Louis Zamperini, Olympian and ‘Unbroken’ War Survivor, with the Lord at 97; He met Adolph Hitle and Billy Graham
By Dan Wooding/ Assist News On July 3, 2014
I have interviewed some extraordinary people in my more than 45 years as a journalist, but some time back I was able to meet with one of the most inspiring men I have ever met. His name was Louis Zamperini, a true living legend who, passed away at the age of 97 on Wednesday (July 2, 2014) after a battle with pneumonia.
Louis Zamperini, 94, at his Hollywood home.
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Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose remarkable story of survival as a prisoner of war in World War II gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of "Unbroken," a best-selling biography by Laura Hillenbrand, and which is being turned into a major motion picture by Angelina Jolie, was a truly extraordinary man.
The movie, due to be released on Christmas Day, is an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's book and directed by Jolie, who called Zamperini's death "a loss impossible to describe." She added, "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him."
When I arrived with my wife Norma at his picturesque home, Louis was sitting at a desk with a marvelous view of downtown Los Angeles, wearing a red University of Southern California (USC) cap, and was busy signing scores of books for his many fans from around the world.
Angelini Jolie with Louis Zamperini
As I began my interview for my "Front Page Radio" program on the KWVE Radio Network (www.kwve.com) in Southern California, I learned that Zamperini, who despite his advanced age, remains active and full of life, lecturing to audiences around the world about how to deal with stress, the meaning of the Olympic movement and the freedom he has found through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
During the interview he told me that he was born in Olean, New York to Anthony and Louise Zamperini. The Zamperini family, he said, moved to Torrance, California in the 1920s, where Louis attended Torrance High School.
The son of Italian immigrants, Louis spoke no English when his family moved to California, which made him a target for bullies. His father taught Louis how to box for self-defense. Pretty soon, according to Louis, he was "beating the tar out of every one of them... But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it."
Before long, he went on, he was picking fights "just to see if anyone could keep up with me." From juvenile thug, he progressed to "teenage hobo." Hopping a train to Mexico, he courted danger for the thrill of it.
Dan Wooding interviewing
Louis said that he had a "knack for getting into trouble," so his brother got him involved in the school track team. In 1934 Louis set a world interscholastic record in the mile, clocking in at 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. The record would last for over twenty years, until broken by Dennis Hansen in 1959. That record helped Louis win a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.
In the Olympic trials at Randall's Island, New York, Louis finished in a dead heat against world-record holder Don Lash, and qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Unfortunately, Louis ruined his chance at gaining the gold by gorging himself on the free food that was provided to the Olympic athletes during the trans-Atlantic cruise. He shared a cabin with the great Jesse Owens who achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4x100 meter relay team.
Illustration of Hitler's worst
nightmarewhen Jessie Owens
"I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich," he said. "And all the food was free. I had not just one sweet roll, but about seven every morning, with bacon and eggs. My eyes were like saucers." By the end of the trip, Louis confessed that he had gained 12 pounds.
As a consequence, Louis only finished eighth in the 5000 meter distance event at that Berlin Olympics, but his final lap was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Louis tells the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply 'The boy with the fast finish.'"
I then asked Louis if he had been a Christian at that time, would he have witnessed to Hitler. He smiled and replied, "I would share about Jesus Christ with anyone."
Two years later, in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record which held for 15 years and his speed earned him the nickname of "The Torrance Tornado."
Zamperini in his running days
Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1941, and after being commissioned a second lieutenant the following August, he was deployed to Hawaii as a B-24 bombardier. After flying a number of missions, his aircraft went down due to mechanical failure on May 27, 1943. After 47 days adrift in the ocean, Zamperini and the only other surviving crew member (pilot Russ Phillips) were rescued by the Japanese Navy.
Louis was held in captivity through the end of the war and his family thought he had been killed in action, but he eventually returned to a hero's welcome. Zamperini was held in a Japanese Navy camp for captives not labeled as Prisoners of War at Ofuna. Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington was held at the same camp and in Boyington's book, "Baa Baa Black Sheep" he discussed Zamperini and the Italian recipes he would write to keep the prisoners minds off of the food and conditions.
Zamperini then spoke about how, after his return home, he would have horrific nightmares because of what had occurred in the prison camps and one night he awoke to find his hands around the neck of his wife. It was then that he realized he was in deep trouble.
His wife, he told me, went to Billy Graham's historic 1949 Los Angeles Crusade and there she found the Lord. She then persuaded him to go along with her and he said that was very upset with having to attend, but eventually, he too made a personal commitment to Christ, and his whole life turned around in the right direction.
He said that he has since become close friends with Billy Graham and said that it was Mr. Graham who helped him launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker. One of his favorite themes is "forgiveness," and he has visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he has forgiven them. Many of the war criminals who committed the worst atrocities were held in the Sugamo prison in Tokyo.
Billy Graham with Louis Zamperini
In October 1950, Zamperini went to Japan and gave his testimony and preached through an interpreter (a missionary called Fred Jarvis). The colonel in charge of the prison encouraged any of the prisoners who recognized Zamperini to come forward and meet him again. Zamperini threw his arms around each of them. Once again he explained the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. The prisoners were somewhat surprised by Zamperini's genuine affection for those who had once ill-treated him. Most of the prisoners accepted copies of the New Testament which had been given by The Gideons.
For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In March 2005 he returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there and met Adolf Hitler.
What a morning and what a joy to be able to meet with Luis Zamperini and we left with an autographed copy of "Unbroken" which we both have since read and marveled at this amazing story.
And now we are anxiously awaiting the Hollywood movie about the life of this extraordinary man who, up until his death, remained "Unbroken." It is sad that he won't see it, but millions will, and be inspired.