“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Until a few days ago I had never heard about Louis Zamperini. Now I don’t think I will ever forget him. His story is captured in Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken; A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” (2010).
There is nothing quite like the feeling you have when you read a book which captivates your attention in such a compelling way that you can hardly bring yourself to put it down. And when the book is 471 pages, that feeling lasts a very long time.
As the author of the earlier book Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” is another New York Times Bestseller which has received huge accolades such as being called “Monumental” and “Mesmerizing” by People Magazine and “Extraordinarily moving…gripping...a powerfully drawn survival epic…a master class in narrative storytelling” by The Wall Street Journal.
Those superlatives only begin to capture the amazing story of Louis Zamperini. Born on Jan. 26, 1917, in Olean, N.Y., with an older brother and two younger sisters, his family moved to Torrance, Calif., in 1919 where he eventually graduated from Torrance High School.
As a teenager he specialized in causing trouble to just about everyone around him. His family and neighbors and even the police had their hands full trying to channel his negative behaviors into positive directions. His older brother, Pete, got him involved in the school track team.
It wasn’t long before everyone knew Zamperini could run. In 1934, he set a world interscholastic record for the mile at 00:04:21.2 at the preliminary meet to the state championship. He went on to win a scholarship to the University of Southern California and eventually a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in the 5000 meters at 19, the youngest U.S. qualifier in that event.
Although he finished eighth in the 5000 meter Olympic race in Berlin, his final lap of 56 seconds was fast enough to get a personal greeting and handshake from Adolf Hitler. Two years later he set a national collegiate mile record which held for 15 years earning him the nickname “Torrance Tornado.”
His hopes for winning a gold medal at the 1940 Olympics in Japan were interrupted when they were moved to Finland and eventually cancelled because of World War II.
Zamperini’s life took a dramatic turn in September 1941 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. He was deployed to the Pacific Island of Funafuti as a bombardier on a B-24. On a search mission to find a downed plane and its crew, his B-24, The Green Hornet, crashed because of mechanical difficulties, killing eight of the eleven on board.
Zamperini himself almost died as he tried to free himself from the debris of the wreckage. But once he did, he discovered he was not alone. Three survivors were 850 miles west of Oahu, Hawaii.
Hillenbrand describes this next part in Zamperini’s life with such clarity it made me feel as though I was there in that raft. As the days turned into weeks and food and water consisted of captured rainwater and raw fish, while fighting off constant shark attacks, I felt like I was about to die. If that wasn’t enough adversity, they were even strafed multiple times by a Japanese bomber.
Day by day they struggled to survive. Each threat they faced seemed like it would be their last. One of the three men, Francis “Mac” McNamara, died on day 33.
Finally, on their 47th day they reached land in the Marshall Islands. At this point I was so relieved that they had made it to land I couldn’t imaging facing anything worse than that. I soon found out how wrong I was.
Zamperini and his friend Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy. I will continue this amazing story in my Part II edition next week.
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is the president of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville.
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