As the summer of 1945 swung around, the prisoners knew it would be their last summer - and not necessarily because the Americans were winning the war.
The camp in Naoetsu was a harsh place. The bestial treatment and brutal weather had already killed 60 Australian prisoners. Japan was low on food for its own people, so there was hardly any for the POWs.
At the end of that summer the Japanese told the prisoners to write the letters POW on top of the warehouse. They were taken down to this river for the first time to take a bath. They'd barely gotten their feet wet, when an American plane appeared overhead blinking its red lights, sending a message in Morse code. The message was: The war is over. Zamperini had survived.
Soon he was getting off a ship in Long Beach, Calif., where his family was waiting for him. "When I saw them and ran up to my parents, my family, I just felt like I had come back alive. You know, I had been dead and I came back alive," he says.
"Probably the biggest thrill my folks had ever had," says his brother Pete.
But Zamperini could not leave his past behind. Every night he had nightmares about the Bird. He literally dreamt of revenge. But Zamperini was only hurting himself. He was drinking heavily.
His wife - he had married a Miami woman named Cynthia Applewhite in 1947 - urged him to go to listen to a young preacher named Billy Graham. One sermon did the trick. Zamperini decided to serve the Lord. How? Go to Japan. Spread the word. And face the ghosts.
At Sugamo prison, he confronted many of his old guards and confounded them with absolution. But he couldn't find the Bird. Zamperini wasn't the only one looking.
Among other men looking for the Bird was a General Douglas MacArthur. In 1945, he drew up a list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. No. 23: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, alias the Bird.
MacArthur never found him. Neither did anyone else. Right after the war, the Bird flew up to mountains right above Nagano. He hid out here for seven years. Zamperini thought he was dead. His mother thought he was dead; she built a shrine for him. But the Bird wasn't dead. And he isn't.
In an interview last year, Watanabe defended himself, saying that his behavior had been normal for a prison camp. He says that at the time, he considered the prisoners enemies of Japan.
In 1952 all charges against the Bird were dropped. The man who made so many lives so miserable sold life insurance after the war and became wealthy. Zamperini visited Japan before the 1998 Winter Olympics and wanted to meet the Bird, but Watanabe did not want to meet him.
Zamperini found another track to his past. He was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch through Naoetsu, the city that once housed his prison. The 81-year-old ran for a kilometer. Then Zamperini paid his respects at the memorial erected in Naoetsu to honor soldiers, like himself, who had been prisoners of war there.
"This was extremely emotonal for me to know that there were that kind of people here that would erect such a memorial to the prisoners of war," he says.
"And when I think back to 1945 when we left Naoetsu, it was such a horrible place in our minds, I couldn't look back. But when I leave here today, believe me, I will look back, and I will never forget," Zamperini says.
Produced by David Kohn