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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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