WW2 hero Louis Zamperini died last week at 97. Last year I was fortunate enough to have interviewed him. Louie was gracious, humble and the most optimistic person I’ve ever met. He also had a terrific sense of humor.
In 2010, a book chronicling Louie’s amazing 9+ decades, “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand, was a NY Times best-seller for a staggering two years. It’s in our library and is a must read.
Hillenbrand’s 2001 book, “Seabiscuit,” about a racehorse during the Depression, was also a best-seller. “Louie’s personal story took my breath away,” Hillenbrand said recently. “His almost incomprehensibly dramatic life became my obsession.” Louie had suggested to her that he’d probably be a more interesting subject than Seabiscuit. “At least I can talk,” he joked.
Just as “Seabiscuit” became a movie, “Unbroken,” a Universal Pictures film, is due out this December. It’s directed by Academy Award winning Angelina Jolie who, as fate would have it, was Louie’s Hollywood Hills neighbor, and is adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, also Oscar winners.
My column last June about Louie was entitled “I Hope Brad Pitt Isn’t the Jealous Type,” referencing Angelina’s crush on Louie and vice-versa. Louie confessed to me confidentially, “She’s quite a looker, you know.” I replied, “So I’ve been told, Louie.”
During WW2, Louie was a bombardier in the Pacific. He and his crew were on a rescue mission when their plane malfunctioned and went down killing all but three of the 11-man crew. Louie rescued the other two and dog paddled them to a lifeboat.
Over the next 47 days the tiny rubber craft floated 2000 miles. While one died, Louie and his fellow survivor subsisted by killing small sharks lured by the carcasses of birds. Unfortunately, the boat drifted into the most heinous of Japan’s POW camps. When Louie was eventually liberated he weighed 65 pounds.
Seemingly in a different universe, in 1936, 19-year-old Louie was on the American Olympic team in Berlin, competing in the 5,000 meters. He finished 8th but he ran such a valiant last lap (56 seconds) that Hitler insisted on shaking his hand.
Given Hitler’s flamboyant speaking style, Louie confessed, “We all thought he was just a clown.” (When nobody was looking, Louie swiped Germany’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels’ Nazi flag.)
As a child during the Depression Louie was raised in Torrance by his Italian immigrant parents. No English was spoken in the home and, as a result, Louie was bullied by neighborhood kids. He soon learned to defend himself and became a hell raiser committing petty theft and riding freight trains for adventure.
The Torrance Police Department had only one car. As the Chief later put it, “And Louie was faster than we were.” Finally Louie’s older brother convinced him to try out for the Torrance High School track team. He was such a natural athlete and so determined to succeed, he set a world high school record in the mile and became known as the “Torrance Tornado.”
Louie received a scholarship to USC and, after the ’36 games, was favored to win the Gold in the 1940 Olympics. But they never took place. WW2 did.
In the Japanese POW camps Louie was brutalized daily for over two years. The War Department declared Louie dead and his parents even received his life insurance benefit. But his mother never gave up, and, amazingly, neither did Louie.
After the war, Louie returned home to parades with other returning heroes. It was at one such event where he met his beautiful wife-to-be Cynthia, an aspiring model. The two married in 1946 and remained so until Cynthia’s death in 2001.
Louie understandably suffered extreme PTSD. One night he awoke strangling Cynthia having had nightmares about his POW captors. Louie sank deep into alcoholism and depression. With a divorce looming, Cynthia insisted Louie attend a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. Almost overnight he became a born again Christian and his life changed forever.
In October, 1950, Louie made a trip to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo where he spoke to dozens of his former captors serving sentences for war crimes. In what must have been a remarkable scene, he forgave and hugged each one.
In 1946 Torrance’s airport was re-named “Zamperini Field.” Torrance High’s football, soccer, and track stadium is called Zamperini Stadium. And in 2004, the entrance at USC’s track & field stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza. Louie is survived by his daughter, Cynthia and his son, Luke, and his grandchildren.
On New Year’s Louie was to have been the Grand Marshall of the 2015 Rose Parade. In his honor, the Tournament announced there would be no replacement. This goes for anyone fortunate enough to have met Louie. How could we ever?
To learn more about Louie and the book and movie “Unbroken” go to YouTube and type “Louie Zamperini.” Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.