The Real Louie Zamperini & WW2 POWs Explained

Unbroken follows the incredible true story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an American Olympic distance runner and lieutenant in World War II who spent four years as a prisoner of war in Japan. Zamperini’s story is irresistibly inspirational, prompting the Coen brothers to write and Angelina Jolie to direct the movie Unbroken about his journey. Following the 2014 biographical World War II drama, two more films about Zamperini’s life have been made: Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018) and Captured by Grace (2015).


The harrowing true story of Louie Zamperini makes Unbroken one of the best World War II movies of the 2010s. Zamperini’s journey from Olympic runner to prisoner of war, to Christian evangelist and mentor for at-risk youth is so unique and broad that it appeals to the hearts of various audiences. For the most part, Unbroken does a great job of conveying his experiences during World War II accurately and completely, though there are some discrepancies between Louie Zamperini’s real life and the events depicted in the 2014 film, Unbroken.

Related: 10 Most Historically Accurate War Movie

Louie Zamperini’s Distance Running History & Real-Life 1936 Olympics Record Explained

Zamperini at the Olympics in Unbroken.

Louie began running when he was in high school after his older brother, Pete, convinced him to join the track team in order to keep him out of trouble. Zamperini wasn’t a star immediately, but he became obsessed with running, and by the end of his high school career, he was a star and held multiple state records. According to the Olympics website, Zamperini was given a scholarship to the University of Southern California where he continued to excel and eventually decided to try out for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. At just 19 years old he qualified for the 5,000-meter race in the 1936 Olympics.

Zamperini finished 8th at the Olympics, but his final lap of 56 seconds set a record for the fastest lap in a 5,000-meter race. Notably, his fast finish was noticed from the stands by Adolf Hitler, who called Zamperini over to his stand and congratulated him on his speedy final lap. Unbroken, one of the Coen brothers’ best-written movies, does not tell this entire story, but it does show Zamperini being pulled into running by his brother, and his famous finish at the Olympics. Unbroken is largely accurate in terms of the events it shows, but it does leave out most of his athletic history.

Louie & Russell Phillips Survived On A Raft For 47 Days After Their Plane Crashed In World War II

Zamperini on a raft in Unbroken.

Louie Zamperini was a bombardier on a faulty B-24 bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943. The bomber carried 11 people, but only three survived: Louie Zamperini, Russell Allen Phillips, and Francis McNamara. According to the 2010 Unbroken biography, Louie and his companions survived by salvaging two emergency rafts, eating raw fish and small birds, and drinking only rainwater. The group was attacked by sharks numerous times and the rafts were almost capsized by a storm. Francis McNamara sadly perished after 33 days at sea, but Zamperini and Phillips were able to survive for 47 days until they reached the Marshall Islands, where they were promptly taken prisoner by the Japanese.

Unbroken gets much of this terrible experience right, even depicting Zamperini and Phillips being located and captured by the Japanese Navy off the coast of the Marshall Islands. Unbroken does well to show how brutal the conditions were, but pacing restrictions prevented the film from conveying just how long 47 days at sea is. Even so, Unbroken does a good overall job of accurately depicting real-life events and conditions, ensuring it stays off the list of war movies that are shockingly inaccurate.

The Real Louie Was Taken As A Prisoner Of War To Multiple Japanese Camps

Louie Zamperini as a prisoner in Unbroken.

After Louie Zamperini was taken prisoner, he was initially kept at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, before being shipped to Japan. There he was a prisoner at Ofuna, a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp made for captives who were not registered prisoners of war. He was then sent to the Omori POW camp in Tokyo before finally ending up at the Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan. During this time, he was interrogated for secrets about American bombers, and often abused by the infamous prison guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Unbroken, one of the most underrated World War II movies, depicts all of these camps except for Ofuna.

Japanese POW camps in World War II were notoriously cruel, and Zamperini was treated even worse than the average prisoner because of his status as an Olympic athlete. During his time in these camps, Zamperini was constantly on the brink of starvation and was beaten severely. Despite that, POW Gregory “Pappy” Boyington revealed in his autobiography Baa Baa, Black Sheep that Zamperini wrote Italian recipes for his fellow prisoners to help keep their spirits up. This emphasizes the meaning of Unbroken‘s title and shows that Zamperini had a caring heart regardless of the abuse and torture he suffered.

Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe Brutally Tortured Louie In POW Camps

The Bird, Watanabe, scowling in Unbroken.

Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe targeted and brutally tortured Louie in two of the POW camps he spent time in, just like Unbroken depicts. Watanabe was eventually named a war criminal for his treatment of prisoners, including Zamperini. However, Watanabe disappeared at the end of the war and was never prosecuted. Zamperini has described the plethora of beatings Watanabe gave him and other prisoners. Watanabe reportedly had a special hatred for Louie because of his status as an Olympian, which caused him to beat Louie more than other prisoners. The charges against Watanabe were eventually dropped, and he was allowed to return to civilian life (via CBS News).

What Happened To Louie Zamperini After World War II

Jack O'Connell wearing a hat and looking engrossed in Unbroken

After World War II, Louie Zamperini lived with severe PTSD which led to alcoholism. He struggled for years after his return from the war but found comfort in religion when his wife, Cynthia, convinced him to attend one of Billy Graham’s evangelist crusades. This experience changed Louie and helped him with his nightmares and PTSD. Zamperini went on to become an evangelist himself, often preaching about the value of forgiveness. Louie even visited several of the guards who mistreated him during his time as a POW and told them he had forgiven them.

Zamperini inspired many people with his story and went on to have a long and successful life. He and Cynthia had two children together. In 1998, Zamperini was given the honor of running a leg of the Olympic Torch Relay before the Winter Olympic Games in Japan. While in Japan, Louie tried to make contact with Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but Watanabe refused to meet with him. Unbroken‘s Louie Zamperini died in 2014 at the incredible age of 97.

Sources: Olympics website, CBS News

Leave a Comment