Seven years ago, Louie Zamperini had just concluded a presentation on a cruise ship when a man in his 60s raised his hand and said, “Mr. Zamperini, I was in your camp in 1957. And several years later, I remember what you had taught me and told me. I came to my own decision to come to the Lord, and my life has been turned around.”
Zamperini’s son, Luke, pauses as he shares the cruise-ship anecdote about Victory Boys Camp, which his late father established for troubled inner-city youths in 1952. “Then another man gets up and says, ‘Mr. Zamperini, I was in your camp in 1961.’ ... We saw my father’s redemption and resilience all the time.”
For 60 years, the elder Zamperini shared his inspiring story with church groups, community organizations, and those he would meet and befriend instantly. There was even a Sunday school comic book about him: “The True Story of Capt. Louis Zamperini,” adapted from the 1956 book “Devil at my Heels,” co-authored by Zamperini and Helen Itris.
“Back in the 1950s, we couldn’t go anywhere without him being approached by somebody who knew his story and wanted to talk to him,” Luke remembers. “He was very popular back then. It got a little resurgence when CBS Sports featured him in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. That kind of re-established interest in him. And, of course, when Laura Hillenbrand discovered his story, that brought us to the state we’re in today.”
On Christmas Day, the story of Zamperini’s life – troubled youth, high school track star, Olympic runner, prisoner of war – debuts in movie theaters across the United States. Directed by Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, the film is based on Hillenbrand’s best-selling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”
For years, Zamperini fought to come to grips with his World War II experience. Surviving the crash of his bomber, the Green Hornet. Floating through shark-infested waters for 47 days. Nearly three years of torture at a Japanese prison camp.
With the end of the war and his release came a euphoria, followed by anger, depression, nightmares and alcoholism. For Zamperini, time did not not heal his wounds.
“He was still deeply troubled,” says his daughter, Cynthia Garris. “They didn’t know what (post-traumatic stress disorder) was; there wasn’t a clinical name for it back then.”
“I had a bit of a rough beginning,” she continues. “While I was still an infant, he went through his conversion under Billy Graham. And I can attest to the fact that he didn’t drink or have these nightmares as far back as I can remember.”
Sparked by his initial meeting with Graham, Zamperini’s transformation continued when he returned to Japan in the early ’50s to speak to 850 prisoners held for war crimes. He forgave and hugged his captors, including those who had tortured him. Though Zamperini wanted to meet and forgive Mutsuhiro Watanabe – “The Bird” – in person, the notoriously abusive POW camp officer declined.
Seemingly overnight, Zamperini emerged from his darkness to shine a light wherever he went. Once he forgave his captors, he said, he never again had a nightmare.
A NEW OUTLOOK Reinvigorated and full of love, Zamperini turned his attention to raising his kids, teaching them life lessons and playing practical jokes. He was the parent who soothed the sore throats, mended the broken toys and tended to the pets – even rats.
“To me, the rats were wonderful,” Luke says, laughing. “To him, they were disgusting. I mistakenly left their cage outside one night, and in the morning, they appeared to be dead. I was heartbroken. He nursed them back to health, staying up all night and feeding them honey and sugar water. The next morning, here was this exhausted father with these rats seemingly returned from the dead. No one asked him to do that. He just knew it would make me happy.”
Zamperini would unleash his sense of humor anytime, anywhere. “One time, Mom, Luke and I were watching TV in the evening,” Cynthia recalls. “Often Dad would go downstairs to his workshop, so we didn’t think it was unusual. All of a sudden he came streaking through the TV room, and he was dressed like a sumo wrestler, with a Japanese cloth around his loins, running through the room, just to make us laugh. He had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Zamperini would engage anyone; he was always happy to hear someone’s story and, of course, to share his own.
“He would be out watering his plants in the front yard, and some jogger would be jogging by,” Luke says. “He would turn around and say, ‘Hey, I’ll race you to that mailbox up there.’ Of course, he was pretty slow in his later years. So when the other person would reach the mailbox first, he would say, ‘Well, now you can say that you beat an Olympian.’ That would usually make them stop, turn around and come back to talk. It’s just the way he would make friends.”
