America, just before its Fourth of July birthday, lost one of the greatest of the generation that guided it through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Louis Zamperini was 97, so this was not entirely surprising. Zamperini, the American who couldn’t be broken by Nazis in Berlin or sadistic guards in POW camps in Japan, had been designated to be the grand marshal of the 2015 Tournament of Roses parade. My grandfather, a World War I veteran, used to say “give me my roses while I’m alive.” Unfortunately, the Rose Parade organizing committee waited too long. (Zamperini will still be honored posthumously as grand marshal next New Year’s Day.)
“Lucky Louie,” as he called himself, was a rambunctious kid from an immigrant family, who learned to use his fists after being picked on in school for speaking the broken English he learned from his Italian father. He referred to himself in his memoirs as “a rebel with a chip on his shoulder,” sort of like one of those Hollywood “Little Rascals” for which his prewar generation was famous. After several run-ins with the Torrance, Calif., police and the local parish priest, Louie’s older brother Pete introduced him to athletic running as a means of focusing his energy. Louie began competing in track in what he referred to in his book Devil at My Heels as “the first wise decision of my life.”
The rest is history. The track record of “the Torrance Tornado” took him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a handshake with Hitler himself. Louie did not medal—he said he was saving that for the anticipated 1940 Tokyo Olympics. (Zamperini, of course, made it to Japan, but only as a POW slave laborer.)
But Zamperini had run an astonishing 56 seconds in the final quarter mile of the 5,000 meter event in Berlin so the Fuehrer wanted to meet him. Goebbels brought Zamperini to Hitler who observed, “you’re the boy with the fast finish.” Louie said the American athletes in 1936 considered Hitler “only as a dangerous clown.”
Louie still had some of his rambunctious qualities because, on a tour of Berlin with a teammate, he decided that he wanted a swastika souvenir when they stopped in front of the Reich Chancellery to take photos. As they stood there Hitler again appeared with a contingent of armed guards and went inside. After the building’s guards had goose-stepped past, Louis made a run for the building, climbed a flag pole and grabbed a Nazi banner. The guards saw Zamperini as he attempted to make his escape, shouted “halt” and started firing. Louie wisely stopped and was handcuffed. However, upon seeing his Olympic uniform and hearing that he had wanted the swastika as a souvenir, the German commandant of the building let “Lucky Louie” keep the banner.
It was in the Pacific Theater where Louis Zamperini made his name as a war hero. Anticipating America’s entry into the war, he enlisted in the army in September 1941. He went to Officers Candidate and bombardier school in Midland, Texas. In October 1942 he was assigned as an Army Air Corps second lieutenant to Hickam Field in Honolulu with the B24 bombing unit of the Forty-second Squadron. His first raid took place on Christmas Eve, 1942, the target was Japanese-occupied Wake Island.
On May 26, 1943, in an aircraft dubbed the Green Hornet, which Zamperini noted “couldn’t fly straight,” he and his fellow crew members crash landed in the Pacific. His harrowing 47 days on the high seas, including near starvation (his weight dropped to 67 pounds), thirst, encounters with sharks, killing and eating raw sea birds, and the death at sea of a fellow crew member, are graphically recorded in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. That story will also be retold in a movie directed by Angelina Jolie which is to be released in December.
Zamperini and another crewmember, Second Lieutenant Russell Phillips, were captured by the Japanese and taken first to the island of Kwajalein and then to mainland Japan as POWs. His parents received a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt informing them that their son had “died in the service of his country” and that “he stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live.” His mother, however, never gave up hope that he was alive.