Stories of Survival: Louis Zamperini

Stories of Survival: Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips


On Thursday September 20th, 1945, the Daily Times-Tribune of Alexandria, Indiana — beneath a photo of the hulking wreckage of the Mitsubishi factory destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki — announced to friends and family that First Lt. Russell Allen Phillips’ horrific ordeal had finally ended. What began as a simple search and rescue mission in the Pacific became a 47-day fight for survival and subsequent imprisonment in two of Japan’s worst camps.


Like the newspaper article for Russell Allen Phillips, the war passed quietly into history. Years later, his daughter would remark that her father was a quiet, modest man who didn’t talk much about his experiences in the war. Others, like Kesling Middle School Social Studies teacher Robert Burns, had no idea that the man in the science classroom next door had spent nearly two months adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with little food and nearly no water. For over a decade, Mr. Burns desperately tried to make World War II come alive for his students, and next door was one of the greatest stories of them all. It wasn’t until Mr. Burns started talking with Cecile Phillips, Russell’s wife, that the remarkable story came out.

Allen, as friends and colleagues knew him in his hometown of La Porte, Indiana, graduated from La Porte High School in 1934 and earned a degree in forestry from Purdue University. He joined the U.S. air corps a month before the attack at Pearl Harbor. After a bombing raid on Nauru, Allen earned special distinction awards for piloting his crippled B-24 home despite missing one rudder, having the hydraulic system completely shot away, and nearly 600 bullets holes tearing through the plane his crew nicknamed Superman.

Allen’s World War II experiences were detailed in his bombardier Louis Zamperini’s book Devil At My Heels. After the Nauru raid and with Superman out for repairs, Allen’s beleaguered crew was settling in for some rest when news came in of a B-25 going down somewhere in the Pacific 200 miles north of Palmyra. Allen quickly volunteered his crew for the rescue mission.

The only plane left at the base was one that the flight crews called a “musher”. Mushers were planes that flew tail below nose and couldn’t get off the ground with a bomb load. This one, the Green Hornet, was used on the daily vegetable runs between the air base and Hawaii. She also served as a surrogate for parts needed on other B-24s.


Despite her limitations, Allen and his crew set off for the downed B-25 on May 27, 1943. At 1830, the plane was wheels up and it would be the last time that Allen would see land for the next 46 days. When they arrived at the B-25’s last known location, Allen found the area covered in clouds. He flew to 8,000 feet so that Zamperini could get a better view. Quickly, without warning, the number one engine (left outboard) sputtered, shook violently, and died. Aboard was a new engineer— Superman’s regular engineer was injured over Nauru—who rushed to the cockpit and attempted to “feather” engine number one, or turn the blades of the dead engine edges to the wind to help reduce drag. But, in his excitement, he feathered the number two engine instead. Now, the Green Hornet, a plane that could barely get airborne with all four engines, was flying with two engines on the right side only. There was little that Allen could do; he increased power hoping to keep the plane aloft long enough to restarted engine number two. It was no use. The Green Hornet rolled to the left and spun toward the Pacific. He quickly ordered his crew to their stations and prepare for a crash. Less than two minutes elapsed and the Green Hornet tumbled left wing and nose first into the ocean.

Allen ended up in the Pacific, clinging to an auxiliary gas tank, a triangular gash on his head, but alive. Beside him was his tail gunner Francis McNamara. In the water, floating amidst the oil slick flames and debris was Zamperini. The three men were the only survivors of the crash.

Zamperini quickly gathered one of the ejected life rafts and got both Allen and McNamara out of the water. They all knew that Allen’s bleeding gash would quickly attract sharks. What they didn’t realize was that those sharks would be their worst nightmare for the next 47 days. Zamperini dressed Allen’s wounds and rowed the small raft after a second one that was drifting in the currents nearby. He knew they’d need its supplies. With the two rafts lashed together, Mac and Zamperini moved Allen into the second one to rest. “Zamp,” Allen said, “You’re the captain now,” Zamperini would later recall in his book.

In the popular television show NCIS, the lead agent, Leroy Gibbs, has a series of rules that he demands his team commit to memory. The rule that is most often cited in the series is Rule #9: Never go anywhere without a knife. As Zamperini took inventory of the supplies he realized they were without a knife. In its place, there was a pair of pliers. “I swear I almost started to search for the raft’s trademark to see if it was made in Germany or Japan. Some dummkopf had put in pliers when everyone knows that no matter where you are, on land or sea or in the air, you need a knife,” he writes in his book.


The three men had two rafts between them, six bars of chocolate (each meant to last a week and fortified with vitamins, minerals and protein), and eight half-pint tins of water. As darkness settled in, a cold wrapped itself around the men. They scooped water from the ocean and let their bodies warm it so they could find some rest. The following morning, Zamperini and Allen found the chocolate was gone. Mac had eaten all six bars. They had no food.

