From my early adolescence, the name of Louie Zamperini (January 26, 1917 – July 2, 2014) lurked as a memory of an American distance runner. He became a World War II POW survivor and in 2010 Laura Hillenbrand wrote a best-seller about his experiences. It has been adapted into the 2014 movie “Unbroken".
An Italian immigrant family moved to California, where Louie became the target for bullies. Older brother Pete involved Louie in track. Louie quickly gained recognition and started running seriously, He quit drinking and smoking. Following Pete’s advice, he ran, ran, ran. He became a self-obsessed fanatic, going undefeated through high school, gaining a scholarship to USC, and trying out for the Olympics.
The 5000 metres seemed his best opportunity. Running on one of the hottest days ever in New York, he survived the collapse of co-favorite Norm Bright and several others, and fnished with a superb spint. A dead-heat tie with American record-holder Don Lash qualified the 19-yar-old as the youngest American ever in that event.
He finished eighth in the 5000-meter distance event, but his final lap of 56 seconds caught the attention of Adolph Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Louie told it, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish". Bill 'Stern's Sports Newsreel recorded Zamperini climbing a flag pole during the 1936 Olympic games and stealing the personal flag of Hitler.
Zamperini set the 1938 collegiate mile record of 4:08 minutes despite severe shin cuts from competitors attempting to spike him during the race, His record held for fifteen years and earned him the nickname "Torrance Tornado". He enlisted in the United States Army United States Army Air Force in 1941, earned his wings as a second lieutenant and deployed to the Pacific islands as a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator bomber Super Man.
When Super Man became no longer flight-worthy, and with several crewmen injured, the remaining crew were reassigned to Hawai. There, they were assigned to search for a lost aircraft and crew. They were given another B-24, The Green Hornet, recognized among the pilots as a defective "lemon plane". On May 27, 1943, mechanical failures caused the plane to crash, killing eight of the eleven men aboard.
Zamperini and crew-mates, Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips and Francis "Mac" McNamara survived with little food and no water, Subsisting on captured rainwater and small fish eaten raw, they caught and ate two albatrosses, using pieces as bait to catch fish, and fended off shark attacks while nearly capsizing in a storm. They survived multiple strafings and McNamara died after 33 days at sea.
Adrift 47 days, Zamperini and Phillips reached the Marshall Islands and were captured. Held at Kwajalein Atoll for 45 days, they were transferred to the Japanese POW unit at Ofuna, for unregistered prisoners. Zamperini spent his remaining time at Tokyo's Ōmori POW camp and Naoetsu camp in northern Japan. Throughout captivity, they were severely beaten and horribly mistreated until the end of the war in August 1945.
In 1946, Louie married Cynthia Applewhite. Drinking heavily while trying to forget his POW abuse, escape his haunting nightmares and dreams of strangling his captors, his life and marriage unravelled, Cynthia became a born-again Christian at a1949 GrahamCrusade in Los Angeles. Louie reluctantly accompanied her in hopes of preventing their pending divorce, with continual prodding by Cynthis and her newfound Christian friends.
Zamperini described becoming a born again Christian after Graham reminded him of his continual prayers on the life raft and in the prisoner of war camps where he repeatedly promised to seek and serve God. Accepting Christ led to forgiving his captors and escaping his nightmares. Later Graham helped him launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker.
A favorite theme became "forgiveness". He visited captured guards from his POW days and shared his forgiveness, particularly with some of those who had committed the worst atrocities held at Sugano Prison. In Tokyo, in October 1950, Zamperini went to Japan, gave his testimony, and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ through an interpreter (missionary Fred Jarvis). The colonel in charge of the prison encouraged prisoners who recognized Zamperini to come forward and meet him again. Zamperini threw his arms around each of them and again explained the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. The prisoners were surprised by Zamperini's genuine affection for those who had once ill-treated him, and Zamperini told CBN some gave their lives to Christ.
Zamperini last appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno June 7, 2012, speaking about his life in general, the 1936 Olympics, and his World War II exploits. Until his death, he lived in Hollywood and served at First Presbyterian Church. His death was mistakenly announced previously when he was classified as killed in action, following his B-24 Liberator crash with no survivors reoirted. FDR even sent Louie’s parents a formal condolence note in 1944.
His actual death came 70 years later, via pneumonia on July 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, at home, aged 97.
I am not a fan of war, horror, and violence, but Laura Hillenbrand tells this graphic story with extraordinary skill, great empathy and sensitivity. The paperback version is 406 pages, but Hillenbrand tells a graphic story. Spending seven years in massive research, with an army of assistants, she has given us a low-key testimonial of a profound religious conversion every bit as powerful as the story told by Chuck Colson.
This may not be an easy read for some, but the takeaway of Louie’s survival and resilience—and redemption--will be worth it all. From Warner’s World