Synopsis: Lou “Lucky Louis” Zamperini was a Captain with the United States Army Air Force during the Pacific war, from 1941-1945.
He was a champion high school runner, beating state colleges before the age of 18, and as a result was chosen for the 1936 Olympics. However, in 1941 he was commissioned into the Armed Forces.
Zamperini served as a bombardier, operating B-24 Liberators in the Pacific. “Lucky Louis” stuck as a nickname, carrying over into his military career. Always evading parental rule / law enforcement. By WW2, he was constantly surviving near fatal attacks aboard B-24’s that were either in poor condition, or simply had skeleton crews. Lucky Louis, indeed.
However, Zamperini’s luck would turn, when he spent 47 days adrift at sea with 2 other men, before being captured by the Japanese off the coast of the Marshall Islands.
Zamperini and a fellow airman (Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips) were initially sent to Kwajalein Atoll. They were held in captivity, beaten, and mistreated until orders came down that they were to be executed.
Instead of execution, Zamperini and Phillips were sent to POW camps in Ofuna. It was later said, that the two were spared in order to become propaganda machines for the Japanese.
The Japanese never registered some POW camps with the Red Cross (including Zamperini’s) so he was never actually labelled a POW. They chose to operate in secret. This was challenging for Zamperini to understand, as without registration he was not initially fed by the Red Cross after the camp’s liberation.
The Japanese were the only nation in the war to not follow the Geneva Convention. They dawned vessels with incorrect markings to sabotage enemy operations.
Ships transferring POW’s were marked as ships of war, as a result, the Allied forces killed thousands of their own men. Ships carrying soldiers were marked with Red Cross symbols, and were registered as carrying food and medicine. They sailed right through Allied occupied seas, destroying countless vessels and costing more Allied lives.
Zamperini with wife Cynthia Applewhite (1946)
Outlook: From the moment I picked up Zamperini’s book I knew I’d enjoy this read. It’s no secret by now that memoirs and biography are my jam. There is something special about reading a book from the perspective of the person who experienced the events.
What I enjoyed most about “Devil at My Heels” was Zamperini’s ability to paint a picture through personal experiences. Whether it was his antics as an adolescent, or ingenious acts of souvenir hunting at the 1936 Olympics, I could really picture what Lucky Louis was talking about.
Lucky Louis’ biography to me is different from most WW2 books for one reason. He does not spare the readers emotions when describing the deplorable conditions he and others were subject to. The physical and mental torture by the Japanese sounds like something out of a horror novel. Zamperini makes it painstakingly clear what happened, and what he was up against in order to survive.
After the liberation of Ofuna, Zamperini explains the problems he had with alcohol, society, and his pent-up aggression towards the Japanese. His choices were affecting every aspect of his life in a very negative way.
Through suggestion from Cynthia, Zamperini reluctantly looked at alternatives. The nightmares he was having had to stop. He eventually turns to Christianity, and becomes so involved with his church he identifies as an evangelist. A messenger of God.
Zamperini believes his survival was due to divine intervention, and he dedicated the rest of his life to his God. More specifically, he forgave the Japanese and even visited them in prison. After forgiveness, his life normalized. He became happy, nightmares ceased, and he spent his remaining years continually preaching the word of God.
From a personal standpoint, I could have done without so much talk regarding God and the scriptures. I didn’t appreciate the way Zamperini spoke about converting people en-mass to Christianity, referring to them as a “harvest”:
“Our usual harvest was fifty to sixty. That night nearly three hundred renounced all other gods and ideologies, even communism. Beautiful!”
Although the religious aspect is an important part of the book (because after all, it is Zamperini’s entire life, not just the war) it felt like a preacher was at my door, pounding away as if he knew I was home, and wouldn’t go away.
No, I am not going to convert to Christianity, but I do believe it is everyone’s right to believe in whatever they choose, and no one has a right to tell you different.
That being said, this book is still in my Top 3 list for Biographies and Memoirs.
In 2014, Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” based on Laura Hillenbrand’s novel of the same title. Even though Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini for the book, it was told from her perspective. Whether this skewed Jolie’s direction of the movie, I am unsure. I initially saw the film before I read the book. It wasn’t until half way through “Devil at My Heels” that I thought all of this sounded familiar.
If you have yet to see “Unbroken”, but are interested in “Devil at My Heels”, I highly recommend this book first. The movie did not do Zamperini’s experience justice by any means. Scenes were weak or short, half of his harrowing experiences were cut (and they are the lifeblood of this book) and worst of all was the use of Hollywood glamour to change what really happened in some situations.
Featured image courtesy of Leslie Latchman