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Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II

Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II

4.3 46
by Louis Zamperini, David Rensin

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The bestselling autobiography of the legendary Louis Zamperini, hero of the blockbuster Unbroken

A modern classic by an American legend, Devil at My Heels is the riveting and deeply personal memoir by U.S. Olympian, World War II bombardier, and POW survivor Louis Zamperini. His inspiring story of courage, resilience, and faith has captivated


The bestselling autobiography of the legendary Louis Zamperini, hero of the blockbuster Unbroken

A modern classic by an American legend, Devil at My Heels is the riveting and deeply personal memoir by U.S. Olympian, World War II bombardier, and POW survivor Louis Zamperini. His inspiring story of courage, resilience, and faith has captivated readers and audiences of Unbroken, now a major motion picture directed by Angelina Jolie. In Devil at My Heels, his official autobiography (co-written with longtime collaborator David Rensin), Zamperini shares his own first-hand account of extraordinary journey—hailed as “one of the most incredible American lives of the past century” (People).

A youthful troublemaker, a world-class NCAA miler, a 1936 Olympian, a WWII bombardier: Louis Zamperini had a fuller life than most. But on May 27, 1943, it all changed in an instant when his B-24 crashed into the Pacific Ocean, leaving Louis and two other survivors drifting on a raft for forty-seven days and two thousand miles, waiting in vain to be rescued. And the worst was yet to come when they finally reached land, only to be captured by the Japanese. Louis spent the next two years as a prisoner of war—tortured and humiliated, routinely beaten, starved and forced into slave labor—while the Army Air Corps declared him dead and sent official condolences to his family. On his return home, memories of the war haunted him nearly destroyed his marriage until a spiritual rebirth transformed him and led him to dedicate the rest of his long and happy life to helping at-risk youth. Told in Zamperini’s own voice, Devil at My Heels is an unforgettable memoir from one of the greatest of the “Greatest Generation,” a living document about the brutality of war, the tenacity of the human spirit, and the power of faith.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Viewers of the telecast of the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, may recall watching a spry octogenarian, former Olympic runner, and onetime prisoner of war, Louis Zamperini, carrying the torch on the last lap to the stadium. Later, they might have caught Zamperini bounding up the steps at a memorial near his notorious former POW camp at Naoetsu, to lay a wreath for his fellow POWs who perished there in 1944–45.

Zamperini first published his incredible story in 1956, telling of his wayward youth; his brilliant track career; his unbelievable 47-day survival in a rubber raft after his plane was shot down; the brutal torture, medical experimentation, and forced labor he endured at the hands of his Japanese captors; and finally, the peace he found in forgiveness as a witness for the Crusade ministry of the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham.

Now Zamperini has updated his story. He has enhanced his narrative with important new twists that add depth and intrigue to this already amazing tale. The new edition includes the added dimension of his discovery that a Japanese classmate at the University of Southern California, who was Zamperini's chief interrogator in the infamous Ofuna POW center, was indeed a spy while at USC; and the story of how CBS tracked down Zamperini's chief tormenter, interviewing him while the man's son wept off-camera.

For Zamperini, it's been quite a run. For the reader, this will be an incredible, unforgettable and inspiring page-turner. Linda Goetz Holmes

Linda Goetz Holmes, a historian of the War in the Pacific, is the author of Unjust Enrichment: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs.

