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Louis Zamperini: The Unbreakable Olympian

Shotgun Spratling |
December 14, 2010 | 5:50 a.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor

Louis Zamperini looks through a hole in the airplane on which he was a crewmember. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Louis Zamperini looks through a hole in the airplane on which he was a crewmember. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
He caught the eye of Adolf Hitler, broke a world record and roomed with Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson’s older brother Mack.

And that’s all before Louis Zamperini became an American hero.

Zamperini, a month shy of his 94th birthday, has one of the most compelling stories of persistence, resilience and survival.

In “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s new biography of Zamperini, he is correctly portrayed as the ultimate survivor. From a troubled adolescence to vengeful competitors, the Gestapo, bullets and shrapnel, a plane crash, repeated shark attacks, machine gun fire, hell in a prison cell, and even his own personal demons – Zamperini has survived it all.

“Hope is the power of the soul to endure,” Zamperini often says.

It often appeared he wouldn’t even make it through his delinquent days as an adolescent troublemaker growing up in Torrance, Calif. But Zamperini turned his remarkable penchant for escape into record-breaking performances on the track.

A running prodigy, he set a world’s interscholastic record, which lasted for 19 years, before earning a spot on the 1936 Olympic team in an event he had run only four times. At the age of 19, Zamperini had become the youngest distance runner to ever make the American Olympic squad.

Though he finished eighth in the grueling 5,000-meter race, his 56-second final lap was so fast it caught the eye of Hitler, who asked to meet the “boy with the fast finish.” After shaking hands with the German dictator, Zamperini set his eyes on another symbol of the Third Reich.

Wanting a souvenir, Zamperini swiped a Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery where Hitler lived. He immediately bolted with two Gestapo guards chasing. Zamperini abruptly stopped after hearing a gunshot. Thanks to his Olympic fame, he was allowed to go free. And to this day, the flag remains in Zamperini’s possession, resting in his Hollywood Hills home.

With his eyes set on an Olympic return in Tokyo in 1940, the son of Italian immigrants began training almost immediately.

Representing the University of Southern California in the 1938 NCAA Championships, opponents attempted to injure Zamperini during the race to slow him down. Despite having a rib cracked, both his shins punctured and one of his toes impaled by sharpened track spikes, Zamperini set a new NCAA record, running the mile in 4:08.3.

Louis Zamperini after setting the NCAA mile record in 1938. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Louis Zamperini after setting the NCAA mile record in 1938. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Many experts at the time expected he would be the one to break the four-minute mile, but World War II would derail that dream.

“Louie’s story is extraordinarily—perhaps singularly—rich and deep. By itself, his unlikely rise from daredevil juvenile delinquent to Olympic runner is worthy of a book,” Hillenbrand said in an email interview. “But Louie’s running career is only an overture to his epic war struggle.”

Joining the Army Air Corps, Zamperini became a bombardier in the South Pacific.

Hillenbrand describes in vivid detail an epic aerial battle over Nauru in which Zamperini’s bomber and crew mates sustained significant damage. Six of the ten men aboard were injured. One died shortly after the plane’s near crash landing. Grounds crewman counted 594 holes in the plane.

Hours later, Zamperini and the rest of Funafuti, the island he landed on, was bombarded. He escaped the wrath of the bombs that left the island wrecked with craters as large as 35 feet deep and 60 feet across.

The eventful and frightening 24 hours were only the beginning of Zamperini’s Pacific hardships.

A little over a month after Nauru and Funafuti, Zamperini was on a regular reconnaissance mission. His plane’s engines faltered sending more than 50,000 pounds spiraling toward the ocean surface. “An instant before the plane struck the water, Louie’s mind throbbed with a single, final thought: Nobody’s going to live through this,” Hillenbrand wrote.

But Zamperini, Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara did.

In a pair of small life rafts, the trio floated more than 2,000 miles. Along with the scorching sun, they were constantly pestered by the sea’s largest predators. Sharks circled beneath the men, occasionally attempting to jump onto the rafts.

After the first day, the men’s food and water supplies were depleted. They survived on minimal rainwater, birds that landed on the raft, fish caught with bird-meat baited hooks and the liver of sharks they killed with only their bare hands and a flare.

