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Louis Zamperini was an American war hero as well as an evangelical Christian and Olympic distance runner. Zamperini started running when he was in high school. He was able to qualify to run the 5,000-meter race for the American track and field team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished 8th but was able to set a lap record. He became a commissioned lieutenant in the United States Army Air Force in 1941. Zamperini worked as a bombardier aboard a B-24 in the Pacific.
On January 26, 1917, Louis Silvie Zamperini was born in Olean, New York. His parents were both from northern Italy and were named Louise Dossi and Anthony Zamperini. He had an older brother and two younger sisters. His parents raised Zamperini in a strict Catholic household. As he got older, Zamperini's older brother encouraged him to try and participate in the sport of running.
In 1919, Zamperini's family moved to Torrance, California. He attended Torrance High School. He and his family did not speak English when they began living in California. This caused him to be the focus of bullies. Zamperini was once caught by police for stealing beer. They took him to his parents, and they dealt with him in their way. Zamperini's father taught him how to box. He was then able to stand up to bullies.
Zamperini's older brother Pete got him involved with the track team to keep him out of trouble. He began winning races. Once this happened, he started being recognized around school. His older brother told Zamperini he had to quit smoking and drinking if he wanted to succeed. He did this and decided to dedicate himself to running. In 1931, he began running cross-country races. During his three years in high school, Zamperini never lost a race. In 1934, he set an interscholastic record. He ran the mile in 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. The next week he won the California State Meet championships. This earned him a scholarship. He was going to attend the University of Southern California.
At this time, athletes had to pay their way to Olympic trials. In 1936, a group of Torrance business owners working with his father was able to raise enough money for Zamperini to go to the Olympic trials. There he ran the 5,000-meter race on the hottest day of the year. He sprinted at the end of the race to finish in a tie with the person who was the American record-holder in the event. Zamperini qualified to be in the Olympics. At the age of 19 years and 178 days, he was one of the youngest Americans to ever qualify for the 5,000-meter run.
Zamperini was not given much of a chance to beat the world record holder Lauri Lehtinen. During his time on the ship, he was overwhelmed with all the free food. By the time they had arrived in Berlin, Zamperini had gained weight. He finished 8th in the 5,000-meter distance race at the Olympics. His last lap was done in 56 seconds. This got a lot of attention from those at the Olympics. Adolf Hitler wanted to meet him. Zamperini shook Adolph Hitler's hand after the German leader commented about how fast he ran.
College Athletic Career
When he was finished being in the Olympics, Zamperini returned to being a student at the University of Southern California. He set a national collegiate record in 1938 for the mile. He ran it in a time of 4 minutes and 8.3 seconds. During the race, he experienced cuts to his shins from other runners trying to spike him. This success got him the nickname, “Torrance Tornado.”
World War II
In September 1941, Zamperini enlisted into the United States Army Air Force. He was given a commission as a second lieutenant. He was made a bombardier and assigned to the Pacific island of Funafuti. Zamperini was part of a B-24 crew. His plane was involved with a bombing mission against the island of Nauru. It was occupied by the Japanese. The mission was successful, but on their return, they were attacked by three Japanese planes. The B-24 was badly damaged. Zamperini was given credit for administering first aid to the wounded and saving their lives. The plane had 500 bullets and shell fragment holes in it.
Search And Rescue Mission
After this incident, Zamperini and his former crewmates were transferred to Hawaii. They were given a B-24 Green Hornet. This plane had a reputation for being defective. On May 27, 1943, the B-24 with Zamperini had difficulties and crashed into the ocean. There were only three survivors from a crew of 11 men. Zamperini, Francis McNamara, and pilot Russell Allen Phillips survived. The survivors had two small rafts they stayed in during this time. They had no water and little food. The three of them lived on small fish they ate raw and rainwater. The survivors tried to get the attention of search planes. They failed to get noticed by them but kept trying. They were constantly fighting off attacks by sharks and avoiding being capsized by bad weather. The three were also shot at several times by Japanese bombers. McNamara died after 33 days at sea.
Prisoner Of War
Zamperini and Phillips reached the Marshall Islands after 47 days adrift with almost no food or water. They were taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy. During the time when they were prisoners, Zamperini and Phillips were both severely beaten and treated poorly until the war was over in August of 1945. Zamperini was the focus of mistreatment by a guard named Mutsuhiro. Zamperini wrote down Italian recipes to try and keep the minds of his fellow prisoners off their situation and food. On August 20, 1945, the commander of the POW camp gathered all of the POWs together and told them the fighting had ended. They were permitted to wash themselves in a nearby river. This is something they had never been previously permitted to do while at the camp.
After World War II
On August 11, 1946, Zamperini was given an honorable discharge from the Army Air Force. Initially, he had been declared missing at sea. After a year of his disappearance, Zamperini was declared killed in action. He eventually made it back to his home. Zamperini was given a hero's welcome. He married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946.
After the war, Zamperini struggled with dreams of strangling his former captors. He started drinking heavily to try and forget his time as a prisoner of war. His wife attended an evangelical crusade by Billy Graham She became a born-again Christian. Zamperini decided to attend a crusade, but he had no real feeling about it. Listening to Graham's preaching, he thought of his time on the raft and being a POW. Zamperini then became a born-again Christian. He forgave his captors and his nightmares stopped. Zamperini then began a new career. He became a Christian evangelist.
Zamperini wrote two memoirs that told about his experiences. Each of them had the title “Devil at My Heels.” The Biography about Zamperini titled “ Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” was written by author Laura Hillenbrand and released in 2010. It was a New York Times best seller. Time Magazine named it the top nonfiction book for 2010.
The book by Laura Hillenbrand was adapted into film twice. The first movie was “Unbroken.” It was directed by Angelina Jolie. Jack O'Connell played the part of Zamperini. This movie covered the time up until Zamperini came back from World War II. A sequel to the movie was called “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.” It covered the time Zamperini spent recovering from his time as a POW. It was directed by Harold Cronk. The movie was released in September 2018. In this movie, Samuel Hunt played the part of Zamperini. A 30-minute documentary was released by the Billy Graham organization in 2015. It focused on Zamperini's faith and how he credited it with his recovery.
Louis Silvie Zamperini passed away at his home in Los Angeles on July 2, 2014. His cause of death was pneumonia. Zamperini was 97 years old.
© 2021 Readmikenow
Readmikenow (author) on September 10, 2021:
MG Thanks, I think we can agree, he survived a lot of things.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 09, 2021:
Another interesting article. I liked reading about this man. Life as a POW under the Japanese would have been hell; the important thing is he survived.