Not too many people were aware of Louis Zamperini until the best-selling chronicle of his life was published in 2010. His story, entitled “Unbroken,” was written by Laura Hillenbrand, and has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for almost four years. Interest in his story reached Hollywood, and Angelina Jolie is directing the film adaptation, also entitled “Unbroken,” which will be shown in theaters starting in the Christmas season of 2014.
Louie and his brother Pete
When Louie was in high school, he was often in trouble, mainly due to the fact that his Italian immigrant parents did not speak English in the home, and Louis was bullied by his school mates. His brother Pete, to channel Louie’s energy, encouraged him to run on the school track team where Louie excelled. When he was 19 years old, he was the youngest American to qualify for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He chose to run in the 5000-meter race where he finished eighth.
Louie enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force in September 1941, prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and attained the rank of second lieutenant. He trained as a bombardier and was sent to the Pacific theater of operations. In May of 1943, his plane, while on a reconnaissance mission searching for lost aircraft, crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing eight of the eleven crewmen on board. Only Louie, the pilot, and the tail gunner survived.
Japanese guard called "The Bird" by prisoners
For 46 days, the three men survived on rainwater and raw fish while floating on two life rafts. The tail gunner died after 33 days. The remaining two men survived shark attacks, ocean storms, and bullets from Japanese planes before they landed and were captured by the Japanese who brought them to a POW (Prisoner of War) camp where Louie was kept for two years. In spite of the rules of the Geneva Convention, the prisoners were treated cruelly, humiliated, tortured, and starved by the Japanese. The camp guards often stole their meager rations, which amounted to little more than rice and seaweed. A Japanese commander, whom the prisoners called “The Bird,” was particularly cruel to Louie. Descriptions of the torture almost too graphic. Undoubtedly, it was Louie’s positive outlook which saved him from crumbling under the cruelty that was doled out in the camp.
Louie’s family was told that he died in the plane crash, but his mother never gave up hope that he was alive. When the War ended, the men were flown to Hawaii to recuperate before going home. Louie had lost 60 pounds and did not want to greet his mother until he gained back his weight. Upon his arrival home in Torrance, California, he was looked upon as a hero and apparently did not suffer any post-traumatic stress. Louie met and fell in love with a beautiful home town girl, Cynthia Applegate.
Louie and Cynthia Zamperini
When he was 80 years old, Louie was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and again in 1998 for the Winter Games in Nagano. He has received numerous awards for his service in World War II, and has received honorary degrees from two colleges. In 1946, Torrance Airport was renamed Zamperini Field after Louie.
Laura Hillenbrand has done a magnificent job in researching the life of Louis Zamperini. She is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller “Seabiscuit,” which was also adapted to film. Having lived through World War II myself, and having several relatives who served in that war, I have a keen interest in stories of that era, which produced “The Greatest Generation,” to quote Tom Brokaw.
Director Angelina Jolie and Louie Zamperini
Louie Zamperini died at the age of 97 on July 2, 2014. He lived to see his life portrayed on film by his neighbor for many years, Angelina Jolie.
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