Thursday, July 3, 2014

Vol 4 No. 51 Louis Zamperini R.I.P.

Louis Zamperini

Winston Churchill once said, "Some men achieve greatness, others have it thrust upon them."
Certainly Louis Zamperini who passed away today, July 3, 2014, at the age of 97 fits tightly into that former category.  

I personally never heard his story until recent times, maybe in the last ten years when the book "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand was published and someone passed it on to me to read. That book was preceded by another biography, "Devil at My Heels".  Louis' greatness did not come easily.   

  Born into an immigrant family in Olean, NY, his family moved to California early on, and Louis first distinguished himself with his delinquency.  But a caring member of the local police in Torrance, CA took Louis under his wing and pointed him down a better path.   To expend his abundance of energy, he became a runner.  And what a runner!  He was one of if not the first high schooler to ever distinguish himself nationally as a distance runner making the US Olympic team in 1936 at the 5,000 meters.   He not only made the team, he made the Olympic finals and ran to a credible 8th place in that race.

In Berlin ,  a slide back to his former childhood proclivities , resulted in his being arrested by the German police after he 'removed'  a German flag off a light pole in the streets of the city.  All was however forgiven.

In a well documented tale, his life reads on like an improbable saga of triumph and tragedy.  He would go to the University of Southern California,  join up for WWII as a flight officer.  Crash in the Pacific and survive 47 days adrift in the ocean only to be taken prisoner of the Japanese and spending the rest of the war under one of the harshest prison guards the Japanese had to offer.

His triumphant return home was shadowed by losing bouts with alcohol,  then redemption and a life of serving others.  He displayed his faith openly and credited it with saving him from a life of misery.  

Since "Unbroken" was published, he had become a celebrity again and traveled the country giving speeches and attending various functions.  The theme of his message was forgiveness.  His is a life to be admired,  maybe not envied for all that he had to endure.  

A feature film based on the book "Unbroken"  is scheduled for release in the near future.
R.I.P.  ,  Louis.

Personal Bests: 880y – 1:53.2 (1938); 1500 – 3:52.6 (1939); Mile – 4:08.3 (1938); 2 miles – 9:12.8 (1939); 5000 – 14:46.8 (1936).


Men's 5,000 metres

Event History  · Glossary  · SHARE  · Embed  · CSV  · Export  · PRE  · LINK  · ?
1936 Summer19BerlinAthleticsUnited StatesFinal814:46.8
1936 Summer19BerlinAthleticsUnited StatesRound OneHeat Three5QU15:02.2

Louie Zamperini dead at 97.
Great Christian, great American, great Olympian.
Appropriate that he leaves us as we celebrate the 4th.


Earl Young

Roy Mason  

8:11 AM (17 minutes ago)

I can't imagine enduring what he did.  He is at the top of my hero list.

Richard Mach

George,  was on the horn this AM with my WMU track coach , George Dales about
 Zamperini's loss.  He told me Louis had come to Western about two years ago
and given one of the most inspiring speeches ever given on that campus.  What a
guy!  97 years young.   RIP

George, here is my review of the book "Unbroken published in Cross Country Journal.

Paul O'Shea

 All He Had He Gave

Book Review

By Paul O’Shea

“Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience,
 and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand, Random House, 2010
496 pages, $28.

“All I had, I gave it.”
When Lou Zamperini collapsed after running the last lap of the
 l936 Olympic 5,000 meter final in 56 seconds, those six words
 eerily presaged the qualities he would need in the years to come.  
Ahead were not Olympic medals or the first sub-four minute mile for a 
highly promising athlete, but more daunting challenges that required 
courage,  immeasurable endurance, and the will to survive the Second 
World War.

Looking back Zamperini can remember when it took all he had to 
survive forty-seven days adrift on the Pacific Ocean, two years 
as a prisoner of war in the most brutal conditions, and a 
peacetime enveloped by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Indeed, all he had he would need.

“Unbroken” has been on The New York Times’ best seller list for 
more than three years since publication.  Its author is Lauren 
Hillenbrand who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Seabiscuit: 
An American Legend. “Louis and Seabiscuit were sports stars 
around the same time, the mid-‘30s to l940,” she remembered.  
“They were both based in southern California, so in the articles 
I was looking through for Seabiscuit I kept coming across articles 
for this teenage running phenom.  When I was done working on 
Seabiscuit, I called him and we had this amazing conversation, 
and I knew that I had to write this book.”

