Archive | July, 2014

Olympic Track Star and WW II POW Survivor Louis Zamperini Dies

4 Jul


Another American hero from the Greatest Generation has passed away. Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner and WW II POW survivor died Wednesday at age 97 after a 40 day battle with pneumonia. Zamperini was chosen to be Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in January. A movie about his incredible life is being directed by neighbor and friend Angelina Jolie and set to be released by Universal Pictures on Christmas day. The movie is based on the best-selling book, Unbroken, a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken was published by Random House in 2010.

Unbroken is one of those books you just can’t put down. I picked it up a few years ago after hearing a fascinating interview with Zamperini on radio station KWVE out of San Clemente, California. It’s an unbelievable, true story and probably the best documented biography I’ve ever read, demonstrated by 49 pages of Hillenbrand’s notes.

I don’t want to give away the whole story, but Louis’ journey from a troubled Torrance, California youth to a World War II hero and motivational speaker includes a plane crash and 47 days at sea on a life boat with virtually no provisions. Zamperini roomed with Jessie Owens during the 1936 Berlin Olympics and graduated from USC, which he attended on a track scholarship, in 1940. With a high school mile record of 4 minutes 21.2 seconds and a national college record of 4 minutes 8.3 seconds, many thought he would break the 4 minute mile much earlier than 1954, when Roger Bannister broke it. But Louis’ running career came to an end in 1940 when the Olympics were cancelled because of World War II and he became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. His survival at sea and in captivity is nothing short of miraculous, but his starved and battered body was so damaged that he was unable to resume his track career.

Zamperini’s survival from most certain death is almost overshadowed by his long life, strong mind and ability to forgive his tormentors in person. After reading Unbroken, I watched Louis’ appearance on the Tonight Show, where he demonstrated a quick wit and infectious sense of humor during an interview with Jay Leno. When Leno asked about surviving Japanese POW camps, Louis made a crack about surviving marriage.

Zamperini was married to Cynthia Applewhite from 1946 until her death in 2001. Their marriage survived Louis’ post war alcoholism and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1949, Cynthia convinced Louis to attend a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles, California, where Louis became a born-again Christian and began repairing his shattered life to become an inspiration to at-risk youth and others.

Despite Zamperini’s death, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses does not plan to replace him with a new Parade Grand Marshal. On its website, the Tournament of Roses stated: “Louis’ life serves as an inspiration to us all, and we are committed to honoring him as the Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade.”

In addition, Tournament of Roses President, Richard L. Chinen, wrote: “Louis Zamperini was and will continue to be the embodiment of the 2015 Tournament of Roses theme “Inspiring Stories.” As we mourn the passing of a member of the Tournament of Roses family, one who was moved to be asked to serve as Grand Marshal, we are honored to shine the light on one who truly lived a life of unconditional love, courageous perseverance and patient endurance. He shared with us that his faith in God was his inspiration to be content in plenty and in want. At this time, we pray that Louis’ family and friends may find strength knowing that the story of Louis’ journey will inspire the world.”

%d bloggers like this: