William Harris in Unbroken: A Leader’s Survival Story

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Who is William Harris in Unbroken? William Harris was a high ranking officer that

William Harris in Unbroken is one of the American soldiers that Louis Zamperini meets at Ofuna prison camp. William Harris in Unbroken is a role model and hero figure to Louis, and undergoes extreme abuse at the hands of his captors.

William Harris in Unbroken: A Leader and Rebel

What the men wanted most of all was knowledge of the war’s progression. Whenever new POWs were brought to camp, the underground network found ways of mining them for information. Japanese newspapers appeared in camp every now and then, and the prisoners were quick to steal them and get them to American translators. One of these men was a twenty-five-year-old Marine officer named William Harris, who would become one of Louis’s closest friends and an important cog in the resistance wheel. 

A True Leader

William Harris’s Unbroken role is defined by his skills as an officer. These skills would serve as both a salvation and curse for the men at Ofuna. He was part of a downed mission in Japanese territory and had managed to escape. He made a run for China, stalking through the woods and consuming ants to survive. He was close to the Chinese border when he was discovered by Japanese civilians and turned in to authorities. 

William was a large man, standing at 6’3”, was an actual genius, spoke five languages, and had a photographic memory. He and Louis met one day during forced exercise and formed an instant bond. Louis had not had a real comrade since Phil was taken to a different part of the camp on arrival. The two set their minds to finding more ways to subvert their captors. 

William created a Japanese-English dictionary on one of the rice paste journals to help men decipher the newspapers. Louis also stole newspapers when no one was looking and took them to William, who would look at a map, memorize it, and recreate it on a scrap of paper. Through these tactics, the prisoners learned that the allies were winning the war, which helped inspire them and give them hope for rescue. But that hope came with a weighty fear. 

All over Japan, thousands of POWs were falling victim to the “kill order,” or the Japanese military policy to never allow prisoners to be recaptured by the allies. If an invasion was imminent, the guards were ordered to kill all the men. If the allies kept advancing, Louis and the others wondered if they’d survive long enough to see victory. 

William Harris Tries to Escape

The plan to escape was meticulously crafted and put into motion, but a couple of events would thwart the men’s efforts. 

At first, Louis, William, and Tinker planned to sneak out of camp and hike to the airstrip, but they’d been blindfolded upon entry and had no idea what direction to go in. Then, a friendly guard, working on the assumption that the men didn’t understand Japanese, gave them an almanac so they could look at the pictures. With William’s fluency, the almanac gave them detailed descriptions of Japanese ports, types of vessels, and distances between various locations. 

With this new knowledge, they abandoned the plane plan and decided to steal a boat instead. If they could make it to the western shore of Japan, they could take a boat to China. The only issue was the 150-mile hike to the western coast with wasted bodies and distinguishable American features. They decided they would travel only by night, but even if they were captured, it was better to die trying to survive than it was at the hands of the guards. 

For two months, the men trained. They walked as often as possible to strengthen their legs, studied the shift schedules of the guards, and stole tools. The day of departure was approaching, and Louis was filled with a fearful giddiness. Then, right before they were set to leave, a prisoner at another camp escaped. A new decree was delivered to the men at Ofuna: anyone caught escaping would die, and for each man who attempted or succeeded, several others would be killed in their name. Louis and his conspirators put the plan on hold. 

The three men likely would have tried again, but another event ended that possibility for good. One afternoon, William was in another prisoner’s cell discussing the war when the Quack walked in. He saw William holding a hand-drawn map and searched his cell, turning up the other maps, dictionary, and news clippings he’d been hiding. William was beaten for an hour by the Quack in front of all the prisoners, even after he’d fallen unconscious. 

In the days to come, William would regain consciousness, but he was essentially an invalid and mentally impaired. He didn’t recognize anyone anymore, not even Louis, who helped feed him and get him back on his feet. 

Shortly after, Louis, Tinker, and several other men were slated for transfer to a different POW camp. Again, Louis felt the false hope of being delivered to an official registered camp. On September 30, Louis said goodbye to a dazed William, stuck his journal in his clothes, and left Ofuna one year and 15 days after arriving. He had no idea the worst was yet to come. Louis left William behind, but William Harris’s Unbroken role wasn’t over yet.


Inexplicably, the Bird stopped abusing the men after Christmas, including Louis. Over the last year, a dignitary had visited Omori and met with a POW named Lewis Bush, who told the prince about the Bird’s abuse. The prince was disturbed by Bush’s reports and spoke with the Japanese war office and the Red Cross. Because of the dignitary’s persistence, the Bird was reassigned to a new camp. The Bird threw himself a massive going away party, forcing many POW officers to join him. When Louis heard the news, he practically fainted. 

The morning after the party, the Bird walked across the bridge to Tokyo. The monster of Omori camp was gone. Life was exponentially better at Omori after that. Private Kano took over, and POWs were once again allowed to write and receive letters. Louis wrote several to his parents and Pete, but most of them wouldn’t arrive until long after the war ended.

Another surprise occurred in mid-January. Several men from Ofuna crossed the bridge to the camp. Among them was the high-ranking Commander Fitzgerald and Louis’s friend William Harris. When Louis saw William, he shuddered. Harris had been continually beaten by the Quack and was stuck in a mental fog. The Omori doctor examined him and said he was dying. William Harris in Unbroken was dying, and Louis couldn’t accept this fate for him.

With the Bird gone, Private Kano ordered the Red Cross boxes to be removed from storage and given to the prisoners. When Louis received his rations, he gave them to William despite his grave hunger, and with the extra food, William started to come back to life. 

Saying Goodbye

The bombings over Tokyo continued, and the camp guards became increasingly anxious. The POWs were also anxious. Word had spread that 150 POWs had been executed as part of the kill order in the Philippines when an American invasion seemed imminent.

In February, the largest air battle yet over Japan took place above Omori, in which 1,500 American planes fought several hundred Japanese planes, sending bullets and plane parts flying through the sky. When it was over, Japan had lost 500 planes, but the United States had lost only 80. Seven days after the battle, B-29s lit up Tokyo like a roman candle. 

Not long after, Louis and fourteen other officers, including Tinker and Commander Fitzgerald, were transferred to a new camp. This camp was called Naoetsu and was stationed above a coastal town in the mountains. Louis was sad to be leaving William again, and when the two said goodbye, it was the last time they ever saw each other. 

William Harris’s Later Life

William Harris survived and regained his mental faculties after the war. He returned home, married, and had two children. He remained active duty, rising to the position of lieutenant colonel in the Marines. He and Louis stayed in touch through letters, and they both promised to try to meet again in the future. But in 1950, William was sent to the Korean war to command a battalion. Before he left, he told his wife he would not allow himself to be captured if things went bad. 

William led a diminished troop into a battle with a much larger Chinese force to allow an American convoy to escape. They lost men, but the battle was successful. In the morning, no one could find him. They searched for hours and came up with nothing. William was never seen again, and he was honored with the Navy Cross for his heroics during that battle. 

William Harris in Unbroken plays an important role. He gives Louis hope, and is a leader to the Americans in the camp. The leadership of William Harris in Unbroken lead to horrific consequences, but Louis still finds Harris’s strength to be an inspiration.

William Harris in Unbroken: A Leader’s Survival Story

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Unbroken summary :

  • How Louie Zamperini was on track to become an Olympic athlete until the war started
  • The unbelievable story of his capture as a prisoner of war
  • The ultimate fate of Louie and his captors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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