Publishers Weekly
Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, was convinced by his younger brother to try out for the track team-and he eventually earned a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. In Berlin, he roomed with Jesse Owens and (alas) shook hands with Adolf Hitler. When WWII began, Zamperini entered the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier in a B-24 squadron. On May 27, 1943, during a search and rescue mission, Zamperini's plane crashed into the Pacific, leaving him and two other survivors in a life raft. Forty-seven days later, after one of the three had died, Louis and his pilot washed ashore on Wotje Atoll and were quickly scooped up by a Japanese patrol. Then followed more than two years of hell. After narrowly averting being executed, Zamperini wound up in prison camps in Japan itself, where his captors unsuccessfully tried to recruit him to broadcast propaganda for them. After the war, he returned home, married and tried to return to normal. But the flashbacks of his captivity, especially the psychopathic brutality of a guard nicknamed "The Bird," continued to haunt him. Alcoholism followed. Then, his wife persuaded Zamperini to attend one of evangelist Billy Graham's crusades. The author found salvation and even returned to Japan as a missionary. Although Zamperini published his story in 1957, this updated version, which includes his participation in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games ceremonies in Japan, resurrects Zamperini's heroism via Rensin, a veteran of similar collaborations. It's difficult to argue with the account they have produced of a harrowing life constantly redirected toward good works. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Zamperini was an intractable troublemaker of a youth who became a champion runner, competing in the 1936 Olympics and shaking hands with Hitler and Goebbels. When war seemed inevitable, he joined the Army Air Corps and flew a number of combat missions in the Pacific as a B-24 bombardier. In May 1943, his plane crashed on a routine search mission, and Zamperini and two survivors floated on a raft for 47 days before being taken prisoner by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war in prison camps undergoing terrible abuse, as did many prisoners in Japan. After the war, disaffected and rootless, he attended an early Billy Graham revival and found religion. He became an inspirational speaker, eventually returned to Japan to confront and forgive his captors, and spent the rest of his life spreading Christianity and supporting various Christian endeavors. His memoir will fit well in inspirational collections, but it is also a well-written addition to the growing body of World War II personal narratives. Zamperini's positive attitude, resilience, and narrative strength make this a reasonable purchase for many public libraries and military collections. [During the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, Zamperini's story and dramatic return to face his torturer was chronicled on CBS's 48 Hours.-Ed.]-Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS
Kirkus Reviews
A 1936 Olympic runner and WWII bombardier recalls his troubled youth, his horrifying wartime experiences, his postwar decline, and his conversion to Christianity at a 1949 Billy Graham crusade.

Zamperini was a skinny, gawky kid who suffered the derision of his classmates and compensated by fighting, stealing, hopping trains, and flouting authorities. But his older brother, a talented long-distance runner, coaxed Bill into trying track. He did so, and found his gift. Practicing relentlessly, he became a great long-distance runner in high school and college (USC), then one day found himself performing with Jesse Owens on the Olympic track in Berlin--and exchanging a few words with the Führer himself. (No medals, though.) He was among a handful of runners approaching the four-minute mile, but nothing came easily. When war broke out, Zamperini trained as a bombardier and flew a few dangerous missions in the South Pacific. During an attempt to rescue some other downed fliers, his plane was shot down; he and fellow crewmembers survived for 47 days in an open rubber raft by catching rainwater and fish. (They also survived an attack by a great white shark.) The Japanese eventually picked them up, and Zamperini moved from one unsavory site to another, enduring two years of poor diet and physical and psychological abuse. His family back in America presumed he was dead. When the war ended, he became a temporary celebrity, then slipped into a slough of alcoholic despond from which he did not emerge until his wife convinced him to go hear Billy Graham. A conversion to Christianity ensued, and Zamperini thereafter lived an exemplary life, delivering countless testimonies at gatherings of thefaithful. He has published his story once before in 1955 (same title, different ghost writer, foreword by Graham) and here deviates little from the I-was-a-no-good-backsliding-slob-until-I-found-Jesus tale so common in the Christian conversion genre.

As Kirkus said 47 years ago: "For that Reader’s Digest reader who finds this type of personal examination and regeneration rewarding." (1 map, b&w photos)

Film rights to Saturn/Brillstein-Grey

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Devil at My Heels
A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II

Chapter One

That Tough Kid Down the Street

I've always been called Lucky Louie.

It's no mystery why. As a kid I made more than my share of trouble for my parents and the neighborhood, and mostly got away with it. At fifteen I turned my life around and became a championship runner; a few years later I went to the 1936 Olympics and at college was twice NCAA mile champion record holder that stood for years. In World War II my bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean on, ironically, a rescue mission. I went missing and everyone thought I was dead. Instead, I drifted two thousand miles for forty-seven days on a raft, and after the Japanese rescued/captured me I endured more than two years of torture and humiliation, facing death more times than I care to remember. Somehow I made it home, and people called me a hero. I don't know why. To me, heroes are guys with missing arms or legs -- or lives -- and the families they've left behind. All I did in the war was survive. My trouble reconciling the reality with the perception is partly why I slid into anger and alcoholism and almost lost my wife, family, and friends before I hit bottom, looked up -- literally and figuratively -- and found faith instead. A year later I returned to Japan, confronted my prison guards, now in a prison of their own, and forgave even the most sadistic. Back at home, I started an outreach camp program for boys as wayward as I had once been, or worse, and I began to tell my story to anyone who would listen. I have never ceased to be amazed at the response. My missionthen was the same as it is now: to inspire and help people by leading a life of good example, quiet strength, and perpetual influence.

