When Louis Zamperini’s B-24 Liberator was shot down over the shark-infested waters of the Pacific in 1943, he was prepared to meet the challenges of survival at sea.
And after 47 days of drifting, when his raft was discovered by enemy forces, Zamperini was also prepared to endure two years of abuse and starvation in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
Because he was a trained Boy Scout.
Zamperini, the hero of the 2010 book and new film Unbroken, often attributed his readiness for survival to the lessons he learned in Scouting, including the Scout motto: Be Prepared.
How exactly did Scouting help prepare Zamperini for the incredible challenges his faced during his lifetime? Let’s take a look back at the 1930s edition of the Handbook for Boys to learn more about the skills he would have learned as a youth in the Boy Scouting program.
When Zamperini’s B-24 crash-landed in the ocean, just three of the 11 crewmembers survived.
Russell Phillips (known as “Phil”) suffered a head and neck injury, but Zamperini worked quickly to stop the bleeding and dress the wound — saving Phil’s life and using first-aid lessons he would have first learned as a young Scout.
First-aid training was a core part of Scouting program in the 1930s; it was included in Second Class and First Class rank requirements, as well as an Eagle Scout rank-required merit badge that instructed Scouts in wound care, setting broken bones, treating stomach ailments and much more.
In the book Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand writes about the moment the Zamperini family first hears that their son’s plane has gone down during a mission and he is assumed dead or lost at sea. His family remains positive that Zamperini is alive, and his dad even speculates that “as long as he has a pocketknife” he will survive.
Unfortunately a pocketknife was not included in the raft’s emergency equipment, but it would have been a familiar tool thanks to Zamperini’s Scout training. However, the resourceful Scout quickly improvised aboard the life raft — using pliers and the glass from a signaling mirror in place of a knife.
Another item missing from the life raft’s emergency equipment was a compass. But, thanks in part to his Scouting training, Zamperini spends time aboard the raft estimating the men’s position and heading. These skills may have first been honed as a First Class Scout — 1930s requirements taught boys basic celestial navigation, including how to locate the North Star.
One item that was included in the raft’s emergency kit was a signaling mirror. Zamperini used this mirror as a makeshift knife and also to flag down passing airplanes — a technique taught to 1930s-era Scouts starting in the Second Class rank requirements.
Zamperini’s signaling skills helped him alert the attention of one plane, which turned out to be an enemy aircraft that passed overhead eight times, showering the crewmates and rafts with gunfire. Fortunately none of the men were harmed, but one raft was not repairable.
After 47 days at sea, Zamperini and Phil were captured by the Japanese and sent to prisoner-of-war camps. (Francis McNamara — known as Mac — passed away on the 33rd day of the men’s time aboard the life raft.)
Zamperini became the target of one particularly cruel guard, enduring brutal beatings, starvation, illness and other horrors. But he never gave up, participating in several attempts to escape the camp and even kill one of the abusive guards. To do this, Hillenbrand writes that Zamperini “used his best Boy Scout knots” to tie a rope to a rock.
Knot-tying was well-established as a survival skill in the 1930s Handbook, and Zamperini would have first learned these techniques starting with Second Class rank requirements, shown in the image above.
Before going off to war, Zamperini was an American track star who competed in Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics. During his teenage years, the young Scout and avid runner trained with his brother to increase his speed and stamina for track races.
Zamperini’s physical conditioning didn’t end when he joined the armed forces. Instead, he’d spend his free time clocking his mile and maintaining his strength. For Zamperini, the importance of “being prepared” started with staying fit — a basic principle taught to 1930s Scouts in “Healthcraft” lessons. Physical fitness is also mentioned in the Scout Oath.
The Handbook states: “A strong body is a boy’s first great need. [Strong muscles] help him to achieve, to win out, to endure.” In addition to his survival skills, it’s Zamperini’s fitness and strength that helped him endure.
As a young Boy Scout in the 1930s, Zamperini would have learned the Scout Oath and Scout Law. One element of the Scout Law is the phrase, “A Scout is Brave.”
The 1930s Handbook describes a Scout as a boy who is brave and “has the courage to face danger in spite of fear, and to stand up for the right against the coaxings of friends or the jeers or threats of enemies, and defeat does not down him.”
Zamperini certainly embodied this statement — a characteristic that he likely developed during his time as a Boy Scout.
Not only did Zamperini live the Scout Oath and Scout Law, he exemplified the Scout Motto of “Be Prepared.” In Unbroken, Zamperini states: “The best way to meet any challenge is to be prepared for it.”
Throughout his life, Zamperini, who died in July 2014 at the age of 97, credited Scouting for helping him be prepared for the hardships of his life, and the Boy Scouting programs continue to prepare youth for hardships they might endure in their futures.
Did you know that Louis Zamperini was featured in a 1944 edition of Boys’ Life? At the time, America did not know whether or not the Olympian was alive or dead.
Special thanks to Gail Mayfield and Steven Price at the National Scouting Museum. Photographs by W. Garth Dowling.