Military history


“I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,” Louie once told me, “because I can talk.”

When I finished writing my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I felt certain that I would never again find a subject that fascinated me as did the Depression-era racehorse and the team of men who campaigned him. When I had my first conversation with the infectiously effervescent and apparently immortal Louie Zamperini, I changed my mind.

That conversation began my seven-year journey through Louie’s unlikely life. I found his story in the memories of Olympians, former POWs and airmen, Japanese veterans, and the family and friends who once formed the home front; in diaries, letters, essays, and telegrams, many written by men and women who died long ago; in military documents and hazy photographs; in unpublished memoirs buried in desk drawers; in deep stacks of affidavits and war-crimes trial records; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. By the end of my journey, Louie’s life was as familiar to me as my own. “When I want to know what happened to me in Japan,” Louie once told his friends, “I call Laura.”

In opening his world to me, Louie could not have been more gracious. He sat through some seventy-five interviews, answering thousands of questions with neither impatience nor complaint. He was refreshingly honest, quick to confess his failures and correct a few embellished stories that journalists have written about him. And his memory was astounding; nearly every time I cross-checked his accounts of events against newspaper stories, official records, and other sources, his recollections proved accurate to the smallest detail, even when the events took place some eighty-five years ago.

A superlative pack rat, Louie has saved seemingly every artifact of his life, from the DO NOT DISTURB sign that he swiped from Jesse Owens in Berlin to the paper number that he wore as he shattered the interscholastic mile record in 1934. One of his scrapbooks, which covers only 1917 to 1938, weighs sixty-three pounds. This he volunteered to send me, surrendering it to my late friend Debie Ginsburg, who somehow manhandled it down to a mailing service. Along with it, he sent several other scrapbooks (fortunately smaller), hundreds of photographs and letters, his diaries, and items as precious as the stained newspaper clipping that was in his wallet on the raft. All of these things were treasure troves to me, telling his story with immediacy and revealing detail. I am immensely grateful to Louie for trusting me with items so dear to him, and for welcoming me into his history.

Pete Zamperini, Sylvia Zamperini Flammer, and Payton Jordan didn’t live to see this book’s completion, but they played an enormous role in its creation, sharing a lifetime of memories and memorabilia. There were many joys for me in writing this book; my long talks with Pete, Sylvia, and Payton ranked high among them. I also thank Harvey Flammer, Cynthia Zamperini Garris, Ric Applewhite, and the late Marge Jordan for telling me their stories about Louie and Cynthia.

Karen Loomis, the daughter of Russell Allen Phillips and his wife, Cecy, walked me through her family’s history and sent her father’s wartime love letters to her mother, scrapbooks, photographs, clippings, and her grandmother’s memoir. Thanks to Karen, I was able to peer into the life of the quiet, modest pilot known as Phil and uncover the brave and enduring man underneath. Someday I’ll make it down to Georgia for long-promised muffins with Karen. My thanks also go to Bill Harris’s daughter Katey Meares, who sent family photographs and told me of the father she lost far too soon, remembering him standing on his head in his kitchen to summon giggles from his girls. I also thank Monroe and Phoebe Bormann, Terry Hoffman, and Bill Perry for telling me about Phil and Cecy.

For the men who endured prison camp, speaking of the war is often a searing experience, and I am deeply grateful to the many former POWs who shared their memories, sometimes in tears. I shall never forget the generosity of Bob Martindale, Tom Wade, and Frank Tinker, who spent many hours bringing POW camp and the Bird to life for me. Milton McMullen described Omori, the POW insurgency, and the day he knocked over a train. Johan Arthur Johansen told of Omori and shared his extensive writings on POW camp. The late Ken Marvin spoke of the last pancakes he ate on Wake before the Japanese came, Naoetsu under the Bird, and teaching a guard hilariously offensive English. Glenn McConnell spoke of Ofuna, Gaga the duck, and the beating of Bill Harris. The late John Cook told me of slavery at Naoetsu and shared his unpublished memoir. I also send thanks to former POWs Fiske Hanley, Bob Hollingsworth, Raleigh “Dusty” Rhodes, Joe Brown, V. H. Spencer, Robert Cassidy, Leonard Birchall, Joe Alexander, Minos Miller, Burn O’Neill, Charles Audet, Robert Heer, and Paul Cascio, and POW family members J. Watt Hinson, Linda West, Kathleen Birchall, Ruth Decker, Joyce Forth, Marian Tougas, Jan Richardson, Jennifer Purcell, Karen Heer, and Angie Giardina.

Stanley Pillsbury spent many afternoons on the phone with me, reliving his days aboard his beloved Super Man, the Christmas raid over Wake, and the moment when he shot down a Zero over Nauru. Frank Rosynek, a born raconteur, sent his unpublished memoir, “Not Everybody Wore Wings,” and wrote to me about the bombing of Funafuti and Louie’s miraculous return from the dead on Okinawa. Lester Herman Scearce and the late pilots John Joseph Deasy and Jesse Stay told of Wake, Nauru, Funafuti, and the search for the lost crew of Green Hornet. Martin Cohn told of squadron life on Hawaii; John Krey told of Louie’s disappearance and reappearance. Byron Kinney described the day he flew his B-29 over Louie at Naoetsu and listened to the Japanese surrender as he flew back to Guam. John Weller described the fearfully complex job of a B-24 navigator.