I've always been called Lucky Louie. It's no mystery why.

I was born in Olean, New York, on January 26, 1917, the second of four children. My father, Anthony Zamperini, came from Verona, Italy. He grew up on beautiful Lake Garda, where as a youngster he did some landscaping for Admiral Dewey. My dad looked a little bit like Burt Lancaster, not as tall but built like a boxer. His parents died when he was thirteen, and soon after that he came to America and got a job working in the coal mines. At first he used a pick and shovel and breathed the black dust. Then he drove the big electric flatcars that towed coal out of the mines. He worked hard all his life, always had a job, always made money. But he wanted more, so he bought a set of books and educated himself in electrical engineering.

Anthony Zamperini wasn't what you'd call a big intellect, but he was wise, and that's more important. His wisdom sustained us.

My mother, Louise, was half-Austrian, half-Italian, and born in Pennsylvania. A handsome woman, of medium height and build, Mom was full of life, and a good storyteller. She liked to reminisce about the old days when my big brother, Pete, my little sisters, Virginia and Sylvia, and I were young. Of course, most mothers do. Her favorite stories -- or maybe they were just so numerous -- were about all the times I escaped serious injury or worse.

She'd begin with how, when I was two and Pete was four, we both came down with double pneumonia. The doctor in Olean (in upper-central New York State) told my parents, "You have to get your kids out of this cold climate to where the weather is warmer. Go to California so they don't die." We didn't have much money, but my parents did not deliberate. My uncle Nick already lived in San Pedro, south of Los Angeles, and my parents decided to travel west.

At Grand Central Station my mother walked Pete and me along the platform and onto the train. But five minutes after rolling out, she couldn't find me anywhere. She searched all the cars and then did it again. Frantic, she demanded the conductor back up to New York, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. That's where they found me: waiting on the platform, saying in Italian, "I knew you'd come back. I knew you'd come back."


When we first moved to California we lived in Long Beach, but our house caught fire in the middle of the night. My dad grabbed me and Pete and whisked us out to the front lawn, where my mother waited. "There's Pete," she said, as my dad tried to catch his breath. "But where's Louie?"

My dad pointed. "There's Louie."

"No! That's a pillow."

My dad rushed back into the burning house. His eyes and lungs filled with smoke, and he had to crawl on his knees to see and breathe. But he couldn't find me -- until he heard me choking. He crept into my room and spotted a hand sticking out from under the bed. Clutching me to his chest, he ran for the front door. While he was crossing the porch, the wood collapsed in flames and burned his legs, but he kept going and we were safe.

That wouldn't be the last of my narrow escapes.

When I was three, my mother took me to the world's largest saltwater pool, in Redondo Beach. She sat in the water, on the steps in the shallow end, chatting with a couple of lady friends while holding my hand so I couldn't wander off. As she talked, I managed to sink. She turned and saw only bubbles on the surface. It took a while to work the water out of me.

A few months later a slightly older kid in the neighborhood challenged me to a race. I lived on a street with a T-shaped intersection, and the idea was to run to the corner ...

Devil at My Heels
A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II
. Copyright © by Louis Zamperini. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

A son of Italian immigrants, Louis Zamperini (1917-2014) was a U.S. Olympic runner, World War II bombardier, and POW survivor. After the war, he returned to the United States to found the Victory Boys Camp for at-risk youth and became an inspirational speaker. Zamperini's story was told in his 2003 autobiography Devil at My Heels, as well as in Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 biography Unbroken.

David Rensin worked closely with Louis Zamperini for many years and cowrote Devil at My Heels, as well as fifteen other books, including five New York Times bestsellers.

