Angelina Jolie’s new World War II movie, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, follows the story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini and the torturous treatment he received at the hands of his Japanese captors while he was held as a prisoner of war. Mediaite has uncovered a revealing 1998 interview on 60 Minutes with Zamperini and his torturer, Japanese Army Sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who died in 2003.
Zamperini, who died in 2014, was one of America’s greatest track and field Olympians. He was captured by the Japanese in World War II and subjected to years of brutal treatment. He had served in the Army Air Force on a B-24 Liberator bomber that crashed in the Pacific in 1943 and survived on a raft for over a month before being picked up by a Japanese ship.
Zamparini ended up carrying the Olympic torch for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan in a show of forgiveness and reconciliation. CBS interviewed Zamparini and attempted to track down Watanabe, known in Zamperini’s POW camp as “The Bird.”
Mediatite wrote that after the war, Watanabe “had gone into hiding during the American occupation of Japan,” but “in 1952, the United States granted amnesty to Japanese war criminals, after which he emerged to become a businessman.”
Watanabe severely beat Zamperini during his time as a POW, and was reviled among the American captives. Zamparini mentioned in the interview that shortly after the war ended he wanted to return to Japan and exact revenge on his tormentor. However, after the war Zamparini met legendary preacher Billy Graham, becoming a fervent Christian and deciding to forgive his captors rather than take revenge.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Zamperini returned to Japan in a “spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.” Yet, the Times wrote that, “CBS, which had planned the Zamperini/Watanabe piece for more than a year, hoped to film the two in a moment of reconciliation, but it didn’t happen on Zamperini’s first visit.”
According to the LA Times, Zamperini did not want any “bowing and scraping” from Watanabe, he merely wanted to “meet with him, and smooth it out for him and his family.”
“But his son said no to any meeting. That was a mistake, because now he’ll be seen as a bad guy in his own country, and I wanted to spare him that. See, guys who worked under him were hanged as war criminals. Watanabe avoided all that,” Zamperini said, according to the LA Times.
In his 60 Minutes interview with Bob Simon, Watanabe said, “I wasn’t given military orders. Because of my own personal feelings, I treated the prisoners strictly as enemies of Japan.”
Hillenbrand wrote about The Bird’s attitude toward his role in the war and brutal treatment of prisoners in her book:
Watanabe would later admit that in the beginning of his life in exile, he had pondered the question of whether or not he had committed any crime. In the end, he laid the blame on “sinful, absurd, insane war.” He saw himself as a victim. If he had tugs of conscience over what he’d done, he shrugged them away by assuring himself that the lifting of the fugitive-apprehension order was a personal exoneration. “I was just in a great joy of complete release and liberation,” he wrote in 1956, “that I was not guilty.”
The modern, Japanese reactions to the Unbroken book and movie have been mixed and many hardline Japanese nationalists are furious about negative portrayal of the Japanese military. According to the Telegraph, they are upset about descriptions of POWs being “beaten, burned, stabbed or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism.”
In an interview with the Telegraph, secretary general of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, Hiromichi Motekitold, said, ”It’s pure fabrication. If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims. This movie has no credibility and is immoral.”
But there is an enormous amount of evidence that the Japanese military committed widespread atrocities against prisoners in World War II, and that it went beyond a few isolated incidences.
Legendary historian Max Hastings wrote in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 about the shocking Japanese treatment of POWs that has horrified and “fascinated” Westerners ever since.
“When the war ended, it became possible to compare the fates of allied servicemen under the Nazis and the Japanese. Just 4 percent of British and American POWs had died in German hands. Yet 27 percent—35,756 out of 132,134—of Western Allied prisoners lost their lives in Japanese captivity,” Hastings wrote. “These figures discount a host of captives who did not survive in Japanese hands on the battlefield, or after being shot down, for long enough to be statistics.”
Hastings wrote that the POW’s “liberators were stunned by the stories they heard: of starvation and rampant disease; of men worked to death in their thousands, tortured or beheaded for small infractions of discipline.” He noted that “It seemed incomprehensible that a nation with pretensions to civilisation could have defied every principle of humanity and the supposed rules of war.”
Japanese Imperial Army Unit 731, which carried out medical experiments on prisoners during the war that matched or even surpassed Nazi Germany in cruelty, was particularly infamous. Their experiments included dissecting patients alive without anesthetic. The New York Times stated that the Unit 731 “research program was one of the great secrets of Japan during and after World War II: a vast project to develop weapons of biological warfare, including plague, anthrax, cholera and a dozen other pathogens.” According to NYT, “Scholars and former members of the unit say that at least 3,000 people — by some accounts several times as many — were killed in the medical experiments; none survived.”
Daniel Greenfield in FrontPageMag noted that, “Japan has adopted the self-righteous pacifism of the left along with its complete refusal to engage in a moral accounting of its own actions.” Yet it was Americans like Zamperini “who forgot and forgave.”