Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Real Man Has Left Us

Louis Zamperini died yesterday at age 97.

Here was a man who lived several lives compressed into one.

The son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini started running track in high school as a means of staying out of trouble. He was so good that in 1934, he set a world record for the mile, running it in four minutes, twenty-one seconds. Making the US Olympic Team, he went to the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, where his running ability caused Adolph Hitler to ask to meet with him. In 1938, he again set a record for the mile, running it in four minutes, eight seconds, a record that would not be broken for fifteen years.

Louis Zamperini could have relied on his athletic abilities to keep him out of World War Two, but when war came, he enlisted and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the Army Air Corps where he became bombardier on a B-24 in the pacific.
While conducting a search-and-rescue flight looking for another lost bomber, his plane crashed into the ocean, killing eight of his fellow crewmen and leaving him and two others--Francis McNamara and Russell Phillips--to drift in a small raft with no food or water. Surviving on caught fish and rainwater, they drifted for more than a month before McNamara died. Two weeks later--forty-seven days after the crash--Zaperini and Phillips drifted up onto an island in The Marshals which was held by the Japanese. They were captured and while Phillips was murdered shortly thereafter by the Japanese, Zamperini was taken prisoner and held for two years under brutal conditions, spending most of his time in the Japanese Navy's secret Ofuna prison camp that also held Americans such as Richard O'Kane and Gregory "Pappy" Boyington.

Zamperini was held for two years, until the end of the war, enduring torture and starvation sufficient to prevent him from ever returning to running or flying. His return to America came as a shock to everyone as the Japanese had never admitted to holding him, therefore he'd been declared Killed in Action a year after the crash. Suffering from PTSD, his post-war life was rocky until 1949, when he met evangelist Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and with Graham's help, he began a new career ad a Christian inspirational speaker. He quickly became convinced that forgiveness was an essential requirement for his own salvation as well as that of others, and he set off to locate and forgive those Japanese prison guards who'd treated him so malevolently. He met with most of them in a prison camp where they were being held as war criminals and his sincerity in forgiving them and testifying to them won many of them over to Christianity. The only one that he was never able to reach was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the worst guard in the camp. Watanabe was so bad that General MacArthur his him as #23 on his list of the 40 worst war criminals, but due to family and friends hiding him, Watanabe managed to avoid ever being arrested or punished for his crimes until the prosecution of Japanese war criminals ceased in 1956, at which time he simply rejoined society and became a wealthy man. Lousi Zamperini continued trying to meet with Watanabe without success even as late as 1988 when Zaperini, then 81 years old, was honored by being part of the Olympic Torch Relay in Japan of all places. Watanabe was publicly invited to meet with Zamperini with the world media watching but he again refused and slunk away. Watanabe died in 2003, unrepentant.

Louis Zamperini continued to live an active life in his later years, including much involvement with college and professional sports, even throwing out the first pitch in the Boston Red Sox/Chicago Cubs game in 2011. He was a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2012, speaking about his life, and had he lived, he's have been Grand Marshal of the Pasadena Rose Parade in 2015.

He was quite a man, and the sun shines a little dimmer this morning with his passing.

I first learned his story a few years ago when my father gave me a copy of Laura Hillenbrand's wonderful book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. (Available here at Barnes and Noble.)

It was one of those books that I at first resisted reading because I thought that Luara Hillenbrand, who hadn't even been born with World War Two was fought, couldn't possibly tell the story that well. Once I started reading it though, I discovered that I was wrong; she tells the story so well that I could scarcely put the book down until I'd finished it. It's a great book and you owe it to yourselves to get a copy and read it. Get one today and read it in honor f Louis Zamperini, a man who lived his whole life above and beyond what anyone had a reason to expect of him.


  1. They don't make many like him any more, but thank God there are still some.
    May he rest in peace.

  2. Anonymous11:30 AM

    A giant among men!


  3. Anonymous11:54 AM

    R.I.P. and Gods Speed

  4. I read his book. A friend sent it to me, and after I read it I sent it on to another friend. I'd read "Pappy" Boyington's book many years before, and was surprised to learn they were in the camp at the same time together.

  5. I was fortunate to have met him several times.

    Like all heroes, he was humble and a gentleman.