Remembering Louis Zamperini
A soldier who taught the world about heroism, love, and redemption


Lee Habeeb

Seventy years ago, the world was convinced he was dead. There was good reason: A death certificate had been signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There had been no news from the former Olympic athlete since his World War II bomber crashed into the Pacific while he was on a rescue mission.

The story of how Louis Zamperini survived that ordeal, and overcame it, was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

Zamperini’s life here on earth ended last week, on July 2. You will read much about the survival and resilience part of his story in obituaries and tributes in the days to come. But little about the redemption. Little about the most important — and beautiful — part of Zamperini’s story.

That’s because it involved a man named Billy Graham. And a savior named Jesus Christ.

They say cats have nine lives. Louis Zamperini had at least three. The first began in 1917. He was born in Olean, N.Y., and moved with his family to Torrance, Calif., in the 1920s. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louis spoke very little English. That made him a target for bullies, so his father did what dads did back then when a son was being bullied: He taught him how to box. Soon, Louie was beating up the boys who had been beating him up.

Louie was an angry and rebellious teenager; his passions included alcohol and fighting. His prospects were looking bleak until his older brother Pete got him involved in the school track team. Track saved young Louie’s life. He set a world interscholastic record for the mile and won a scholarship to USC.

“Local newspapers started calling me Zamp the Champ,” he told America in WWII magazine in 2006. “I relished every moment in the limelight, knowing at last I could make something of myself.”

Zamperini’s speed impressed everyone. “The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” his coach at USC told a reporter.

Los Angeles knew Louie, and the world got to know him in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He competed in the 5,000-meter run and finished eighth. But he was best remembered for what he did off the track. One night, after a few drinks, he scaled a 15-foot wall surrounding the Reich Chancellery (the German White House), pulled the Nazi flag off a flagpole, and ran. German security caught him, but he wasn’t charged. When a high-ranking German Army commander found out who Zamperini was, he let him keep the flag.

Zamperini’s next goal was training for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but that dream was killed as the world prepared for war. The 1940 summer games were canceled, and Zamperini traded his track uniform for a military uniform and signed up for bombardier training in Texas. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii in 1942 with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force, as a master bombardier.

Zamperini was involved in a number of dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater, and then came the mission that changed his life. On May 27, 1943, his crew of eleven was ordered to search for a B-25 shot down near Palmyra Island, about 900 miles south of Hawaii. They left Kualoa, on Oahu, in the only B-24 available, the Green Hornet.

At about 2 p.m., the plane’s two port engines failed, and within minutes, the plane slammed into the sea. “It felt like someone hit me in the head with a sledgehammer,” Zamperini told Life magazine. “The crash forced me forward and down into the sea. I blacked out momentarily from the impact and found myself entangled in coiled wires and cables that wound around me like metal spaghetti.”

“Swallowing a nauseous saltwater mixed with gasoline, oil, hydraulic fluid, and blood, I somehow managed to inflate my Mae West — my life jacket,” he continued. “Then I noticed two crewmen about 20 feet away clinging to the side of a gas-tank float. I managed to grab onto a portion of a nylon parachute cord that was attached to an inflatable life raft. I climbed in, unhooked the oars, and rowed over to pick up our pilot, Russell Phillips, who was badly injured, and pulled him up into the raft. Then Francis McNamara, our tailgunner, made it in. We were the only three survivors of the eleven-man crew.”