Torch runner Louis Zamperini kindles spirit of forgiveness

Louis Zamperini is interviewed at Naoetsu, Japan, before carrying the torch for the Nagano Olympics in 1998.


US vet carries Olympic torch in Japanese town where he was once held as a POW

By R.J. KELLY | Stars and Stripes | Published: January 26, 1998

NAOETSU, Japan — When Louis Zamperini carried the Olympic torch en route to Nagano, the 81-year-old former Olympic runner and war prisoner of the Japanese was bearing much more than the symbol of the 1998 Winter Games.

With each stride, bitter memories drifted away in the snowy air like the wisps of smoke from the flame he held high through the cold slushy streets of Takada, near his former prison camp and about 31 miles northwest of Nagano.

His half-mile jog Thursday marked the third time that Zamperini had been part of an Olympic torch relay, but it gave him a far greater thrill than the Atlanta or Los Angeles Olympic games.

"This was the greatest," said the eighth-place finisher in the 5,000-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler's Berlin.

When last he labored in Naoetsu, Zamperini was covered in black dust and fighting to stay alive while unloading coal from ships under the brutal wrath of a cruel prison taskmaster.

Sixty Australians and several other POWs, including Americans, died from harsh weather and working conditions in Naoetsu's prison camp. But this time it was not the shouts and sticks of guards, but the cheers and shining faces of young Japanese schoolchildren that encouraged Zamperini.

"With those kids screaming and waving at me, I looked right in their eyes. I tell you it was a thrill," he said. "I've never seen so much enthusiasm in a torch relay."

He carried the flame between rows of 120 Japanese soldiers — some holding cameras — from the Self-Defense Force's 2nd Infantry Regiment. It was a stark contrast to more than 50 years ago when, instead of having only to skirt icy puddles, Zamperini had to dodge club-wielding guards.

Naoestu was the site of the fourth and final Japanese prison camp the Hollywood, Calif., resident survived after being hauled nearly lifeless from a raft near Kwajelein 47 days after his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific on May 27, 1943. A lieutenant and bombardier, Zamperini was searching for another downed bomber when the engines of his bomber failed.

He considers his survival of the crash — which claimed the lives of eight crew members — as well as the prison camps as miracles.

As his bomber plunged underwater, Zamperini believes a higher power brought him to the surface when his University of Southern California Trojans ring snagged on something, dragging hum toward the light.

After the war, Zamperini said he ignored all the prayers and promises he made during 41 days in the life raft with his pilot and tail-gunner, who died after 33 days.

Near the end of a downward spiral of drinking, marital problems and despair during a postwar life in the fast lane, the runner said he totally turned around in Los Angeles at a 1949 revival meeting of evangelist Billy Graham.

"It was like turning on a light in a dark room," Zamperini said. "I had hated the Japanese, (but) I knew then that I had forgiven all the guards."

In 1952, he traveled to Japan to personally forgive his captors. Gen. Douglas MacArthur granted him access to war criminals held at the restricted Sagamo Prison.

After the war, Zamperini also interceded to help several war criminals he thought were wrongly sentenced — a fact, Joetsu Japan-Australia Society president Shoichi Ishizuka thanked him for Thursday at the Naoetsu festivities.

Local resident Koichi Inomata, a student millworker who was drafted in May 1945 for a suicidal final infantry defense of mainland Japan, said he felt "a responsibility as an individual citizen" to personally apologize for the treatment Zamperini received.

Tokyo resident Yuichi Hatto, 77, was an accountant and pay clerk at the Omori Camp in the capital while Zamperini was held there. Hatto, who was a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard Business School in 1952, happily poured over pictures of the Omori Camp with Zamperini while meeting in Tokyo and Naoetsu.

While agreeing with Zamperini that not all guards were brutal, Hatto confirmed that the head guard at both Omori and Naoetsu camps, Sgt. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, was as sadistic as former prisoners have reported.

Watanabe still lives in the Tokyo area, but Zamperini said his long-held hope of meeting him again was rejected by Watanabe's family members.

After 43 days in solitary confinement on the "execution island" of Kwajelein, Zamperini said he expected to die under the sword as did several Marines whose names were etched on the wall of his tiny cell. But he found himself on a ship bound for Yokohama and two more years of hell at prison camps in and around Tokyo, and then Naoetsu.

Newspaper headlines declared the Olympian, dead on Nov. 18, 1944.

"The Zamp," as he was known during his days as a runner, said his fame as a 1936 Olympic athlete — he'd even met Hitler in Berlin — apparently saved him.

During a 1952 visit to Tokyo, Zamperini said he was told a Christian guard convinced the Kwajalein execution committee to spare his life with the suggestion his Olympic fame be used as a propaganda tool.

Although he said he made one preliminary Tokyo radio broadcast, Zamperini said he refused to make a later propaganda speech and managed to hide the script until he turned it over for evidence in war-crimes trials.

His return to Japan as an Olympic torch-bearer was sponsored by CBS-TV, which plans to air a segment on Zamperini and his wartime experiences as part of its coverage of the Nagano Games.

Zamperini said he could never quite bring himself to return to Naoestu until now.

Members of the Japan-Australia Society hosted a reception in Zamperini's honor in Naoetsu. Some society members who were required to work at a local stainless-steel mill and at harbor jobs with POWs exchanged memories of the tough work of war.

And mixed with the cheers in Naoetsu were apologies for the treatment he and about 700 mostly Australian, British and American POWs suffered in the choking dust of coal ships and the steel mill.

Naoetsu Peace Park and a monument to 60 Australians who died during the brutal winters of 1942-45 marks the site of the prison camp now.

The society worked seven years for neighboring Joetsu city to acquire the site, and a memorial was dedicated in 1995.

Society members who remember the camp showered their one-time prisoner with gratitude for doing them the honor of returning.

As he rode a runner's "high" of emotion about an hour after shedding soggy sneakers, Zamperini said it was the cheers of the young children who have never known war that brought a smile to his face.

Louis Zamperini in Naoetsu, Japan, in 1998.

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