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Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One That Tough Kid Down the Street
I've always been called Lucky Louie.
It's no mystery why. As a kid I made more than my share of trouble for my parents and the neighborhood, and mostly got away with it. At fifteen I turned my life around and became a championship runner; a few years later I went to the 1936 Olympics and at college was twice NCAA mile champion record holder that stood for years. In World War II my bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean on, ironically, a rescue mission. I went missing and everyone thought I was dead. Instead, I drifted two thousand miles for forty-seven days on a raft, and after the Japanese rescued/captured me I endured more than two years of torture and humiliation, facing death more times than I care to remember. Somehow I made it home, and people called me a hero. I don't know why. To me, heroes are guys with missing arms or legs — or lives — and the families they've left behind. All I did in the war was survive. My trouble reconciling the reality with the perception is partly why I slid into anger and alcoholism and almost lost my wife, family, and friends before I hit bottom, looked up — literally and figuratively — and found faith instead. A year later I returned to Japan, confronted my prison guards, now in a prison of their own, and forgave even the most sadistic. Back at home, I started an outreach camp program for boys as wayward as I had once been, or worse, and I began to tell my story to anyone who would listen. I have never ceased to be amazed at the response. My mission then was the same as it is now: to inspire and help people by leading a life of good example, quiet strength, and perpetual influence.
I've alwaysbeen called Lucky Louie. It's no mystery why.
My mother, Louise, was half-Austrian, half-Italian, and born in Pennsylvania. A handsome woman, of medium height and build, Mom was full of life, and a good storyteller. She liked to reminisce about the old days when my big brother, Pete, my little sisters, Virginia and Sylvia, and I were young. Of course, most mothers do. Her favorite stories — or maybe they were just so numerous — were about all the times I escaped serious injury or worse.
She'd begin with how, when I was two and Pete was four, we both came down with double pneumonia. The doctor in Olean (in upper-central New York State) told my parents, "You have to get your kids out of this cold climate to where the weather is warmer. Go to California so they don't die." We didn't have much money, but my parents did notdeliberate. My uncle Nick already lived in San Pedro, south of Los Angeles, and my parents decided to travel west.
At Grand Central Station my mother walked Pete and me along the platform and onto the train. But five minutes after rolling out, she couldn't find me anywhere. She searched all the cars and then did it again. Frantic, she demanded the conductor back up to New York, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. That's where they found me: waiting on the platform, saying in Italian, "I knew you'd come back. I knew you'd come back."
When we first moved to California we lived in Long Beach, but our house caught fire in the middle of the night. My dad grabbed me and Pete and whisked us out to the front lawn, where my mother waited. "There's Pete," she said, as my dad tried to catch his breath. "But where's Louie?"
My dad pointed. "There's Louie."
"No! That's a pillow."
My dad rushed back into the burning house. His eyes and lungs filled with smoke, and he had to crawl on his knees to see and breathe. But he couldn't find me — until he heard me choking. He crept into my room and spotted a hand sticking out from under the bed. Clutching me to his chest, he ran for the front door. While he was crossing the porch, the wood collapsed in flames and burned his legs, but he kept going and we were safe.
That wouldn't be the last of my narrow escapes.
When I was three, my mother took me to the world's largest saltwater pool, in Redondo Beach. She sat in the water, on the steps in the shallow end, chatting with a couple of lady friends while holding my hand so I couldn't wander off. As she talked, I managed to sink. She turned and saw onlybubbles on the surface. It took a while to work the water out of me.
A few months later a slightly older kid in the neighborhood challenged me to a race. I lived on a street with a T-shaped intersection, and the idea was to run to the corner ...
A motivational speaker and former POW recounts his athletic southern California childhood, participation in the 1936 Olympics, World War II military service, imprisonment and torture by an abusive Japanese guard, descent into alcoholism, and salvation by preacher Billy Graham. Reprint. 15,000 first
“An extraordinary story of war and a touching tale of the triumph of love.”
—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers
Devil at My Heels is the riveting, astonishing, and inspirational memoir of one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation: U.S. Olympian, World War II bombardier, Japanese POW, and survivor Louis Zamperini. His story of courage and resilience is so extraordinary that Lauren Hillebrand, author of Seabiscuit, made it the subject of her acclaimed bestseller, Unbroken. But Devil at My Heels is Zamperinis remarkable personal history in his own words—a gripping, first-hand account of every trial, torment, escape, and remarkable triumph—with an introduction by Senator John McCain, himself a former Air Force flyer and prisoner of war.
On May 27, 1943, Louis Zamperini'sB-24 crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Louis and two other survivors found a raft amid the wreckage and waited for rescue. Instead, they drifted two thousand miles for forty-seven days. Their only food: two shark livers and three raw albatross. Their only fresh water: sporadic rainfall.
On the forty-seventh day, close to death, Zamperini was captured by the Japanese. Thus began more than two years of torture and humiliation as a prisoner of war.
Zamperini survived and returned home a hero. The celebration was short-lived — he plunged into drinking and the depths of rage and despair. It would take years, but with the love of his wife and the power of faith he was able to stop the nightmares that haunted him, overcome the drinking that imprisoned him, and lay to rest the ghosts of war.
A stirring memoir from one of the greatest of "the Greatest Generation," here is a living document about the brutality of war, the tenacity of the human spirit, and the power of forgiveness.
Athletically gifted, Louis Zamperini propelled himself from the tough streets of Southern California to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but when war came he left the track for a B-24--a move that would have heartbreaking consequences in a prisoner of war camp. Moving and unforgettable, terrifying and inspirational, "Devil at My Heels" is not to be missed.
About the Author
Louis Zamperini appears regularly before students from primary schools to colleges, veterans groups, troubled youth, sports clubs, senior citizens, and religious organizations. Zamperini is eighty-six, lives in Hollywood, California, and only recently gave up skateboarding.
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Biography » Military
History and Social Science » Military » World War II » Aviation
History and Social Science » Military » World War II » General
History and Social Science » Military » World War II » Pacific