On the 27th day, a Japanese bomber shot 48 bullet holes into the inflatable raft. Only Zamperini had enough strength to jump into the water.

“It’s just unbelievable that after 45 minutes of strafing and all those bullet holes that those guys were missed,” Zamperini told CBS in 1998. “It’s just amazing.”

But underwater, danger took another form for Zamperini – large dorsal fins and sharp, jagged teeth.

To avoid the plane’s bullets, seven times he lunged “into the water to kick and punch at the sharks until the bomber had passed,” Hillenbrand wrote. “Though he fought them to the point of exhaustion, he was not bitten.”

McNamara died on the 33rd day. It wasn’t until the 47th day after the crash that Zamperini and Phillips were back on earth – rescued/captured by the Japanese.

“The trials [Zamperini] experienced stagger the imagination,” Hillenbrand said.

Once one of the world’s elite athletes, Zamperini weighed less than 100 pounds, having lost about half his body weight on the raft. He did not regain that weight until more than two and a half years later when WWII finally ended.

He was held captive as a Japanese POW and often the only sustenance he received was a rice ball thrown in the dirt. He also had to endure both mental and physical torments as he and other POWs were savagely abused.

One Japanese guard, Matsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, made particular efforts to break Zamperini. Watanabe sometimes searched a room full of POWs until he spotted Zamperini and then singled him out for punishment.

On one occasion, Watanabe put him in charge of a sickly goat telling Zamperini he would die if the goat died. The goat died. Zamperini was fearful for his life. Instead of a normal punishment, Watanabe ordered the thin and malnutritioned Zamperini to pick up a board that British POW Tom Wade said was “four-by-four-by-six feet.”

The board was hoisted above Zamperini’s head. While Zamperini and all his muscles worked to keep the board in the air, fearful that if it dropped Watanabe would have him shot, the psychotic guard laughed and mocked the former Olympian.

Wade, who looked at the camp’s clock when the ordeal began, said that after 37 minutes, Watanabe was enraged at Zamperini’s resiliency. With a running start, he punched Zamperini in the stomach, dropping the GI with the board coming down on top of him.

Watanabe later became No. 23 on General Douglas MacArthur’s list of 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.
For Zamperini, it wasn’t enough. After the end of the war, he continued to have recurring nightmares of a time when Watanabe lashed him across the face multiple times with a belt buckle.

The nightmares consumed him and made him yearn to journey back to Japan to find and kill Watanabe with his bare hands. Addiction took over his life until he finally found religion at a Billy Graham tent revival in Los Angeles.

Zamperini has since forgiven Watanabe and his Japanese captives. He gave several his personal pardon when he traveled to a Japanese prison in 1950 to spread the Christian faith.

Louis Zamperini stands before the Sugamo Prison in Japan in 1950. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Louis Zamperini stands before the Sugamo Prison in Japan in 1950. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Despite the traumatic experiences that should have shortened his life, Zamperini has outlived almost everyone around him. He lives in peace, claiming to not have become angry in over 25 years.

“You can’t have a negative moment, you just have to accept what happens to you,” Zamperini said. “In the end, all things work together for good.”

Hillenbrand said this is what makes Zamperini’s story so special.

“This is more than just a dramatic story,” Hillenbrand said. “He didn’t merely survive his odyssey; through ingenuity, resilience and ferocious will, he overcame it, he prevailed over it.”

A spry, jovial man, Zamperini has remained active even in his old age. He finally gave up skateboarding at the age of 81 and was still snowboarding until he was 90. But Zamperini may never be able to give up running, still lacing up his athletic shoes for short runs on occasion.

WWII stole the prime of his running career and his best opportunity to earn an Olympic medal. However, Zamperini now has a case sitting in his living room that holds the five Olympic torches he has carried. Included is the torch he trotted through Noetsu, one of the cities he was interred as a POW, for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Zamperini still lectures high schools, colleges and other audiences, spreading his beliefs in resiliency, forgiveness and positive thinking.

“I never thought about losing. I was only thinking about winning,” Zamperini said to an auditorium full of USC students earlier this year. “And I didn’t think about dying because I was only thinking about living.”

To reach Shotgun Spratling, click here, or follow him on Twitter @BlueWorkhorse.

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