Thursday, January 12, 2012

Louis Zamperini, A Hero In Our Time

Louis Zamperini. Do you recognize the name? I think everyone should know him and his story...

Louie will have a birthday on Jan. 26th and he will be 95 years old.  He was born in Olean, New York to Italian immigrant parents but the whole family moved to Torrance, California when Louie was two years old.  Since he could only speak Italian he was teased as a youngster and consequently got into many scrapes and fights and became something of a juvenile delinquent.  His older brother Pete was able to get him interested in trying out for his high school track team. ( His joke was that he had been running from the law for years, so he had plenty of practice!) Louie became a terrific runner and he set records at his high school.  He earned a place on the 1936 Olympic track team which was held in Berlin.  (If you don't know the Jesse Owens story, please look him up, he won four gold medals at those games).
Now, Louie didn't win any medals  but the description of his track days and his memories of the Olympics are carefully written about in his book "Devil At My Heels" which is his book, co-written by David Rensin.  Laura Hillenbrand, in her research for her book "Seabiscuit" kept coming across Louis Zamperini's name during her research for "Seabiscuit".  She called him up and after speaking to him for a few minutes, she knew she had her subject for her next book... The book that she wrote about him "Unbroken" was named the best nonfiction book of 2010 by Time magazine.

You see, Louie's story of his track days and the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 are interesting but what makes him a hero is what happened to him during World War II.  He crashed in the South Pacific and was adrift at sea with two other men on two tiny rafts.  Two of the men survived, after enduring starvation,  shark attacks, Japanese strafing from overhead planes, and severe storms at sea.  Louie lost half of his body weight, a young man who had been an Olympic runner... He was "rescued" by the Japanese and then spent the next two years in POW camps and was tortured and singled out due to his Olympic fame.   One of the guards nicknamed "The Bird" was brutal to him and Louis refused to give in...that is where the "Unbroken" title comes from, the book that Laura Hillenbrand wrote.

After the war, Louie returned home but he could never get over the ordeal that he had endured and became an alcoholic and was spiralling downward.  Luckily, he had married a beautiful young woman by the name of Cynthia Applewhite.  She had heard of a young preacher from North Carolina by the name of Billy Graham and she encouraged Louie to go and listen to him.  Louie did attend one of the revivals in California and completely turned his life around.  He actually went back to Japan and FORGAVE his former captors.  (He was not able to meet with "The Bird" but you have to read "Unbroken" to find out what happened!)

After I first read the book, "Devil At My Heels", I was so moved by it that I wrote a letter to the publisher and asked them to please let Louie Zamperini know how much I loved his story and to please convey that to him.  Imagine my surprise and delight when I received  a letter from Mr. Zamperini himself!  He actually sent me a note to tell me that Laura Hillenbrand was writing a book about him.  Due to her illness (she has chronic fatigue syndrome) it took seven years for her to finish it.   I would suggest reading "Devil At My Heels" first and then, read "Unbroken".  The second book goes into such detail about his Louie, his family, his very good friends and his war buddies, which you will already know from the first book!   "Unbroken" is not an easy book to read, but my feeling is if those men could endure what happened to them, then surely I can READ about it.

The last correspondence that I received was from John Naber.  John is also a former Olympian who is a good friend of Louie's and is now helping Louie with all the letters and calls that he receives.

"What counts in the long run, is not what you read; it is what you sift through in your own mind; it is the ideas and impressions that are aroused in you by your reading".     Eleanor Roosevelt

I really can't say why the story of this man's life struck such a chord with me.  I can only give you this quote from his beloved brother,  "I never met anybody who didn't love Louie".  Read his story and see if you don't agree....


  1. Hi Kay, What an amazing life this man has lived. It's hard to believe he's going to be 95 in a few days - he's so vibrant! I know I would find these books hard to read, I tend to avoid painful subjects, but your statement that "if those men could endure what happened to them, then surely I can READ about it" is logical and food for thought. Thank you for profiling this story.

  2. Thank you for pointing these books and the man himself out to us here, Kay! I had never heard the name Zamperini before.

  3. Jane,
    Louie is so JOYFUL and positive that he is amazing to read about.
    When you read either of these books, when he is at sea for those 47 days, I think I almost held my breath as I was reading is just that captivating. You won't believe what he went through.
    Some people don't believe it, forgetting that he had another man who survived with him who verified the whole ordeal. Also, there were many witnesses to the brutality of the POW camps in Japan.
    Jane, the book "Unbroken" is not an easy book. Read "Devil At My Heels", this one does not go into the sadistic torture by the Japanese guards as much...

