A passing occurred last week of an American icon and legendary World War II hero. Louis “Louie” Zamperini, died at age 97 on July 2 at his Los Angeles home.
His name might not be familiar, but his story of unparalleled wartime courage was publicized in the 2010 bestseller, Unbroken, authored by Laura Hillenbrand, which recently merited a movie of the same name, produced by Angelina Jolie.
Born in 1917 of Italian immigrant parents in New York, the family moved to Torrance, Calif., two years later. Since Zamperini spoke no English, he was the target of bullying, and became a boxer in defense against tormenters. Surprisingly, Zamperini was so good at boxing, his older brother worried about the dire consequences of this potentially lethal skill.
As an alternative, the elder Zamperini, introduced Louie to running, which catapulted him to the University of Southern California. At the age of 19, Zamperini became the youngest qualifier for the 5,000-meter track event at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Even though Zamperini did not win the race, his performance was so impressive Adolf Hitler requested a meeting with the young runner. So disdained by forcibly having encountered the dictator, Zamperini later climbed one of the Olympic flagpoles during dark of night and stole Hitler’s flag.
After his Olympic debut, Zamperini joined the Air Corps in 1941 and was shot down in 1943, 850 miles West of Oahu. Along with his two fellow airmen, the three men drifted on a raft for 47 days without food or drinkable water. One of the men died prior to being captured by the Japanese and escorted to “Execution Island,” a prison camp with the notorious distinction of no one exiting alive. During the next two years, Zamperini was starved and beaten by sadistic Japanese guards, the worst one nicknamed “The Bird.” Zamperini’s captors became aware of his past Olympic fame, which propelled them to beat him more ruthlessly than other prisoners.
Freed in August 1945 when the war ended, Zamperini returned stateside to a hero’s welcome which included television appearances, and becoming a national celebrity. However, his yet unnamed wartime flashbacks of what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), became a nightly occurrence. To soothe his bedtime demons, Zamperini turned to alcohol and began drinking excessively.
On the verge of losing his marriage due to PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol, Zamperini begrudgingly accompanied his wife, Cynthia, to a 1949 Billy Graham crusade where the life-changing effects of “Forgiveness” received focus during Dr. Graham’s sermon. From that cathartic message, Zamperini quit drinking and realized that he needed to make peace with his wartime captors and returned to Japan and forgave them for what he had endured while a prisoner.
During Zamperini’s 1950 visit to Sugamo Prison near Tokyo, where Japanese wartime criminals were housed, those prisoners who remembered being one of his tormenters, were encouraged to meet with Zamperini. Those who agreed to the encounter were given a hug of forgiveness by Zamperini for their cruelty against him and a copy of The New Testament. However, Zamperini’s most demonic captor, “The Bird,” had evaded prosecution for his war crimes and was not at that prison. After this cathartic occurrence, Zamperini never again experienced a nightmare or consumed alcohol. His life mission was devoted to inspire others towards forgiveness and to overcome life’s obstacles through the healing of both body and soul.
Zamperini ran with in the Olympic Torch Relay five times, including on his 81st birthday, January 26, 1998 to open the Nagano Olympics in Japan, a location not far from where he had been held captive. He also appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, on June 7, 2012, and most recently was named as the January 1, 2015 Grand Marshal for the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Despite his death, officials for the parade stated that Zamperini will remain the Grand Marshal posthumously. Zamperini’s cause of death was listed as pneumonia. His wife died in 2000 and far as this columnist can determine, the couple had no children.
You were a very good man, Louie Zamperini. The world will miss you, especially for your story of incredible bravery, unbreakable spirit, and that ever-present smile. A CBS Sunday Morning interview with Zamperini, by reporter Chip Reed which originally aired May 27, 2012, can be viewed via CBSNEWS.com.
Mariann Main is a Delaware native and licensed as a counselor in both Ohio and Georgia. You can contact her directly with commentary or questions at MariannMain@GMail.com.