By George Morris
When I picked up the office phone and recognized the caller from a Baton Rouge church-supported school, I knew a story pitch was coming. What I didn’t expect was the subject.
“Would you like to interview Louis Zamperini?”
Why, yes. Yes. I. Would.
By 2011, Zamperini had already become famous to a new generation because of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book, “Unbroken.” The folks at Parkview Baptist School were audacious enough to think Zamperini, then 94, would be willing to come and speak to the high school students. Zamperini was gracious enough to fly out from California to do just that.
The public wasn’t invited, but Zamperini met with a small group of reporters in a conference room a few steps from sanctuary where he would speak. John Naber, a fellow Olympian (1976, swimming) and fellow University of Southern California alumnus, helped the frail Zamperini negotiate those steps.
But, though, his body was weak and his hearing not what it used to be, Zamperini remained mentally sharp, and independent enough to take issue with Tom Brokaw’s famous characterization of himself and his comrades.
“We were not the greatest generation,” Zamperini said. “We were the hardy generation. We were overcomers. We had to overcome a lot.”
Few overcame as much as Zamperini himself.
Through athletics, he overcame a wayward childhood. Through dogged perseverance, he overcame wartime deprivation and torture. Through faith, he overcame the emotional demons that pursued him from a prisoner of war camp so that he could one day return with a message of forgiveness.
Thanks to Hillenbrand’s book and the 2014 movie of the same name, his story is now well-known. Still, it was a delight to hear it from his own lips.
Zamperini’s older brother, Pete, fearing Louis was heading toward juvenile delinquency or worse, had encouraged him to pour his energies into running on a track instead of from policeman. It took just one race — one he did not win — to hook him on the idea.
“Coming down the home stretch … I hear the kids at school hollering, ‘Come on, Louie,’” he said. “I had no idea anybody knew my name at school. Wow, that stimulated me! I passed the third guy and finished third, and that was like winning a gold medal. It was that recognition that got me really determined to go all out.”
Zamperini became a track star, earning a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. One of Zamperini’s roommates for the Olympics was black sprinter Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals gave lie to Adolf Hitler’s notions of Aryan supremacy.
“Jesse was just a prince of a guy,” Zamperini said. “He was well-loved by everybody, even when Hitler had turned his people against Jews and blacks. Hitler had come into the stadium, and, of course, it was mandatory that his people stand up and give him a welcome. When Jesse came into the stadium he got twice the ovation that Hitler got from his own people.”
Zamperini, unfortunately, had sabotaged his own chance at glory during the cruise across the Atlantic Ocean. The Depression was in full swing, and Zamperini had never been exposed to the endless buffet of a cruise ship. He gained 14 pounds.
“My gold medal was in eating,” he said.
He did, however, have a moment in the spotlight. Reaching the last lap of the 5,000-meter race hopelessly behind the leaders, his brother’s words inspired him.
“He said, ‘Isn’t one minute of pain worth a lifetime of glory?’ So, I sprinted the whole last lap,” Zamperini said.
That 56-second lap stunned the onlookers, who included Hitler. The German leader greeted medal-winners, so Zamperini was shocked when someone told him that Hitler wanted to see him.
“I said, ‘What for?’” he said. “I was taken over to meet him, and we just touched hands and he said, ‘The boy with the fast finish.’ That was it.”
Then came World War II. Zamperini enlisted, became a bombardier in a B-24 bomber and went to the Pacific. On May 23, 1943, his crew was sent to search for an aircraft that had gone down. Mechanical problems forced Zamperini’s plane to crash into the sea, only three of the 12-man crew survived. The pilot, Russell Phillips, was bleeding profusely from a head injury. The tail-gunner, Francis McNamara, was a basket case.
“Within 30 minutes, he’s screaming, ‘We’re going to die! We’re all going to die!’” Zamperini said.
Zamperini thought they would soon be rescued. They would not. Their lifeboat drifted for 47 days, occasionally attacked by Japanese aircraft. Hunger was intense. Three times, they managed to catch an albatross that landed on the raft, but found its raw meat so foul that, the first two times, they could only use it as bait. The third time was different.
“By then, we were really desperate from hunger,” he said. “That albatross tasted like a hot fudge sundae with nuts and whipped cream on it.”
McNamara died and was buried at sea on the 33rd day. They finally reached a deserted island on Day 47, and were quickly picked up by a Japanese naval vessel. They were so weak they could not walk. But their plight improved little.
Sent to prisoner of war camps in Japan, Zamperini encountered a guard who was so sadistic that he became wanted as a war criminal after Japan’s surrender. Matsuhiro Watanabe, whom prisoners nicknamed “The Bird,” beat Zamperini with his fists the first 10 days, then constantly found reasons and ways to torment him for the next 2½ years.
When the war ended, Zamperini returned to a hero’s welcome in Torrance and got married. But he drank heavily, and each night, he had the same nightmare in which he would try to strangle Watanabe.
“The thing that really scared me was I grabbed ‘The Bird’ by the throat one night, and woke up and had my wife by the throat,” he said.
His wife filed for divorce, but after attending a Billy Graham crusade meeting came home and told Zamperini she had changed her mind. She convinced him to attend a crusade meeting with her. He didn’t like it, but she coaxed him into coming back the next night.
Graham’s message reached him.
“He said, ‘When people come to the end of their rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, they turn to God,’” Zamperini said. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what we did in prison camp. We would pray if I get home from the war alive, God, I will serve you. I got home from the war and I didn’t keep my promise. I’m home alive, so God kept his promise, so I went back to the prayer room and got on my knees.”
He arose a different man. That night, for the first time, his nightmare did not return. Just as remarkable, he decided he could forgive his captors, even Watanabe.
Zamperini started a camp for wayward youths and became a missionary to Japan, seeking out the prison guards he had known to tell them he forgave them and give them a New Testament. Watanabe refused to see him. Watanabe died in 2003.
When the 1988 Winter Olympics were held in Nagano, Japan, Zamperini was invited to return and run a leg of the Olympic Torch relay through the town where he was held. The streets were jammed with people who applauded as he passed.
“Probably the most emotional moment of my life,” he said.
Looking back, Zamperini said he’s glad he encountered Watanabe.
“Because of his brutality, I had the nightmares, and because of the nightmares, of course, I went to the Billy Graham meeting,” he said. “When I made my decision for Christ, my whole life changed, and I knew I’d forgiven all my guards, including ‘The Bird,’ and that was a miracle. It’s been that way ever since.”
Zamperini died July 2, 2014. His story lives on.