By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
SACRAMENTO, CA (April 3, 2016) – California Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Torrance, has announced that he has introduced in Sacramento, a resolution, ACR 157, to name a portion of Interstate 405 in Torrance as the Louis Zamperini Memorial Highway.
“Louis Zamperini was a true American hero, who survived unthinkable treatment as a prisoner of war in World War II,” said Hadley. “He inspired millions of Americans as an Olympic distance runner, and later as a Christian evangelist. This extraordinary man showed resilience through all of life’s ups and downs, and continues to be an inspiration to all even after his death. Renaming a portion of the 405 in his honor is a fitting way to pay tribute to a remarkable Californian.”
Mr. Zamperini was in his early twenties and a track star at the University of Southern California (USC), when he qualified for the US 5,000-meter race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he placed 8th. He ran so fast in the last lap, that he caught the attention of Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, who asked to meet him afterwards and Zamperini had the dubious experience of shaking Hitler’s land, which he told me was “like shaking hands with a fish!”
According to a news release from the office of David Hadley, Zamperini was set to compete again in the 1940 games in Tokyo, but the games were cancelled due to the start of World War II. Shortly after the United States entered the war, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. A bombardier, his plane went down and arrived on shore in Japan 47 days later. He was taken as a prisoner of war and tortured for two years.
Mr. Zamperini spent the last 65 years of his life sharing his Christian faith and philosophy of life, and became an inspirational speaker. His dramatic story served as the basis for the bestselling 2010 biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, and also the December 2014 film “Unbroken” directed by Angelina Jolie.
Hillenbrand, who described Zamperini in a Facebook message as her “beloved friend” and “surrogate grandfather,” wrote that during his trip to Berlin, the Olympian, after drinking a couple of liters of German beer and wearing his Olympics dress uniform, opted to steal a small Nazi flag from Hitler’s official residence and office. A guard fired a shot and another asked Zamperini why he did it. He replied that he wanted a souvenir. They gave him the flag and spared his life.
“He is also remembered as a quick-witted, fun-loving, and humble person,” said the release.
The freeway memorial designation would include the portion of Interstate 405, from Redondo Beach Boulevard to South Western Avenue in the County of Los Angeles. Hadley introduced this bipartisan resolution along with Senator Ben Allen and Assemblyman Mike Gipson.
The Day I interviewed Louis Zamperini
I have interviewed some extraordinary people in my more than 46 years as a journalist, including Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, but some time back I was able to meet with one of the most inspiring men I have ever met — Louis Zamperini, a true living legend who, at that time, was still serving the Lord, at the age of 94.
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 for my “Front Page Radio” show on the KWVE Radio Network (www.kwve.com) in Southern California.
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, I learned that Zamperini, who despite his advanced age, was still extremely 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.
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, Louis 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.”
Zamperini 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.
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 4×100 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 5,000-meter distance event at that Berlin Olympics, but his final lap was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who, as I mentioned earlier, 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 and his speed earned him the nickname of “The 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.
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.
He said that he had 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 then lived 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 and met Adolf Hitler.
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 October 2008, Zamperini was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago.
What a joy it was for Norma and myself to be able to meet with Louis Zamperini and we left with an autographed copy of “Unbroken” which we both have since read and marveled at this amazing story.
His death had mistakenly been announced previously, when the US government classified him as “Killed in Action” during World War II, after his B-24 Liberator aircraft went down in 1943, and no survivors were located by the military. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even sent Zamperini’s parents a formal condolence note in 1944.
However, Zamperini’s actual death came 70 years later, from pneumonia, on July 2, 2014, in Los Angeles, at home, aged 97.
But now, hopefully, his name will live again on a portion of the 405 freeway that I am sure he had driven along many times during his amazing life.
Note: To listen to the radio show, go to: http://oldassistnews.net/frontpageradiofiles/FPR2014.12.21LouisZamperiniMono.mp3
Photo captions: 1) Louis Zamperini with the Olympic torch he carried at the 1984 Olympic Games (Photo: Brad Graverson) 2) Louis Zamperini winning one of his many races. 3) Zamperini acknowledges the crowd’s cheers at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 4) Louis is pictured her with an injured friend on their return to the United States. 4) Louis Zamperini with his friend, Billy Graham. 5) Initially refusing to ever set foot in Japan again, Louis Zamperini (right) relented. Among other places, he visited men charged with war crimes who were being held at Sugamo Prison. He forgave all the men who had harmed him while Zamperini was a POW. With him is missionary, Fred Jarvis. 6) Dan Wooding interviewing Louis Zamperini (Photo: Norma Wooding).
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of some 45 books. He also has two TV shows and a radio show, all based in Southern California.
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