Louis Zamperini, 96, at his Hollywood home. The flame still burns in him as he holds the olympic torch he carried at the 1984 Olympic Games. (Photo by Brad Graverson)
Louis Zamperini, 96, at his Hollywood home. The flame still burns in him as he holds the Olympic torch he carried at the 1984 Olympic Games. (Photo by Brad Graverson)

Former Olympic athlete and WW II hero Louis Zamperini is 96 years old. (Or, as he puts it, “I’m 96 and a half.”) Throughout his youth, he enjoyed Santa Monica’s beaches as he was raised in nearby Torrance. (The airport is now named “Zamperini Field.”)

To this day Louie believes that he has a guardian angel looking out for him whom he’s named Victor for victory. Given how often he’s escaped death, who’s to argue? (Plus, he’s Angelina Jolie’s new boyfriend, but more on her later.)

The son of Italian immigrants, as a boy, Louie hopped freight trains and was often in trouble with the law. The chief of police said, “He was so fast he could steal beer from bootleggers.” And yet it was that speed that saved him.

As a teenager and with his older brother’s encouragement, Louie developed into an outstanding runner. At 19 he competed in the 5,000 meters at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and was considered the favorite for gold in 1940 until WW II forced cancellation of the games. Louie dropped out of USC and enlisted in the Army Air Force where he became a second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Pacific as a bombardier on a B-24 “Liberator” bomber.

In 2010, Louie’s life was the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” a NY Times bestseller for 108 weeks and soon to be a Universal Studios feature film directed by Angelina Jolie, who fell in love with Louie upon meeting him. (“She’s quite a looker, you know,” Louie confided to me over the phone.)

With his humor, Louie charms everybody, but especially women. In 2001, Hillenbrand authored the best-selling “Seabiscuit.” When she first agreed to write “Unbroken,” Louie quipped to her, “I should be as interesting as your last subject. At least I can talk.”

Hillenbrand spent seven years researching and writing “Unbroken.” But less known is that she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome so severe that she was often bed-ridden. Louie found her struggles inspiring. As he told the Washington Post, “I sent her one of my Purple Hearts because she deserved it.”

But back to the Pacific theatre, May 1943. Louie’s plane was so badly damaged in combat that the crew was given another B-24, “The Green Hornet,” which was notorious among pilots as a defective, “lemon plane.”

While searching for a lost aircraft, the plane experienced mechanical difficulties and crashed into the ocean, splitting into pieces 850 miles west of Oahu. The entire crew was killed except Louie, pilot Russell Phillips and Francis McNamara, all of whom miraculously escaped the wreckage and into a life raft.

For the next 47 days, the trio floated in the Pacific, subsisting on rainwater and small fish. Fending off constant shark attacks and getting capsized by storms, they were strafed multiple times by a Japanese bomber. After 33 days, McNamara died.

On their 47th day, Zamperini and Phillips reached the Marshall Islands and were immediately captured by the Japanese navy. They were held in captivity and brutally beaten, almost daily. Louie had been declared dead, but his mother instinctively believed he was still alive.

With the end of the war, Louie returned home to a hero’s welcome. Bent on revenge for his captors, he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and drank heavily. In Miami Beach he met a stunningly beautiful debutante, Cynthia Applewhite. In 1946 they married and remained so until her death in 2001. (They raised two children, Cissy and Luke.) But Louie’s drinking sent his life and marriage into a seemingly irreversible downward spiral.

In 1949, a desperate Cynthia convinced Louie to attend a religious revival in Los Angeles led by evangelist Billy Graham. Give credit to Jesus, fate or even Victor the angel, but somehow the conversion took. Louie became a born again Christian and was freed from his demons.

One of Louie’s favorite themes is “forgiveness.” So it was in October of 1950 that he flew to Tokyo to face war criminals who had so brutally tortured him. At Sugamo Prison and through an interpreter, Louie told his former tormentors that he truly forgave them. In what had to be unbelievably moving, the warden encouraged prisoners who recognized Louie to come forward, whereupon the former POW threw his arms around each one in forgiveness. (Wow.)

For years, Louie has been an inspirational speaker all across the country. As I write this he’s in Utah. At 96 (OK — 96 and a half.) he averages one a week. He’s truly one of the most down to earth, compassionate, and charming people I’ve ever encountered. All I can say is Brad better stay on his toes.

To see Louie on “60 Minutes,” or “The Tonight Show,” go to YouTube and type “Zamperini.” To book him go to www.keynotespeakers.com. Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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