On Exhibit: Unbroken

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

Certificate (copy) awarding the Purple Heart medal to Louis Zamperini, 10/12/1944. (National Civilian Personnel Records Center, National Archives)

Certificate (copy) awarding the Purple Heart medal to Louis Zamperini, 10/12/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis, National Archives)

On May 28, 1943, Army Air Force bombardier Louis Zamperini’s B-24 airplane went down over the Pacific Ocean. Given the size of the Pacific and the distances covered by U.S. bombers, recovering downed aviators in the Pacific Theatre during World War II was difficult, at best.

While some submarines on lifeguard patrols were able to rescue downed aviators, including George H.W. Bush, Zamperini and his crew were not among them.

Zamperini and his crewmates, pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips and Francis “Mac” McNamara, survived the crash only to endure starvation, dehydration, Japanese fighter bombings, and shark attacks. After 33 days at sea, McNamara passed away.

During the 46 days at sea, the men drifted more than 2,000 miles into Japanese-controlled waters. On the 47th day, in sight of land, the Japanese captured Zamperini and Phillips. The two men were eventually separated, but both endured over two years of captivity and torture as prisoners of war before being released at the end of the war in 1945.

Having received no word of Zamperini for a year following the crash, the U.S. Government declared him dead and awarded him the Purple Heart for “wounds resulting in death.” After his release, Zamperini returned to the United States to the surprise and relief of his family.

Letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family thanking them for Louis Zamperini's service to his country, 5/28/1944. (National Civilian Personnel Records Center, National Archives)

Letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family, 5/28/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis, National Archives)

In honor of the nomination of the film detailing Zamperini’s life, Unbroken, for an Academy Award, Louie’s Purple Heart medal (on loan courtesy of Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken), copies of the certificate awarding Zamperini the Purple Heart, and a condolence letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from February 5 through March 4, 2015.

Since Zamperini received his Purple Heart award in 1944, more than 350,000 American service men and women have become members of the order.

For more information on the history of the Purple Heart, read  “A Heart of Purple: The Story of America’s Oldest Military Decoration and some of its Recipients” from the 2012 Winter issue of Prologue magazine.

Special free screening of UNBROKEN

Tuesday, February 10, at 7 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC

Join us for a free screening of the film Unbroken (2014; 137 minutes; trailer), based on the 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience and Redemption. The film, a World War II action drama, was produced and directed by Angelina Jolie and stars Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, and Domhnall Gleeson. Presented in partnership with NBCUniversal and in conjunction with the UNBROKEN Featured Document display, February 5 through March 4, 2015.

Register online or call 202-357-6814. Theater doors will open 45 minutes prior to start time. Walk-ins without reservations will be admitted 15 minutes prior to start time, depending on available seats. Attendees should use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue and 7th Street, NW.

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