Remembering the Remarkable Louis Zamperini
Here is the story behind the story of the hero of 'Unbroken' — and it's not what anyone thinks
Nearly seven decades ago, the world was sure Louie Zamperini was dead. There were good reasons.
Among them: The former Olympic athlete’s bomber had crashed into the Pacific, no one had heard from him since, and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed his death certificate. The story of how Zamperini survived his own death — and how his life was revived — was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”
Much was written about Zamperini when he actually died on July 2, 2014, a lot of it about his grit, resilience and determination. But much less was written about his spiritual journey, about his redemption. That’s because it involved a man named Billy Graham and a savior named Jesus Christ.
It's been said that cats have nine lives. Louis Zamperini had at least three. The first began in 1917. Born in Olean, New York, he moved with his family to Torrance, California, in 1919. The son of Italian immigrants, he spoke very little English when he was a young man. This made him susceptible to bullying, and not the cyber kind. The old-fashioned beat-down variety.
His father did what good dads did back then. He taught his son how to box. And soon, his son was beating up the very boys who'd been beating him.
Louie was an angry and rebellious teenager, and his love of alcohol fueled an even deeper passion for fighting. Young Louie's life was on the wrong track until his older brother, Pete, intervened and set his brother on another track: an oval one at the local high school.
Pete was already a star on the high school track team; he started taking his younger brother on training runs. Louie took to the sport, and at the end of his freshman year, he finished fifth in the All City C-division 660-yard dash.
Louie, it turned out, was a natural. But if he wanted to tap his true God-given potential, his brother told him, he'd need to get his act together. "Pete told me I had to quit drinking and smoking if I wanted to do well, and that I had to run, run, run," Zamperini recalled to Runner's World. "I decided that summer to go all out. Overnight I became fanatical. I wouldn't even have a milkshake."
Running, and a loving brother, altered the course of Zamperini's life.
In the final three years of his high school career, he would never lose a race. Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile and won a scholarship to USC. "Local newspapers started calling me 'Zamp the Champ,'" he told America in WWII, a magazine, in 2006. "I relished every moment in the limelight, knowing at last I could make something of myself."
Zamperini's speed impressed the reporters and sports fans in Los Angeles. Indeed, it earned him the nickname "the Torrence Tornado." "The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit," his coach at USC once gushed.
Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter run. But he was best remembered for what he did off the track. One night, he scaled a wall near the Reich Chancellery, pulled the Nazi flag off a flagpole, and ran as fast as he could. German security eventually ran him down, but he wasn't charged. When a high-ranking German Army commander found out who Zamperini was, he let him keep the flag.
His next goal was the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but that dream was put on hold as the world prepared for war. Zamperini traded his track uniform for another: a bombardier's. After some training in Texas, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii in 1942 with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force, as a master bombardier.
He was involved in several dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater, and then came the mission that changed everything.
On May 27, 1943, Zamperini's crew of 11 was ordered to search for a B-25 that had been shot down near Palmyra Island, 900 miles south of Hawaii. They left Kualoa Airfield in the early morning on the only B-24 available. At about 2 p.m., the plane's two port engines failed, and within minutes the plane slammed into the sea. (go to page 2 to continue reading)