Louis Zamperini: The Story of a Survivor

December 13, 2011
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Not many people can survive a plane crash, 47 days at sea without food or water, numerous shark attacks, and Japanese POW camps. But Louis Zamperini can and did. Throughout his entire life, he had an unstoppable drive to never give up and to survive. Although he started life as a troubled small town boy with no future, he became on of the bravest and most accomplished men to ever walk this earth. Louis Zamperini is one of the few men alive who simply refuse to be broken.

Louis grew up in Torrance, California, a small town just south of Los Angeles. He was of Italian descent, which made him a target for school bullies. After seeing his son come home regularly with bruises, his father decided to teach him how to fight. From then on, he would get into fights simply for he fun of it. Seeing Louis in such trouble made his brother anxious, so he convinced him to join the track team. There, Louis excelled dramatically, earning top honors and scholarships. He set a world interscholastic record for a mile he ran in 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. His record went unbroken for 20 years. Soon after, he was recruited into the US Olympic team. At the Berlin games of 1936, Louis placed 8th, but his final lap of 57 seconds impressed Adolf Hitler, the German Chancellor at the time, who requested to see Louis in person. “True to form and before departing for home, the troublemaker turned champion runner stole a Nazi flag off the Reich’s Chancellery. Caught by the Gestapo, Zamperini convincingly talked his way out of the predicament and proudly brought the flag home.” This attitude of invincibility would prove to be useful in the years to come. Although he was a favorite for the next Olympic games, WWII broke out, and Louis was compelled to fight for his country. He joined the United States Air force as soon as he could.

Soon after enlisting, Zamperini became the bombardier for a B-24 bomber. The first plane he flew in was christened Superman. It was damaged badly in a bombing run though, and he and his crew were given a new plane, the Green Hornet. Although it was brand new, it suffered mechanical failure during a rescue mission and went down in the ocean on May 27, 1943. Only three people survived, one of whom was Louis. They were forced to spend 47 days at sea on a tiny rubber raft meant for two people. One of the men ate all of the emergency food they were allotted on the first day, so what little food they consumed they had to get from the sea and the air. They lived off of fish and the occasional bird that was unfortunate enough to land on their raft. Besides the constant threat of death by starvation, the men were forced to defend themselves from the occasional shark attack. They had nothing to fight the sharks off with except their bare fists. After 33 days at sea, one of the men died of malnutrition, and was given a burial at sea. Soon afterwards, Louis and the remaining man landed on a Japanese controlled island and were taken prisoner.

Zamperini endured more pain and suffering during his internment at Japanese POW camps than most people can even dream of. He was sent from one version of hell to another, from Kwajelein island to Truck island and more. At the camp in Yokohama, he was forced to unload cargo ships while being beaten and verbally abused. One of his captors took special interest in him, because of his celebrity, and decided to make Louis’ life hell. The guard was a truly sadistic man, regularly beating Louis simply because he could. It must have gave him some sick sense of satisfaction. At one instance, a guard ordered Louis to lick his boots, and when he refused, the guard hit him over the head with a truncheon and forced him hold a beam of wood over his head. The beam probably weighed more than Louis at the time. But in an amazing feet of strength, Louis held the beam up over his head for an astonishing 37 minutes before the guard flew into a rage and beat him down. The wood almost killed Louis when it fell. But he never gave in to his tormentors, remaining strong throughout his ordeal. His refusal to give up only served to infuriate the guards more, and they would regularly unleash all of their pent up fury on him. But Louis persisted, and in September of 1945, the POW camp he was interned at was liberated by advancing allied forces.

After he was released from the POW camp, he returned home to a heroes welcome. He had been reported dead after his plane crash, so his return shocked and amazed many people. When he told a reporter who he was, it caused an immediate storm of questions. He was reunited with his family, got married to beautiful young woman, and became a major celebrity. He was
invited to parties all over Hollywood. Unfortunately for him, the war had changed him, and he soon became depressed by memories of his experiences and turned to alcohol. He became almost impossible to be around and seemed destined to live the rest of his life in a drunken stupor. But luckily, his wife eventually convinced him to accompany her to an evangelical presentation from the esteemed Billy Graham, and Louis found his religion. He quit drinking and in 1952 started the Victory Boys Camp, a camp dedicated to helping wayward boys, similar to how he was a child. He now lives his life to help people. He came a long way from the troubled young boy in Torrance.

Louis Zamperini was a small town boy who, luckily, recognized his potential for greatness. He ran in the Olympics, fought in the war, survived POW camps, and went on to continue changing peoples lives by telling his stories and helping them find new paths to go down in their lives. He deserves to be recognized for his accomplishments and refusal to be broken. The story of his life can and will allow people to realize that something being truly impossible is a ridiculous notion.





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