“I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,” he told Hillenbrand. 
“At least I can talk.”

Growing up in Torrance, California Lou Zamperini was a juvenile 
delinquent before the term became popular.  Described as 
“feral,” the youngster was diverted from a life of crime by being 
the fastest kid on the block.   Older brother Phil, a leading miler 
on the high school team persuaded the troubling and troubled 
Lou to give track a try.

Progress came quickly.  In two years he went from 5:03 to 
breaking the national high school mile record with 4:21.2, a mark 
that would stand for nineteen years.   The University of Southern 
California was the next stop where as a sophomore he won the 
NCAA mile in 4:08.3.3, missing the world record by less than two 

Injuries prevented Zamperini from training for the 1,500, so he 
moved up to the 5,000 and qualified for the Berlin Olympics.  
On the trip over training sessions on the luxury steamer 
Manhattan consisted of running laps on the first deck while 
dodging tourists. What he couldn’t avoid was the irresistibly rich 
food that girdled him with a dozen extra pounds.  “I was a 
Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for 
a sandwich.”

Most top milers at the time ran their last lap in about sixty seconds
. Zamperini turned in that 56-second closer in the 5,000, placing 
eighth.  In a post-race interview Adolph Hitler tells him, “Ah, you’re
 the boy with the fast finish.”

Back home Zamperini is a favorite to be the first man to run 
sub-four minutes, and to medal in the 1940 Olympics scheduled 
for Tokyo. But the winds of war plunged the United States and the
 world into conflict and put his Olympic dreams on hold.

Zamperini joins the U.S. Army Air Force and is soon flying 
missions as a bombardier over the Pacific.  On one flight his 
Green Hornet returns with 594 gunshot holes in the fuselage. Not 
long after, the Hornet is searching for a missing aircraft when it 
is shot down 850 miles west of Hawaii, killing eight of the eleven 
on board.   Zamperini and two other airmen survive.

They drift west from where their B-24 Liberator slipped into the 
Pacific Ocean, enduring brutal heat and life-threatening storms. A 
fellow crewmember lives 33 days. Strafed by Japanese fighter 
planes, going hand-to-hand with sharks that jump into the life raft 
and have to be clubbed into submission with an oar, at the mercy 
of a catastrophic typhoon, he and his mate finally reach one of 
the Marshall Islands, two thousand miles from where they went 
down. With little food and no water, Zamperini survives 
forty-seven days before reaching land.  The Japanese Navy 
quickly takes them captive. 

Two violently inhumane years as a prisoner of war follow. When 
authorities learn they have captured an American Olympian, he 
finds himself the Number One Prisoner of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, 
who would become one of Japan’s forty most notorious war 
criminals. Zamperini’s life is one of hunger, ferocious beatings 
and medical experiments. Finally, the dropping of atom bombs on 
Hiroshima and Nagasaki accelerates the war’s end and his 

With peacetime, the war’s imprint is indelible.  “As bad as were 
the physical consequences of captivity,” Hillenbrand tells us, 
“the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread 
and enduring.”

Homecoming was ridden with problems.  He launches and invests 
in a number of get-rich-quick ventures.  All fail.  He starts to train 
for London ’48 but is injured and forced to give up the Olympic 
dream.  He begins smoking and drinking heavily.  He marries and 
he and his wife have a baby, but the marriage is threatened 
because of his alcoholism.

Then, after attending a Billy Graham crusade Lou Zamperini 
turns his life around, as a born again Christian. He finds peace as
 he finds faith, establishes a foundation to help troubled boys, 
delivers inspirational speeches, and carries torches for five 
Olympic efforts.  

Today, 97-year-old lives in Hollywood Hills, California.  In his 
sixties he climbed a peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, ran 
sub-six minute miles and began skateboarding. At 85 he returned 
to the site of a Japanese prison camp to meet and forgive his 
captors who were still alive.  He went skiing in his nineties.  He is, after all still 
Lou Zamperini, still giving it all he has, still undefeated.


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