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Devil at My Heels 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
AtJONES More than 1 year ago
Devil at My Heels is an inspiring read and biography of the life of Louis Zamperini. It begins telling of his adolescence, how he often found himself in trouble, but found refuge in running. With his older brother Pete, he trained diligently. He doubted himself at first, but found hard work can make up for any other disability. As a result of his dedication, he became a world class NCAA athlete, and competed in the 1936 Olympics. He then entered World War II as a B-24 bombardier. During a mission, his aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The next 47 days were the beginning of the worst times of his life. He was afloat a raft and drifted over two-thousand miles. The only food available to him and a companion on the boat was two shark livers, and three raw albatross, and depended on rainfall for water. Finally, he spotted land, swam to shore where he was captured by the Japanese. At this time they were in a severe state of malnutrition, and were then forced to labor, and received incredibly brutal treatment. One guard was severely brutal with Louis. He regularly beat him harshly; this guard's nickname was the Bird. He haunted Louis' dreams for years to come. Through pure spite of the Japanese, and strength of mind, he survived and made his way home a hero. Although he was home and away from the physical torture, he was still being tormented in other ways. His dreams were a constant reminder of the prison camp, and he began his fight with alcohol and aggression. He was tearing his life and marriage apart. His life continued to spiral out of control until a friend showed a distraught Louis the Christian religion. Soon Louis immersed himself in Christ and his life picked up immediately. He turned his life around and now publicly speaks to people everywhere. A common theme throughout the entire book is faith and hope. Each of these were necessary for him to survive. He showed hope while on the raft and faith the Americans would rescue him out of the prison camp. His ultimate show of hope and faith was his fight against alcohol, and coming to Christ. I highly recommend this inspirational story. It brings the highs and lows of Louis' life straight to your life; when he feels the joy of winning a race, you become happy. While he is being tortured, your heart breaks. As he finally breaks his addiction to alcohol, delight fills your entire being. Overall, a fantastic read I highly recommend.
Spicekitty57 More than 1 year ago
Great read - you get a real feel for the man and by the time I finished the book, felt like I had known him for years. Good companion read to "Unbroken".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A challenging book to read but worth every effort. Zamperini evokes empathy, inspiration, courage and respect for POWs during World War II for the inhumane treatment ordeals endured. It is also a story of God's love and forgiveness as expressed by this man as he forgives his captors. Louis Zamperini, thanks for your service. God bless you for sharing your story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could'nt put the book down. One of the best books l've read. I cannot believe what this man, and all our POW'S went through. I put myself in his position, I know that I could'nt have survived. Pray to God that no body ever has ro go through what our POW' S did. Thanks to the auther for wri ting this book. Highly recommend reading this book. You won't regret it.
Naverymom More than 1 year ago
Really like his own story compared to Unbroken, Unbroken was great but it totally glossed over 'the rest of the story' which is the most impoortant part! Read both!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book from beginning to end is Amazing, Inspiring and Captivating, I couldn'nt put it down. Its definately a book that i would recommend to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read through nearly the entire 292 page book in one sitting. Any one of the major parts of Zamperini's life - youth troublemaker, champion runner, war survivor, or evangelist - would have made a great story but to have them all in the life of one man - and one book - makes this a must read. I heartily recommend 'Devil At My Heals'
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed book, very interesting
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is one of the best ww2 memoirs i have read . louis story is incredible that he was able to surive at sea and as a pow and still forgive his captors after accepting christ is inspiring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Your have one tough spirit
Dean Bush More than 1 year ago
I listened to a book on tape about this man. He is one tough man.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank you for enduring the extermination and concentration camps, you have encouraged thousands of people. R.I.P Louis Zamperini. I hope I'll see you in heaven.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You Louis are a hero
Juanamama More than 1 year ago
This book written in 2007, before "Unbroken", gives the details of the days in the life raft. While horrifying, they help us understand even more about the courage of Louis Zamperini. The attention focused on this man's life is the tip of the iceberg regarding all prisoners of war. Perhaps it will serve as a desire for humanity to try harder to avoid war. It shows the results of man's "inhunanity to man".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Along with Unbroken, these books tell the story of an exceptional man. A story of determination and ultimately forgiveness.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book
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