  4. Librarian,
    Louie Zamperini! He is very well known in California. That university he attended in California, USC, has a track field named after him. The airport in Torrance, California is Zamperini Field. I hope you are able to read these books.
    Do you think that some books are considered either for men or for women and unconsciously, we choose books by our gender? Many times, women have said to me that they have no interest in "war" books...these books are so much more than just a war story but are portraits in grace and courage that are inspirational to me.

  5. Such a courageous man. I have never heard of him until now. I think I will seek out the two books that you suggest but would have to skim over any talk of torture! I bet you was thrilled that the man himself wrote to you. Thank you for visiting my blog by the way!

  6. Simone,
    I WAS thrilled that he wrote to me! I hope that you will hear about him on the news as his 95th birthday will be here in a few weeks.
    You have a beautiful blog! I love your creative, positive attitude!

  7. It's my Dad's 80th this week, my grandparents and his generation have seen so much - I never tire of hearing their stories and wisdom. I'll tell them about these books because they sound very touching and with familiar bits....

  8. It's my Dad's 80th this week, my grandparents and his generation have seen so much - I never tire of hearing their stories and wisdom. I'll tell them about these books because they sound very touching and with familiar bits....

  9. Wendy,
    Happy 80th to your Dad! Louie Zamperini lived through so much only to come through it with such a strong belief in God. It is a powerful story and both of these books reflect that and are inspirational.
    Look out for his story to be made into a movie, I can just hear him teasing everyone and guessing who will portray him in the movie!

  10. Wow! What an incredible man! Sounds like a movie would be really inspirational.

  11. You commented ""Unbroken" is not an easy book to read, but my feeling is if those men could endure what happened to them, then surely I can READ about it." That's how I often feel about books I read about war and hardship. If they make such difficult reading it is beyond the imagination what it must have been like to live through such experiences. Every time I read such a book I give thanks for the peaceful and relatively safe part of the world that I have lived in.

  12. Oh your posts are just so interesting Kay. You certainly put a lot of time and effort into writing them up. The pictures of Stone Mountain are just superb, wow! the view is unbelievable! I'm sure this is giving you such a lot of inspiration for your Landscape Square and I look forward to receiving it.
    Love and best wishes for a good weekend,

  13. Kay,
    I hope the movie will be made soon. When he returned to Japan, he found that the Japanese people (who lived near the old POW camps) had no idea what had transpired there...and they built a beautiful memorial there, a peace park...and Louie could not have been happier about it! (My copy of Unbroken is the advance reading copy, but I believe the photo is in the book.) I hope you will read it!

  14. Scriptor,
    I am glad that you agree with that statement. So many people, especially women, tell me that they are just not interested in reading war's so much more than that, and Laura Hildenbrand certainly recognized it.
    One of my co-workers (a man!) asked me for a good book, and I lent him my copy of "Devil At My Heels". He read it, came back to see me,slammed the book down on my desk and said, "That's the best book I ever read, give me another one!"

  15. Sue (Mrs Twins!),
    Now, you know my little landscape square will be very simple (remember my snowman!) but hopefully, it will look enough like Stone Mountain that you will recognize it.
    Oh, and that cupcake blanket, that you got the thank you note for recently, that is one of my favorites! Well, along with the snowman one, and the tropical one and the garden one...they are all so good!

  16. Why what an interest life story. I am always amazed by how people are able to make big life changes in the face of tragedy and heart ache. Looks like I have a few more books to add to my reading list!

    hope you are well,

    1. Elizabeth,
      I dearly love these books about Mr. Zamperini and have talked about him for years as if I know him! He is such a terrific guy, I promise once you read about him and his life, you won't forget him!
      Yes, I am well and I hope you are the same!

  17. I will look out for these books. Watching the video clip makes me feel very humble, and extremely grateful for my easy life. Day to day problems are inconsequential in comparison to the hardships he, and many like him, endured.

  18. Tracey,
    I cannot tell you how moved I was when I read "Devil At My Heels".
    There is so much in the book other than what I have touched upon in my post. He writes so movingly about the men that he served with, many of them passed away now...

  19. Hello Kay,
    What an interesting post, I will have to read his books - thank you for sharing this. It is so touching to see how modest he was at the end of the film. Thank you.

    1. Hey Ivan!
      I just noticed that you left this comment here.
      I do hope that you get to read "Devil At My Heels".
      I really need to do another post about him, I think he just a really great guy.
      Thanks so much for your comment.