Zamperini stayed active, though he had to give up jogging at 87 and skiing at 91 when he cracked his clavicle.
“I’d look up and he’d be gone,” Cynthia says of their skiing trips, one of which was a perfect example of Zamperini’s outgoing nature. “Some pretty girl had fallen on the other side of the slope, and he had made a beeline over there to give her lessons on how to ski. And this is when he was in his late 80s or 90s. He just made friends wherever he went.”
“ALWAYS LAUGHING” While researching for her 2001 book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” Hillenbrand learned of Zamperini’s high school athletic exploits – how he’d set a world interscholastic record by running a 4:21 mile. Once she learned about his war experience, she says she “knew this was my next book.”
She began meeting with him. “He was always laughing, always happy, always upbeat,” says Hillenbrand, who spoke with Zamperini almost daily during the seven-year process of researching and writing “Unbroken.”
“He loved being alive. He told these stories of the most harrowing experiences and did so in an almost singsong voice because he had let it all go ... the pain of it was gone for him. That was inspiring. I had never met anyone who had suffered as Louie had who could maintain an outlook ... that everything is a gift. He was a wonderfully happy man.”
His sense of humor surfaced when Hillenbrand least expected it. “I called him one day and told him how far deep his plane was in the ocean,” she says. “And he responded very quickly, ‘Well, I should go down and get it.’ I just loved that. We’re talking about a plane crash that put him in these dire circumstances for years. But he could joke about it.”
Zamperini’s story is full of tragic moments, such as his captivity on the island of Kwajalein, where he contracted dengue fever and was the subject of medical experiments. “His voice became solemn when he spoke about that,” Hillenbrand says. “He would make little noises one makes when there is something hard to say. He was struggling to push through it.”
While Zamperini was able to talk about the abuses he suffered, one episode proved especially challenging to recount. “The thing he said was the most painful memory of all the war was the killing of Gaga the Duck,” Hillenbrand says. “It was sort of a pet of the prisoners of war. He said it was the worst thing – the innocence of that animal and what was done to him.”
“FULL OF LOVE” Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini in the movie, met him several times before and after filming. O’Connell was most impressed with Zamperini’s decision to forgive those who had done him great harm. “The solace you gain from forgiveness eventually helps take you to a better place,” he says.
That’s what enabled Zamperini to emerge from the darkness of his postwar years and embrace life. “You would never know the torment he went through,” Cynthia says. “Many men have gone through wars like that. They are bitter and not very talkative. They can be angry. He was such a happy-go-lucky man. Just full of love, full of life.”
When making public appearances or going out to eat, Zamperini always wore his “uniform” – beige pants with the belt he wore all the way through the war, blue Olympic windbreaker and University of Southern California cap. He had a half-dozen USC caps and was rarely photographed in his last years without one. “I have one sitting on an easy chair where he liked to sit,” his daughter says. “It looks like Dad’s here.”
Zamperini died July 2 at 97.
Initially, Luke was disappointed that his father didn’t live long enough to see the completed film of “Unbroken.” But Jolie told him, “Oh, yes he did. I took my laptop to the hospital, sat on his bed with him, and we watched it.”
Thanks to the “Unbroken” book and film, Zamperini’s legacy will endure, educating millions more on his story of courage, redemption, struggle, forgiveness and faith.
The Victory Boys Club lives on, too. The family had planned to disband the camp since it’s not at a set location anymore. But earlier this year, Zamperini reached out and shared his story one last time to a troubled 20-year-old man addicted to heroin.
“We took him to see Louie, and Louie was able to finance this guy getting to a mission group in Australia that would accept him in his state and try to help him,” Luke says. “It turned this guy around. He spoke at both the private and public memorials we had for my dad. We realized we were able to help this one guy with Victory Boys Camp, so we wanted to keep this charity going to benefit the lives of young people.”
Henry Howard is deputy director of magazine operations for The American Legion.