on April 4, 2016
Devil at My Heels reveals the remarkably candid autobiography of Louis Zamperini. Although reared in a loving family, Zamperini was a clever, streetwise delinquent. He escaped the streets of Torrance, California, unscathed during his youth for the love of ‘running.’ During his teen years, Zamperini’s older brother, Pete, cultivated his running skills. However, Zamperini learned accountability and leadership in sports.
Zamperini’s became so adept at running that he not only beat out other high school athletes, but older, seasoned athletes as well. In 1936, he competed in the Olympics in Germany; however, he came in eighth.
After the Olympics, he attended the University of Southern California where he set national collegiate records. But in 1941, he enlisted in the Army’s Air Corp, was appointed a Lieutenant, and stationed in the Pacific Islands.
In 1943, while scouting for a missing airplane, his plane crashed into the ocean with 11 crewmen on board. Three survived. Zamperini and two other men drifted in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days.
I believe Zamperini had developed his survival skills, not only from his streetwise adolescence, but his love of running. Sports had been the reversal from a tough-hardened, troublesome youth, you would believe incorrigible, to a resilient, dedicated, focused young man. While adrift at sea, Zamperini remained levelheaded, caring for his wounded friend, Phil, while the other man, Mac, panicked. Several times, Zamperini had to slap Mac during his hysterical outbursts. Mac gobbled down all the fortified chocolate, sabotaging the trio’s effort to have rations. Meanwhile, the Army listed Zamperini and crew as dead at sea.
Zamperini caught birds that perched on their raft, and fish and small sharks for them to eat. In the meantime, he used psychology to keep the men buoyant. He promised God he would serve him if he ever returned home alive.
The Japanese Navy rescued them on their forty-seventh day at sea, near the Solomon Islands. Only Zamperini and Phil survived. Mac had succumbed at sea two weeks prior.
Gaunt-like and weakened, Zamperini and Phil were separated once they reached their destination. As prisoners of war, the men, Australians and Americans, were sadistically beaten by their captors. One leader, in particular, Watanabe, singled out Zamperini, brutally beating him almost daily. Yet, a toughened Zamperini remained positive and motivated in the face of difficulties.
The war ended in August 1945. At that time, Zamperini was filled with hatred and rage. He wanted to wreak vengeance on Watanabe. Watanabe had escaped the camp before the POWs were freed.
Zamperini received a hero’s welcome when he finally returned to the United States. In 1946, after a two to three month courtship, he married Cynthia Applewhite, became financially adroit in real estate and then lost all of his money with a quick get rich swindler.
Like numerous veterans returning from the war, Zamperini developed an addiction. His alcohol dependency almost destroyed his marriage, because of his partying and drinking.
The couple lived in a small, cramped apartment with their infant daughter. He had forgotten his promise to God, dedicating his life to Him.
Cynthia began to attend tent revivals with Reverend Billy Graham. After the war, Zamperini no longer believed in church and had forbidden Cynthia to attend. Although a loving and dutiful wife, Cynthia decided to attend church without Zamperini’s permission. She began to coax him to attend too. The first time he attended, he walked out. The second time, Zamperini appeared, he became a member and was given a book with the Gospel of John.
Zamperini converted, devoted his life to God; he ceased partying and drinking, and prayed for strength to forgive his wartime captors.
Zamperini became a sought after speaker on the lecture circuit for the church, as well as other organizations, earning enough money to care for his family. Eventually, he returned to Japan as a guest speaker. After listening to Zamperini speak, several audience members became Christian disciples. He visited the prison where numerous known prison guards were detained. He forgave them. Watanabe was not amongst them. Later with Bob Simon from Sixty Minutes, he discovered Watanabe had lived in the mountains during the siege of Japan.
Zamperini had suffered nightmares, alcoholism, and almost the loss of his family from the war. He frequently dreamt of Watanabe. When Zamperini saw Watanabe face-to-face five years later, he forgave him.
Zamperini developed a camp for trouble youth in the Sierras Mountains of California.
This book concerns the author’s reckless prepubescent life, his transformation as an outstanding runner in high school, an Olympian in 1936, lieutenant promoted to Captain in the U. S. Army Air Corp, a POW in Japan, where fortitude enabled him to bear adversity with courage.
After the war, he addressed his downward spiral of alcoholism, becoming reformed, and devoted his life to Christ.
This is an outstanding book for families to realize how war deprives you of a complete person when your loved one returns home, and how love, fervent perseverance in prayer, understanding and psychological help is the breakthrough.
The book also reveals how Zamperini, pivoted from being a troubled youth to sports, which boosted his morale, built a relationship with peers, instilled confidence, leadership qualities, and the ability to be socially interactive.
I gave this book four stars.