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Book review: 'Devil at My Heels' by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin

The author, who spent two years during World War II in Japanese POW camps, tells his life story in this crisp yet richly detailed account.

January 10, 2011|By Michael Harris, Special to the Los Angeles Times

First there was Louis Zamperini, then came the Louis Zamperini story.

The man made the story — carved it out of the bedrock of his life, out of high achievement and almost unbelievable suffering — but the story also made the man. It gave him a vocation as evangelist, inspirational speaker and worker with troubled youth; it made him an authority on the toughness of the human spirit. And in the end, perhaps, the story defined and caged him, as our stories tend to do if we repeat them often enough.

Zamperini, 93, has been telling his story for a long time. A first version of "Devil at My Heels" appeared in the 1950s. In 2003, Zamperini, collaborating with David Rensin, produced an updated version that included the discovery by a CBS documentary crew in 1998 that Matsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe, the most sadistic of the guards who had tortured him during his two years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, had escaped prosecution for war crimes and was willing to be interviewed.

Now there is renewed interest in that book, with a foreword by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that rides the slipstream of Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption."

Hillenbrand ("Seabiscuit") takes nearly 200 additional pages to tell the story than Zamperini does in this crisp yet richly detailed account. She wants to probe the mystery of what makes people like Zamperini stronger than the rest of us. He just gives us the facts, which are extraordinary enough:

Zamperini grows up in a working-class Italian American family in Torrance. Whatever he does, he does wholeheartedly. He's a hell-raising delinquent, then a disciplined runner. He stars in track at USC and competes in the 1936 Olympics. He joins the Army Air Forces as a B-24 bombardier and crash-lands in the mid-Pacific in 1943. He and two other crewmen drift 2,000 miles in 47 days, slowly starving, their raft circled by sharks and strafed by a Japanese plane. One of the men dies. The remaining two are rescued — by the Japanese.

Zamperini's captors, aware of his athletic fame, beat him almost daily but keep him alive because they hope he will make propaganda broadcasts in return for cushier treatment. He refuses and by the end of the war weighs only 70 pounds.

Back home, consumed by hate and dogged by nightmares of "The Bird," Zamperini drinks heavily, gets into fights, loses money in get-rich-quick schemes and alienates his wife, Cynthia, who, in desperation, drags him to a Billy Graham crusade. He experiences a conversion to Christianity, changes his ways and never looks back. He forgives the Japanese and in 1950 visits Sugamo Prison in Tokyo to offer the Gospel to the war criminals held there. He devotes the rest of his life to good works.

As a POW, Zamperini saw the "filth, squalor and inhumanity" of prison camp as proof that the Allied cause was right. One wonders what he would say about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the CIA's secret prisons. Would he justify them, as he justifies the "unavoidable horror" ] of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the internment of Japanese Americans? Or would he shake his head, faced with a question that doesn't belong to the Zamperini story at all? It's a story that seems to come from a different world — a world of clear-cut good and evil, of unquestionable victory — that we hunger for with palpable nostalgia as we give the World War II generation a last hurrah.

Harris is a critic and the author of the novel "The Chieu Hoi Saloon."

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