Olympic Runner To War Survivor
Wednesday - April 27, 2011
In her meticulous research for the best-selling, award-winning hit movie and inspiring book Sea Biscuit, Laura Hillenbrand came across the offhanded comment of the University of Southern California track coach Glenn Cunningham, who speculated (after Sea Biscuit’s four-length trouncing of the bigger, stronger horse War Admiral in a highly visible match race): “Hell, the only runner that might be able to beat our Olympic miler, Louie Zamperini, is Sea Biscuit.”
When Hillenbrand researched this Louis Silvie Zamperini, she found that - like Sea Biscuit - he was undersized, headstrong, had more heart than talent, started out with little promise, but ultimately could not be broken. Hence, her new best-seller on the incredible life of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken; A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.
As I watched and listened recently to this animated 94-year-old hero on the fan-tail of the USS Missouri speaking to a mesmerized audience of more than 500 military and civilian guests, it was difficult to fathom how much this diminutive human being continued to pack into his amazing life.
In Unbroken, Hillenbrand chronicles the life of Zamperini, relating stories - as only she can - from his youth in Torrence, Calif., (characterized as “The One Boy Insurgency”) to his running achievements in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Then to his dedication to breaking the 4-minute mile barrier at the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which were cancelled because of the imminent outbreak of World War II in both Europe and the Far East. And finally to his harrowing wartime experiences as a B-24 bombardier in the Army Air Corps while stationed here at Kahuku Army Airfield, and ultimately as a POW held by the Japanese.
Zamperini and his crew, while on a search-and-rescue mission far west of Hawaii, crash land in the Pacific. He and his pilot survive the wreck, but then begin their 47-day, 2,000-mile odyssey adrift in tiny life rafts, existing on stringy albatross meat and shark livers, minimal rainwater and a deep abiding determination to survive.
After miraculously escaping death from a strafing attack by a lone enemy aircraft, weak, starving and parched, they finally make landfall on the tiny island of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, where they encounter Japanese troops, who capture them immediately. As a prisoner of war, Zamperini spends the rest of the war in various island prisons and ultimately in some of the worst, most-debilitating POW camps in Japan. His liberation comes only after the two atom bombs fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese sign the documents of unconditional surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri, only a few yards from where we were listening to him.
He described in first person how, with his running days over, he drifted aimlessly, his search for a post-war purpose blocked by bitterness and self-abuse. Finally his beautiful, young debutante wife had insisted he attend with her a “tent revival,” where the compelling message of a young Billy Graham “changed everything.”
Like me, Zamperini decided to capitalize on the credibility accorded by his experience, and has been in demand as an inspirational speaker for years. He draws from the lessons of his survival ordeal and POW days, his missionary work in Japan ministering to some of his previous captors on the grace of forgiveness, and his ultimate search for closure and peace of mind. He precedes each “speech” (he makes it seem more like an informal bull session among pilots in the ready room) with an introductory video taken during the Nagano Winter Olympics, a venue very near the POW prison where he spent the most time.
But before this national treasure even utters the first word, just the power of his 94-year-old’s vivacious presence is inspiring.
He puts great emphasis on survival training and a survival mind set. He says, simply, “be hardy” - as in, don’t be a wimp! He credits his own survival on his experience as an Eagle Scout and his continued emphasis on creative survival training. As an example, he tied fishhooks made of bird bone to his fingers to catch small sharks for their livers. Through self-discipline he forced himself to eat the raw albatross meat though totally unpalatable.
Louie points out how frequently when someone is buried in an avalanche or dies from exposure on a winter mountain cliff, people say, “but he was such an accomplished skier or climber!”
“That doesn’t make a bit of difference,” he says. “The question becomes: Do they have specific survival training? Do they have a survival mindset?”
Not long after his return from his Japan mission he created Victory Survival Camp for wayward youths, teaching them how to not only survive, but to succeed in life.
When asked how his ordeal in a cramped life raft with another man for 47 days helped him in later life: “It helped me survive 55 years of marriage,” he says with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye. Then he adds: “Besides being hardy, be pleasant.”
On a couple of occasions after leaving the POW camp, being pleasant (granting media interviews) caused him to be late for the doughnut and chow lines, to find only crumbs left. His mantra since then: “Eat first!”
Zamperini appeared on the USS Missouri as a result of an effort initiated by group of local businessmen and women, and sponsored by the Navy League and Mighty Mo. Each of these folks wanted to share his message as a gift to the community, especially to the young servicemen and women who were specifically invited. They and several like-minded corporate sponsors paid his expenses - a true “make it happen” effort.
Since Hillenbrand’s compelling book Unbroken came out (you just have to read it!), Zamperini’s speaking schedule has been chock-full, but with the help of his traveling partner and fellow speaker, Olympic Gold Medal swimmer John Naber, he gets around fine.
But if he thinks he’s busy now, just wait till the movie Unbroken comes out! Rights to the story were recently purchased by Universal.
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