Stories From Main Street: WWII Veteran Shares Similar ‘Unbroken’ Experience At Ofuna Prison

December 03, 2018 - 2:47 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — A story of survival, resilience and forgiveness right here in the Bronx.

If you’ve seen the movie “Unbroken,” or this year’s sequel “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” then you’re familiar with the brutal conditions in Japanese prisoner of war camps during World War II.

But one Bronx man is among the last surviving American prisoners from the camp featured in the film and still shares his story so that younger generations will understand the sacrifices made to keep the world free.

Nick Cristiano, 93, was not at Ofuna at the same time as Louis Zamperini, the Olympic distance runner and main character in “Unbroken,” but the two have much in common.

“They did anything to beat you up,” Cristiano said of his time in the camp.

Cristiano spent five and a half months at the Ofuna camp after parachuting from his burning B-29 Bomber. He was captured almost immediately and quickly learned to endure torture.

“Bamboo full of sand, that’s a stinger,” Cristiano told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams.

He claims: “The more beatings you got, the more they respected you.”

Though, the conditions were harsh and prisoners were often starved. Despite befriending a guard, Cristiano dropped to just 92 pounds in those five months.

(Sean Adams/WCBS 880)

He says he was able to gain favor with the guards by convincing them he would take them to America to meet Hollywood movie stars when Japan won the war.  

“I had a good deal,” Cristiano notes. “I just felt bad for the guys that were in terrible shape.”

The 93-year-old veteran told WCBS 880 that he ate scraps to stay alive and adapted to the prison.

“A couple of guys died while I was there,” he recalled. “A couple of guys had bad legs, so I’d help them.”

He says he was grateful of the glimpses of home he got when Japanese guards would turn on the radio and play American music.

But one day, the music stopped and Cristiano said there were only serious voices speaking in Japanese. He says that’s when he knew that the war was over.

The Americans came and released the captured shortly after, but back home there was no information. No one knew if he was alive or dead.

Until one day, a friend spotted Cristiano on a newsreel. He was returning home.

(Sean Adams/WCBS 880)

His family, relieved and thankful, threw a huge feast full of “raviolis, and chicken, chicken cacciatore.”

Much like Zamperini, Cristiano then learned to forgive his captors and release his bitter feelings and resentment.

“It was war,” Cristiano said. “I was alive, that was the main thing. I just felt bad for the guys that went.”

“My brother and I, growing up with what he went through, we just appreciate every day,” said son Rich Cristiano. “He just embraces every day.”

Cristiano’s son says: “He's never held a grudge against the Japanese people.”