How do you possibly sum up a life like that of Louis Zamperini? The short answer is you don’t. His life was one of triumph and success, of nightmare and survival. Zamperini led a life that the majority of the people on the planet will never know or understand.
When I first started seeing trailers for Angelina Jolie’s new movie Unbroken I was definitely intrigued. And then as it got closer to the release date for the film, bookstores were more prominently displaying the nonfiction work Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand which the movie was adapted from. I requested the book from the library and was immediately entranced. You would think it was fiction with all of the “how did he survive these things” kind of moments and yet it wasn’t. It was real. They didn’t call the men and women of Zamperini’s time “the Greatest Generation” for nothing.
I wholeheartedly encourage each and every one of you to read Unbroken. Even if you think the idea of reading 3oo plus pages of nonfiction sounds utterly boring, it’s not. With the amazing and spellbinding life Zamperini had (all basically before he was 30), it was easy for Hillenbrand to craft the work in such a way that yes, it reads like a fast page turner. (There’s also a young adult version available of it as well.)
Zamperini was born to Italian immigrant parents in New York but ended up moving to Southern California with his family when he was a small child in order to improve his heath (he had suffered a bad bout of pneumonia). From that point on, he was a California boy for the rest of his life, sans the blond hair.
While the movie barely touches on it, Zamperini was one of the worst child delinquents you could ever imagine. Always getting into scrapes, running away from home, stealing all sorts of articles not exactly “child appropriate,” Zamperini was headed down a dangerous path as he entered his teen years. He finally saw the light and looked up to his older brother Pete as a role model. Pete himself was a successful track star who got Zamperini into the sport.
In a relatively short period of time, Zamperini became one of the world’s most famous track stars. He went on to compete at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin even though many felt he wouldn’t even qualify and even met World War II’s most heinous villain, Adolf Hitler. He set his sights on the 1940 games in Tokyo where he hoped to medal but sadly, the ’36 games were the only ones he ever competed in. Starvation and beatings that he suffered in POW camps permanently ruined his chances post-war of ever competing again.
As riveting a tale as his childhood and subsequent track glory days were, it was his World War II experiences that just leave you speechless. Although he had initially washed out of the Army Air Corps, he ended up being back with them when he reenlisted (due to not reading paperwork thoroughly, he had “agreed” to future service with them), and was trained to be a bombardier (i.e. the guy who drops the bombs). He was stationed in Hawaii and survived a couple of bombing raids on small Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, including one instance where Zamperini’s plane miraculously actually made it back to land after loosing one of its engines).
Sadly, it was on a search and rescue mission when Zamperini’s own plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Only he and two crew mates survived. While one died after weeks at sea on a raft with no food, water, or other provisions, Zamperini and the pilot drifted for 47 days, fending off starvation, Japanese bombers, and sharks until they were picked up by a Japanese navy ship. They were transferred to a remote island outpost and it was there that Zamperini’s nightmare truly began, one that would last years.
Zamperini endured two years as a POW in Japanese camps, and was personally singled out for abnormally cruel punishment by one Japanese camp officer (on top of what the men were already forced to deal with). When you read accounts like his or books like Ghost Soldiers (about American POWs on the Bataan Death March and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese camp in the Philippines), you wonder how many survived as they did? Their horrific nightmare wasn’t just days or weeks, it was years. On the last episode of the HBO series The Pacific, the character of Bob Leckie has just returned home to New Jersey and is paying the cab driver. However he won’t take Leckie’s money. He goes on to say that for as bad as the soldiers in Europe had it, they still had things like Paris and civilizations. Those in the Pacific had nothing but diabolical Japanese soldiers and tropical diseases. And it’s so very true.
Although the movie makes no mention of it except at the end that he suffered from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, Zamperini was haunted for years following his release and suffered from alcoholism. It was only after his wife threatened to leave him and he attended a revival meeting of (the very young) Billy Graham that he finally got saved. Zamperini was lucky that he was able to be saved; so many other POWs were not, especially since in the 1940s and 1950s, PTSD was not understood. He never became rich or enjoyed the celebrity status he had when he was a rising track star in his late teens and early 20s, yet he got his life back. He went on to give talks about his experiences during the war, and more importantly, created an organization to help troubled youth like the type he had once been himself.
On a personal note, Zamperini reminded me in many ways of my own grandfather. He was an “old man” by the time I knew him (i.e. he didn’t do much, was not at all active), but from the stories I had heard, he was once the exact opposite. He too was the child of immigrants and in ways that only boys can, he was quite the troublemaker. He would also enlist in the Army Air Corps, just like Zamperini, serving as the bomber’s turret gunner (he fought in North Africa and Italy). So reading the chapters and detailed accounts of the bomber planes and the dangerous situations the men were in was incredibly fascinating.
Zamperini lived to be…97, having died just last year. To think that he survived dangerous flying missions, a plane crash, being at sea for almost two months, and Japanese POW camps and then went on to almost be a centenarian is just incredible.
Zamperini is quite the exception to have lived as long a life as he did. The Greatest Generation is fast dwindling with only small numbers remaining. It’s not that I enjoy reading incredibly depressing tales but rather, I and everyone else owes it to those men to read those tales for how else will we ever remember them and accord them the honor and respect they so deserve.