The man whose life journey is chronicled in this book. He was a celebrated Olympic runner before he became a World War II soldier. He survived a plane crash, a record number of days at sea with minimal provisions, and years of inhumane treatment as a Japanese Prisoner of War. After the war, he had a religious conversion experience and led a happy life devoted to helping others and sharing his story.
Louie’s devoted brother who served as his initial running coach. He served stateside in the military but never stopped worrying about his brother. When they were reunited, he was overjoyed. He went on to become a beloved and successful high school coach of both football and track.
Louie’s mother, who never stopped believing that her son was alive, even after the War Department had reported him dead. She developed a severe rash on her hands when Louie went missing. This rash disappeared when he returned.
Louie’s quiet father whose voice is seldom heard in the book. When Louie is a boy, he argues with his father and runs away before deciding to return home.
Louie’s devoted sister who spent the war years worrying about Louie and her husband, Harvey, a soldier who was sent to Europe. She too believed that Louie was alive.
Louie’s other sister
a miler runner who was Louie’s role model
a mysterious Japanese man who befriends Louie at USC. Louie later is surprised to encounter him in the Japanese camp of Ofuna, where Louie learns he has the position of head interrogator of all POWs in Japan. While friendly to Louie at Ofuna, he does little to help Louie, even as Louie suffers. After the war, he is tried as a war criminal and serves some time for his crimes.
Louie’s friend and Super Man crewmate who also survives the crash of the Green Hornet, the raft voyage, and cruel treatment as a prisoner of war. He is separated from Louie when he is transferred to another POW camp. After the war, they remain friends. Unlike Louie, Phil, later known by his formal name of Allen, speaks very little of the war when he returns home. He marries his sweetheart, Cecy, and becomes a teacher.
One of the Super Man crewmen who ran his family’s Maine farm before the war. A close friend of Louie, Pillsbury bravely saves the whole crew when he shoots down a Japanese Zero fighter plane that is poised to finish them off. He does this even as his leg is nearly falling off. Injured, he does not fly again with Louie. He survives the war and sixty years later still describes the war as “awful, awful, awful.”
Phil’s devoted girlfriend and later wife. She leaves their hometown in Indiana to spend the war years in Washington, D.C. She never stops waiting for Phil to return home. Four weeks after he returns, she and Phil marry. She and Phil go on to parent two children. She becomes an English teacher at the same school where Phil teaches science.
The third man to survive the wreck of the Green Hornet. He joins the Super Man crew after some of their crewmates are killed. Along with Louie and Phil, he is lost at sea on a raft with few provisions. Early into this journey, he consumes the chocolate that all three men had planned to ration. After this, he is remorseful. He lives for several weeks on the raft, but ultimately he is not able to survive the raft journey. He dies one night at sea, after having endured extreme conditions. Phil and Louie give his body a water burial.
A duck who lives with the POWs in the Ofuna camp and who brings the soldiers some amusement. One day the duck is killed when a guard sexually violates the bird in the view of the POWs. Louie considered this one of the worst things he saw in the war.
A Japanese leader at Ofuna who beats Bill Harris when he discovers Bill’s maps and dictionary.
A Navy officer whom Louie meets at Ofuna, where he is the second-ranking officer among the prisoners there. He had commanded a submarine that had been bombed. He speaks Japanese and serves, along with the high-ranking officer, as an interpreter. He is later moved to Omori and then to Naoetsu. At Naoetsu, he becomes the commanding officer when the war ends, and he successfully demands that the Japanese deliver provisions to the former POWs. He was later honored by the Navy for his heroism.
A brilliant POW whom Louie first meets in Ofuna. Harris has a photographic memory and strong abilities with languages. Harris recreates maps after seeing them briefly. He also creates an extensive Japanese-English dictionary. When his work is discovered, he is severely beaten and appears to be permanently damaged. He manages to recover and stands in a place of honor beside General Douglas MacArthur when the Japanese sign surrender documents on the USS Missouri. When he returns home, he marries and becomes the father of two. He stays in the military, rising in rank, and leads a battalion in the Korean War. During heroic action during a Chinese ambush, he disappears. His family never learns exactly how he died.
A dive-bomber pilot and opera singer whom Louie befriends in Ofuna. Tinker arrives from Kwajalein with Fred Garrett. With the mental clarity that starvation brings, he learns conversational Norwegian in one week.
A pilot who Louie meets in Ofuna. He is also from California and had seen Louie’s name carved in the wood at Kwajalein. His leg was amputated by the Japanese, even though only his ankle was injured. From Ofuna, Fred was moved to the Rokuroshi POW camp, where Phil was also sent. After the war, he spends time with Louie, but he struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A sadistic leader at two different POW camps, where he subjects prisoners to extreme physical and emotional abuse. He devotes particular attention to Louie, whom he beats and tortures on many occasions. After the war, he becomes a businessman. He is never prosecuted for his crimes.
Louie’s wife. She comes from a privileged background and is a free-spirited young woman whom Louie meets in Miami Beach after the war. Against her parents’ wishes, she marries Louie just two months after meeting him. She endures Louie’s alcoholism and plans to divorce him early into the marriage and not long after the birth of their daughter, Cissy. After she persuades Louie to attend an event with Billy Graham, they decide not to divorce and repair their marriage. They live as a happily married couple for many years after this. She is also the mother of Luke Zamperini.
The preacher whose words caused Louie to experience a religious awakening. This awakening cured Louie of his vengeful anger against the Bird and allowed Louie to see his life as a gift from God. Due to an experience in a circus tent pitched in Los Angeles where the young Graham was preaching a Christian message, Louie was able to let go of his addictions and nightmares and to find peace and happiness.