Louis Zamperini passed away this week. The former NCAA mile record holder, 1936 Olympian, WW II fighter pilot, survivor of Japanese prison camps, and the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable chronicle, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” was 97 years old.
Before reading Hillenbrand’s book, I had never heard of Louis Zamperini. Reportedly, Hillenbrand spent seven years on the project, producing an unforgettable story that begins with Zamperini the juvenile delinquent growing up wild in Torrance, California. In brief, the book follows him as he discovers his talent for running, earns a spot on the 1936 Olympic team, competes in Berlin, returns to college, and then a few years later enlists in the Army where he becomes a bombardier for the U.S. Army Air Forces. And that, as they say, is where the story begins.
Most of the obituaries rightly focus on the rest of the story, how his plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean, killing eight of the 11 men on board, how Zamperini and a companion survive 47 days at sea on an open raft, how they are taken prisoner by the Japanese, and how Zamperini endures almost unimaginable hardship, including torture, at the hands of the Japanese.
(As an aside, if you read one obituary, I recommend this one by Drew Magary of Deadspin: Legendary Shark Puncher Louis Zamperini Dies, which concludes with these words:
“I often think of death as a terrible thing, for the young and the old. An awful fate, no matter how it occurs or to whom it occurs. Someone dies, and I am sad because they had the misfortune of experiencing death. But in the case of Louie Zamperini, I can think of no greater prize for his remarkable tale of survival than a peaceful, eternal rest. This is a man who earned his death. He endured 97 years on this planet, many of them spent at the far margins of experience, and I imagine that death suits him as a proper reward. No more sharks. No more fighter planes. No more torturous labor from The Bird. He can sleep now. God rest his soul.”)
As I read the obituaries and thought about his story, my thoughts kept returning to his early life. I kept thinking about how he was “saved” by running long before he was saved from drowning, saved from starvation in the prison camps, or saved through religion. It was his brother who persuaded him that instead of running all the time from the police, he should run to win races. In retrospect, it seems like a minor miracle that he didn’t end up in prison before he ever had a chance to show the world how fast he could cover a mile.
Maybe it’s the authority figure in me saying this, but “Lucky Louie” was the kind of kid, the kind of athlete who would drive any coach crazy. He seems to have been an incorrigible and independent spirit, intent on enjoying life and let the rules be damned. Hillenbrand describes Zamperini stuffing himself day after day on the free food available on the trans-Atlantic passage to the Berlin Olympics. Having done little running, having gained 14 pounds on the trip, and competing at the “wrong” distance (the 5000m, rather than the 1500 where he was much stronger), Zamperini was in no shape to compete with the best 5000m runners in the world. Nevertheless, he managed to run 15:02 in his heat and qualify for the final, where he ran 14:46 (56 last lap) to place 8th and first American.
One senses that the Olympics were a grand lark for him, and hardly the solemn and high-minded pursuit envisioned by Baron de Coubertin. Indeed, I seem to remember that after his event, Zamperini was just as proud of stealing some trophy off a German statue as he was of his race.
In his autobiography, “Devil at My Heels,” Zamperini writes: “Someone who doesn’t make the (Olympic) team might weep and collapse. In my day no one fell on the track and cried like a baby. We lost gracefully. And when someone won, he didn’t act like he’d just become king of the world, either.”
Maybe that’s just another old codger chiding the debased character of the current generation, but I’m inclined to believe him. Zamperini was perhaps the last of a generation of amateur athletes who had a different perspective than those who came later. It’s amazing to me to realize that Zamperini’s teammates at the Berlin Olympics included Jesse Owens, Glenn Cunningham, Don Lash, Johnny Kelley. Amazing that the trouble-prone kid from Torrance outlived them all.