I am deeply indebted to several Japanese people who spoke candidly of a dark hour in their nation’s history. Yuichi Hatto, the Omori camp accountant and a friend to POWs, was an indispensable source on the Bird, Omori, and life as a Japanese soldier, answering my questions in writing, in his second language, when we were unable to speak on the telephone. Yoshi Kondo told me about the founding of the Joetsu Peace Park, and Shibui Genzi wrote to me about Japanese life in Naoetsu. Toru Fukubayashi and Taeko Sasamoto, historians with the POW Research Network Japan, answered my questions and pointed me toward sources.

The delightful Virginia “Toots” Bowersox Weitzel, Louie’s childhood friend, made me cassette tapes of the most popular songs at Torrance High in the 1930s, narrating them with stories from her days as a school cheerleader. Toots, who passed away just before this book went to press, told of tackling Louie on his sixteenth birthday, cheering him on as he ran the Torrance track with Pete, and playing football with him in front of Kellow’s Hamburg Stand in Long Beach. She was the only ninetysomething person I knew who was obsessed with American Idol. Olympians Velma Dunn Ploessel and Iris Cummings Critchell vividly described their experiences aboard the USS Manhattan and at the Berlin Games. Draggan Mihailovich told me of his remarkable encounter with the Bird. Georgie Bright Kunkel wrote to me about her brother, the great Norman Bright.


As I traced Louie’s path through history, many people went out of their way to help me find information and make sense of it. With the assistance of former USAAF bombardier Robert Grenz, William Darron of the Army Air Forces Historical Association brought a Norden bombsight to my house, set it up in my dining room, put a rolling screen of Arizona beneath it, and taught me how to “bomb” Phoenix. As I worked on my book, Bill was always happy to answer my questions. Gary Weaver of Disabled American Veterans climbed all over a B-24 to film the interior for me; thanks to Gary Sinise for putting me in contact with Mr. Weaver. Charlie Tilghman, who flies a restored B-24 for the Commemorative Air Force, taught me about flying the Liberator.

When I was too ill to get to the National Archives, Peggy Ann Brown and Molly Brose went there for me, wading into voluminous POW and war-crimes records and coming back with some of my most critical material. John Brodkin typed up my citations to save me from my vertigo and climbed on my dining room table to photograph images out of Louie’s scrapbook. Nina B. Smith translated POW documents from Norwegian, and Noriko Sanefuji translated my letters to and from Japanese sources. Julie Wheelock transcribed many of my interviews, straining to hear elderly voices taped on my nearly-as-elderly recorder. Gail Morgan of the Torrance High School Alumni Association dug through the school archives in search of photographs of Louie.

I also want to send thanks to Draggan Mihailovich, Christopher Svendsen, and Sean McManus of CBS, who kindly got me permission to view unaired videotape from CBS’s 1998 feature on Louie. Roger Mansell’s Center for Research, Allied POWs Under the Japanese ( was a comprehensive source of information on POW camps; thanks also to historian Wes Injerd, who works with Mansell’s site. Jon Hendershott, associate editor at Track and Field News, helped me decipher confusing 1930s mile records. Paul Lombardo, author of The One Sure Cure: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell, and Tony Platt, author of Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, taught me about eugenics. Rick Zitarosa of the Naval Lakehurst Historical Society answered questions about the Graf Zeppelin. Janet Fisher of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, Janet Wall of the National Climatic Data Center, and Keith Heidorn, PhD, of the Weather Doctor (, answered weather-related questions. Fred Gill, MD, helped me understand Phil’s head injury. Charles Stenger, PhD, cleared up my confusion on POW statistics.

Working with Yvonne Kinkaid and Colonel J. A. Saaverda (Ret.) of the Reference Team, Analysis and Reference Division, Air Force Historical Research and Analysis, Bolling Air Force Base, the wonderfully helpful Colonel Frank Trippi (Ret.) unearthed heaps of AAF documents for me. I am also grateful to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Clark, USAF (Ret.), at the Air Force Historical Studies Office, Bolling Air Force Base; Will Mahoney, Eric Van Slander, and Dave Giordano of the National Archives; Cathy Cox and Barry Spink of the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base; and Carol Leadenham, assistant archivist for reference at the Hoover Institution Archives. I also thank my dear friend Colonel Michael C. Howard, USMC (Ret.), who worked with Captain William Rudich, USN (Ret.), Lieutenant Colonel Todd Holmquist, USMC, Major Heather Cotoia, USMC, Boatswain’s Mate Chief Frank Weber, USN (Ret.), and Jim Heath, PhD, professor emeritus, Portland State University, to find information on Everett Almond, the navigator who was killed by a shark while trying to save himself and his pilot.