The next two days the men watched as planes from their own squadron flew past them but they didn’t spot the flares fired from the raft. They were alone. Well, not completely. They’d acquired a following of sharks. What was assumed to be a couple days at sea and then rescue was quietly accepted as a longer stay at sea.

The eight tins of water would run out quickly. In order to get water, Zamperini used the canvas cover for the air pumps to catch what rainwater would drift over them. Some days, the clouds would skirt their raft; they went for seven days without a drop of rain. Other days a small shower would allow them to catch some water. They drank their fill and then used their mouths to transfer the water from the canvas cover to the empty tins. They did this because it was nearly impossible to pour out the precious few drops of water in a turbulent raft and by using their mouths they also kept the salt water from spoiling their scant supply.


With the water supply issue solved, they had to move on to food. After Mac’s selfishness with the chocolate, the men turned to the sea for food. On occasion, the waves would toss small fish into their raft. Allen and Zamperini had to stop Mac from eating the fish. Both men knew that they could use the tiny fish as bait for a larger reward. Their survival gear included a can of hooks in varying sizes and some line. But each time they’d try to cast for fish, the sharks tailing them would steal the hooks and bait leaving them with nothing. However, the sharks were not always bad.

Zamperini figured out a way to catch the pilot fish that swam side by side with the sharks: He tied hooks to his thumb, index and little finger and hung it in the water. When the sharks swam up for a closer look, Zamperini would grab one of the pilot fish and they would be able to eat that day. On the rare occasion that a small three- to four-foot shark would swim by, the men worked together to wrestle it into the raft. Zamperini would hang the bait over the edge of the raft and as the shark swam past he would yank it out of the water by its tail. Allen’s job was to ram a spent flare cartridge into its mouth and Zamperini would drive the screwdriver end of the pliers through the shark’s eye and into its brain. They knew enough not to eat raw shark meat, but they were able to enjoy a bloody meal of shark liver.


But small pilot fish and shark was not the only source of meat for the men. Gracefully gliding the thermals high above them the men watched albatrosses soar in the blue skies. Despite sailor’s superstition, the three of them knew that if the opportunity presented itself, they’d eat one. They used the albatrosses’ natural desire to roost after eating to their advantage. Known to perch atop the masts of sailing ships in the middle ocean, an albatross will use anything they can to rest. One afternoon, while the men slept, an albatross landed near Zamperini’s head. Slowly, cautiously, he moved his hands up and caught the bird by its feet. The wrestled with the bird, fought against its razor sharp beak and finally wrung its neck. They cut the bird up, but found they couldn’t eat it. The smells were too foul. They tossed the carcass overboard but vowed to eat the next one they caught.


After a few weeks at sea, the men realized that they would need to keep their minds active and sharp in order to survive. Allen’s father was a minister — and was serving as a chaplain in France — and Allen taught the other men some of the songs from church. Allen would lead and the men would sing along with him. They told stories of their past: Allen told about life in Indiana — about the Indianapolis 500 and how he’d pack a lunch for the family and spend the entire day. He told them about life in La Porte and how he wanted to go back and become a schoolteacher.

After three weeks, Allen’s bandages were removed and he did more around the raft. The men spent days wrestling the raft in storms and ocean swells of over 25 feet and they spent days in the doldrums, drifting on water as smooth as glass with vibrant sunrises and sunsets and the colorful albatrosses coloring the sky above them.

On the 27th day out, the men saw what they thought was a B-25. They rose from their seats and waved their shirts and shouted. Instead of rescue, they were greeted with bullets. A Japanese KI-21 “Sally” bomber had spotted them and decided to utilize the raft as a target for practice. The men knew that if they went into the water, the bullets wouldn’t get them. Three feet beneath their raft, swimming with seven-foot sharks, the men watched as their raft was strafed with bullets. They spent the next few days repairing their raft by cannibalizing the raft that Allen had been convalescing in.


On the 32nd day at sea, Allen and Zamperini noticed that Mac wasn’t as active. Though all three men had lost so much weight—Zamperini figured they were all less than 75 pounds—it was Mac that seemed to be affected the most. A few hours after midnight on the 33rd day, Mac died and the two men buried him at sea the following morning.

A screen shot from Universal Studios’ Unbroken, the true story of Louis Zamperini, starring Jack O’Connell as Zamperini.

On the 46th day, Allen and Zamperini saw land for the first time since they’d left the air base on the Green Hornet. They were too far away to be certain and they’d have to survive a stormy night and hope their raft wasn’t blown away from land. The next morning the men were greeted with two Japanese zeros in combat practice overhead and what looked like an island with two trees. But the island was moving. It was a Japanese patrol ship.

Allen and Zamperini had survived their ordeal at sea, only to be captured and sent to camps. Two years later, Russell Allen Phillips returned to his hometown and became the schoolteacher he had told Zamperini and Mac he would be. He would keep his ordeal private.

First Lt. Russell Allen Phillips passed away on December 18, 1998, but his and Zamperini’s heroic struggle for survival lives on as one of the greatest triumphs of the human body and mind.


Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.


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