentences, even hangings — and ceasing the trials and searches for other criminals. The men who tortured thousands of Americans, British, Australians; killed 5,000 innocent Korean civilians, including children; the men responsible for psychologically and physically tearing down men who were not as strong as Louie — men who died, committed suicide, or just gave up. And the American government let them go.
But even worse was the American government’s treatment of POWs. Men, drafted against their will to fight for their country, were taken as POWs by a heartless government: and yet our government, who is responsible for their fates, did not compensate them for their losses. They offered them a compensation of $1 a day for every day they were imprisoned, if they could “prove” (not defined) that they were victimized through lack of proper rations, living quarters, etc. They would be offered $2.50 if they could prove they weren’t paid for their work. This program, already inefficient, was cut too, when the Japanese were pardoned by General MacArthur. It was like their sacrifices were invalid.
The Japanese still do not acknowledge their involvement in World War II, and they have issued no apologies for their actions. The United States government issued no apologies for their faulty planes, their inept lieutenants who enabled crashes like Louie and Phillips’, or for issuing false death announcements for soldiers like Zamp and Phil; and certainly no apologies for post-war infractions. There were no winners in this war. There was only human brutality.
Until I read Zamperini’s story, and Hillenbrand’s research, I never truly understood what World War II was where the Japanese were concerned. And I am appalled at their militaristic actions at the time, and our government’s as well, and even more at the reactions in the 60+ years since the war and post-war policies. I used to revere the second World War as a clear-cut battle of good and evil: the Nazis had skulls on their helmets, what could be a clearer symbol for a villain? But the Americans were not perfect, and this was not a romantic conflict at all, no matter what spin historians put on it today. It was pain, suffering, loss, torture… a fate worse than death for many. All we can do is respect those who lost their lives, and learn from the villains who allowed for and carried out such horrors.
I would recommend watching the film only after reading the book. Director Jolie mightily impressed me with her attention to detail, even the chocolate bar with a bite taken out of it and cans of peaches for the POWs. Considering the breadth and depth of this story, this was an amazing adaptation. Performances were all stellar, and I hope to see more of Jack O’Connell. The movie had much more of an “American pride” feel to it than the historical message the book outlined. My brother felt it had more propaganda for America and against Japan, but I noted that they left out a lot of Japanese cruelty (keeping in the major sufferings of Louie.) I Hope one day history films can be made without biases, and we can just appreciate each side’s shortcomings as lessons to be learned from.