Thanks also to Pete Golkin, Office of Communications, National Air and Space Museum; Midge Fischer, EAA Warbirds of America; Patrick Ranfranz, Greg Babinski, and Jim Walsh of the 307th Bomb Group Association; Lieutenant Commander Ken Snyder of the National Naval Aviation Museum; Rich Kolb and Mike Meyer of the Veterans of Foreign Wars; Helen Furu of the Norwegian Maritime Museum; Siri Lawson of; Phil Gudenschwager, 11th Bomb Group historian; Justin Mack, Web developer, 11th Bomb Group; Bill Barrette, Sugamo historian; Wayne Weber of the Billy Graham Center archives at Wheaton College; Melany Ethridge of Larry Ross Communications; Tess Miller and Heather VanKoughnett of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Shirley Ito, librarian, LA84 Foundation; Victoria Palmer, Georgetown Public Library; Edith Miller, Palo Alto High School; Wayne Wilson, vice president, Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles; Lauren Walser of USC Trojan Family magazine; Cheryl Morris, Alumni Records, Princeton; Parker Bostwick of the Torrance News Torch; and Eric Spotts of Torrance High School.

Others who assisted me include my dear friend Alan Pocinki, who has helped me in more ways than I can count; Linda Goetz Holmes, author of Unjust Enrichment; Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers; Morton Janklow; Dave Tooley; Karen and Russ Scholar; William Baker, professor emeritus, University of Maine; John Powers of; Ken Crothers; Christine Hoffman; Bud Ross; John Chapman; Robin Rowland; Ed Hotaling; Morton Cathro; Chris McCarron; Bob Curran; Mike Brown; Richard Glover; Jim Teegarden of; Tom Gwynne of Wingslip; Cheryl Cerbone, editor, Ex-POW Bulletin; Clydie Morgan, Ex American Prisoners of War; Mike Stone of; Dr. Stanley Hoffman; Kathy Hall; Jim Deasy; Captain Bob Rasmussen, USN (Ret.); Thorleif Andreassen; Janet McIlwain; Gary Staffo; Lynn Gamma; Patrick Hoffman; and Gene Venske.


There are several people to whom I owe special thanks. My brother John Hillenbrand, a longtime private pilot, reviewed the aircraft and flying sections of my book with an extraordinarily careful eye and helped me understand the arcane details of aeronautics. My sister, Susan Avallon, read and reread the manuscript, offered invariably brilliant suggestions, and talked me through the places that had me stumped. Susan and John, I am so lucky to be your little sister. I also thank EQUUS magazine editor Laurie Prinz and my old Kenyon friend Chris Toft, who read my manuscript and gave me insightful suggestions.

The author of the beautifully written Finish Forty and Home: The Untold Story of B-24s in the Pacific, Phil Scearce, knows the world of the AAF’s Pacific airmen better than any other historian. As I wrote this book, Phil was singularly generous, sharing his voluminous research, directing me to sources, and helping me sort through many a quandary. I am forever in his debt.

I have great gratitude for B-29 navigator and former POW Raymond “Hap” Halloran. As I wrote this book, Hap became my almost daily email correspondent, offering me research help, sharing his photographs, telling of his experiences, sending gifts to cheer my sister’s children after their father’s death, and simply being my friend. Very few human beings have seen humanity’s dark side as Hap has, and yet he is ever buoyant, ever forgiving. Hap’s resilient heart is my inspiration.

From the beginning of this project, I worked with two translators in Japan. They did so much more for me than mere translation, teaching me about their culture, helping me to understand the war from the Japanese perspective, and offering their thoughts on my manuscript. Because the war remains a highly controversial issue in Japan, they have asked me not to identify them, but I will never forget what they have done for me and for this book.

If I had a firstborn, I’d owe it to my editor, Jennifer Hershey. Jennifer was infinitely kind and infinitely patient, offering inspired suggestions on my manuscript, making countless accommodations for my poor health, and ushering me from first draft to last. I also thank my spectacularly talented agent, Tina Bennett, who guides me through authordom with a sure and supportive hand, and my former editor, Jon Karp, who saw the promise in this story from the beginning. Thanks also to Tina’s assistant, Svetlana Katz, and Jennifer’s assistant Courtney Moran.

In the many moments in which I was unsure if I could bring this book to a happy completion, my husband, Borden, was there to cheer me on. He spent long hours at our kitchen table, poring over my manuscript and making it stronger, and, when illness shrank my world to the upper floor of our house, filled that little world with joy. Thank you, Borden, for your boundless affection, for your wisdom, for your faith in me, and for always bringing me sandwiches.

Finally, I wish to remember the millions of Allied servicemen and prisoners of war who lived the story of the Second World War. Many of these men never came home; many others returned bearing emotional and physical scars that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I come away from this book with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity. It is to them that this book is dedicated.


Laura Hillenbrand

May 2010

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