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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Louis Zamperini At 93, Going On 94, Is Still ‘Unbroken’ After All These Years
He was an Olympic athlete in Berlin where he met Hitler, a Prisoner of War of the Japanese during World War II, and is still sharing his Christian faith

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

HOLLYWOOD HILLS, CA (ANS) -- I have interviewed some extraordinary people in my more than 41 years as a journalist, but on Monday (December 27, 2010) I was able to meet with one of the most inspiring men I have ever met.

Louis Zamperini lights the Olympic torch he carried at the 1984 Olympic Games.
(Photo: Brad Graverson)

His name is Louis Zamperini, a true living legend who, at the age of 93, is still serving the Lord.

My wife Norma joined me as we drove up through a winding road in the star-studded Hollywood Hills to the home of Zamperini, where I was able to interview this incredible man who is the subject of a new book called “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” which is already near the top of the New York Times best-seller list for hardback nonfiction, and was written by Laura Hillenbrand, the acclaimed author of “Seabiscuit.”

The book chronicles the extraordinary early life of this former Olympic athlete, POW, and committed Christian.

Cover of the book

When we arrived at his picturesque home, Louis was sitting at a desk with a marvelous view of downtown Los Angeles, wearing a red University of Southern California (USC) cap, and was busy signing scores of books for his many fans from around the world.

As I began my interview for my “Front Page Radio” program on KWVE 107.9 FM in Southern California, I learned that Zamperini, who will turn 94 in January, remains active and full of life, lecturing to audiences around the world about how to deal with stress, the meaning of the Olympic movement and the freedom he has found through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

During the interview he told me that he was born in Olean, New York to Anthony and Louise Zamperini. The Zamperini family, he said, moved to Torrance, California in the 1920s, where Louis attended Torrance High School.

The son of Italian immigrants, Louis spoke no English when his family moved to California, which made him a target for bullies. His father taught Louis how to box for self-defense. Pretty soon, according to Louis, he was “beating the tar out of every one of them... But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.”

Before long, he went on, he was picking fights “just to see if anyone could keep up with me.” From juvenile thug, he progressed to “teenage hobo.” Hopping a train to Mexico, he courted danger for the thrill of it.

Louis said that he had a “knack for getting into trouble,” so his brother got him involved in the school track team. In 1934 Louis set a world interscholastic record in the mile, clocking in at 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. The record would last for over twenty years, until broken by Dennis Hansen in 1959. That record helped Louis win a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.

Louis during his running days

In the Olympic trials at Randall’s Island, New York, Louis finished in a dead heat against world-record holder Don Lash, and qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Unfortunately, Louis ruined his chance at gaining the gold by gorging himself on the free food that was provided to the Olympic athletes during the trans-Atlantic cruise. He shared a cabin with the great Jesse Owens who achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4x100 meter relay team.

“I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich,” he said. “And all the food was free. I had not just one sweet roll, but about seven every morning, with bacon and eggs. My eyes were like saucers.” By the end of the trip, Louis confessed that he had gained 12 pounds.

As a consequence, Louis only finished eighth in the 5000 meter distance event at that Berlin Olympics, but his final lap was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Louis tells the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply ‘The boy with the fast finish.’”

I then asked Louis if he had been a Christian at that time, would he have witnessed to Hitler. He smiled and replied, “I would share about Jesus Christ with anyone.”

Two years later in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record which held for 15 years. Zamperini’s speed earned him the nickname “Torrance Tornado.”

Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1941, and after being commissioned a second lieutenant the following August, he was deployed to Hawaii as a B-24 bombardier. After flying a number of missions, his aircraft went down due to mechanical failure on May 27, 1943. After 47 days adrift in the ocean, Zamperini and the only other surviving crew member (pilot Russ Phillips) were rescued by the Japanese Navy.

Dan Wooding interviewing Louis at his home (Photo: John Naber)

Louis was held in captivity through the end of the war and his family thought he had been killed in action, but he eventually returned to a hero’s welcome. Zamperini was held in a Japanese Navy camp for captives not labeled as Prisoners of War at Ofuna. Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington was held at the same camp and in Boyington’s book, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” he discussed Zamperini and the Italian recipes he would write to keep the prisoners minds off of the food and conditions.

Zamperini then spoke about how, after his return home, he would have horrific nightmares because of what had occurred in the prison camps and one night he awoke to find his hands around the neck of his wife. It was then that he realized he was in deep trouble.

His wife, he told me, went to Billy Graham’s historic 1949 Los Angeles Crusade and there she found the Lord. She then persuaded him to go along with her and he said that was very upset with having to attend, but eventually, he too made a personal commitment to Christ, and his whole life turned around in the right direction.

Billy Graham with Louis Zamperini

He said that he has since become close friends with Billy Graham and said that it was Mr. Graham who helped him launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker. One of his favorite themes is “forgiveness,” and he has visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he has forgiven them. Many of the war criminals who committed the worst atrocities were held in the Sugamo prison in Tokyo.

In October 1950, Zamperini went to Japan and gave his testimony and preached through an interpreter (a missionary called Fred Jarvis). The colonel in charge of the prison encouraged any of the prisoners who recognized Zamperini to come forward and meet him again. Zamperini threw his arms around each of them. Once again he explained the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. The prisoners were somewhat surprised by Zamperini’s genuine affection for those who had once ill-treated him. Most of the prisoners accepted copies of the New Testament which had been given by the Gideons.

I also discovered that although he now lives in the Hollywood Hills, he still calls himself “A Torrance Boy,” and the Torrance airport was renamed in the 1960’s in his honor and called Zamperini Field.

For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In March 2005 he returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there.

Torrance High School's home football, soccer, and track stadium is now called Zamperini Stadium, and the entrance plaza at USC's track & field stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza in 2004. In his 90s, Zamperini continues to attend USC football games and befriended star freshman quarterback Matt Barkley in 2009.

Zamperini was in October 2008, inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, IL.

Two Olympians together. John Naber
with Louis Zamperini

During out visit to Louis’s home we were met by a gentle giant called John Naber who showed Norma around the house as I did the interview with Louis who shared with me that John was one of America’s most successful Olympic champions.

He was America’s most highly decorated Olympian at the 1976 Games in Montreal (the second highest ever, at the time) earning four gold medals in swimming, each in world record time. Naber, also a born-again Christian, became the first swimmer in history to earn two individual medals on the same day of Olympic competition, and earned the Sullivan Award as America’s top amateur athlete of 1977. He is enshrined in various Halls of Fame and is one of America’s top Olympic ambassadors. So I also interviewed John for my program.

What a morning and what a joy to be able to meet with new friends like this and we left with an autographed copy of “Unbroken” which we both can’t wait to read.

NOTE: To schedule an interview with Louis Zamperini, contact Steve Yount of A. Larry Ross Communications at 972.267.1111 or steve@alarryross.com.


Dan Wooding, 70, is an award winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 47 years. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS). He was, for ten years, a commentator, on the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC., and now hosts the weekly “Front Page Radio” show on KWVE in Southern California and which is also carried on the Calvary Radio Network throughout the United States. The program is also aired in Great Britain on Calvary Chapel Radio UK. Wooding is also a regular contributor to The Weekend Stand on the Crawford Broadcasting Network, and a host for His Channel Live, which is carried via the Internet to some 192 countries. He is the author of some 44 books. Two of the latest include his autobiography, “From Tabloid to Truth”, which is published by Theatron Books. To order a copy, press this link. Wooding, who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, has also recently released his first novel “Red Dagger” which is available here


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