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Louie Zamperini in his bomber jacket. After training as a B-24 Liberator bombardier, he flew combat missions with the 42nd Bomb Squadron of the 11th Bomb Group in the Pacific Theater until his aircraft was forced to crash into the Pacific Ocean on May 27, 1943. After 47 days in a life raft, he was captured by the Japanese and became a Prisoner of War. (click image to enlarge)
Louis Zamperini defied the odds to survive at sea in the Pacific and as a Japanese prisoner of war in WWII. His true heroism, however, came afterwards, as he fought and successfully conquered the emotional demons of a horrific war experience. Today, he inspires a new generation with his story of resilience, persistence and bravery.
FROM TROUBLE-MAKER TO OLYMPIAN TO AIRMAN
Louis Zamperini was born in 1917 in Olean, New York, the son of Italian immigrants. During the 1920s, his family moved to Torrence, California, where young Louie as he was called, was bullied because he could not speak English. To help him defend himself, his father taught him how to fight. Fighting, however, soon became a habit for the lad. He was often in trouble with his school and local law enforcement officials.
Fortunately his older brother Pete, seeking to lead Louie off the path of delinquency, saw tremendous athletic potential in him and introduced him to the sport of running. From the start, Zamperini showed enormous talent and a love for the sport. In 1932, he set the world-record for the mile at 4 minutes and 21 seconds. He received a scholarship from the University of Southern California, where he trained hard and qualified for 1936 Berlin Olympics.
At the games, Zamperini led the Americans and finished 8th in the 5,000 meters, with an extraordinary last lap of 56 seconds. He planned to continue his training and dreamed of winning the gold at the 1940 games. As WWII broke out and the Olympics were cancelled, Zamperini knew it was his duty to serve his country. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941 and was deployed to Hawaii as a bombardier.
On May 17th, 1943, the B-24 carrying Zamperini went down over the Pacific. Zamperini and the plane’s pilot survived on a fragile raft for forty-seven days (a record ), traveling 2,000 miles, before the Japanese Navy captured them. Zamperini was held in captivity and severely tortured until the end of the war.
Zamperini had survived captivity, but his harrowing experiences continued to plague him. Returning to civilian life as a war hero, he grappled with post-traumatic stress and alcoholism. His marriage came close to divorce.
The road to recovery was a long and difficult one for Louie. Fortunately, his wife Cynthia, showing remarkable kindness and support, introduced him to a young evangelist named Billy Graham. Zamperini credits him with saving his life. Through Graham’s teachings, Zamperini re-discovered his faith and learned, above all, the lessons of forgiveness.
In his first visit back to Japan, Zamperini met with many of his captors and quite literally, forgave them for their abuse of him in the POW camps. In 1988, he was asked to carry the Olympic torch in Nagano, Japan, not far from his WWII prison camp. Again, Zamperini converted what could have been a bittersweet memory to an exercise in forgiveness.
He reflected, “When I finished, all these young people were around me asking questions, wanting autographs. It was great. I just couldn’t believe it. The love these people offered me made me forget about the labor camp.”
Today, Zamperini is in excellent health, and leads a full life. At ninety-four years old, he walks a mile or more a day, regularly tends to yard work, and keeps a balanced emotional and spiritual view of the world. He loves a good laugh and lives by his personal motto, “be hardy.”
SHARING HIS STORY
Zamperini has worked to inspire many with his story of endurance and survival. As a motivational speaker, he tours the country and the world to share his life's experiences and the lessons he has learned, particularly those associated with redemption.
He is especially dedicated to inspiring young people. In 1952, Zamperini started Victory Boys Camp. The organization helps the kind of boy Zamperini once was—the delinquent going in the wrong direction. By providing camp experiences that build confidence and life skills to high-school dropouts, Victory Boys Camp gives thousands of boys a chance at redemption.
In 2003, Zamperini, in conjunction with David Resnin, published Devil at My Heels: A WWII Hero’s Epic Saga of Torment, Survival and Forgiveness.
Zamperini has also recently seen his story enter the limelight with the publication of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, written by Lauren Hillenbrand (author of critically acclaimed Seabiscuit). The novel, another chronicle of Zamperini’s extraordinary story, reached #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List and was named the top book of 2010 by Time magazine.
Of the book, Zamperini said, “Not only is it a great novel, but a great true story of the history of World War II – it’s an encyclopedia because it is historical and absolutely 100% accurate.”
Over the years, Zamperini has gotten the nickname “Lucky Louie.” Anyone who has heard and been inspired by his story, however, knows that his survival and redemption were not the products of his luck, but of his resilience, persistence and bravery. A true hero, Zamperini’s life reflects his steadfast character—or as he might say, his “hardiness.”
Zamperini is the recipient of the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross and Prisoner of War Medal.
According to Zamperini, the rights to Unbroken have been purchased by Universal Pictures. A movie is expected to be released by Christmas, 2014.
Note: Elizabeth Drew Higgins, Veterans Advantage Associate Editor, edited this profile.