LOUIS ZAMPERINI ~ One Tough American
26 January 1917 - 2 July 2014
By Francis B. McVey

    On 25 February, Post 1921 was honored to have Luke Zamperini tell the story of his father, Louis Zamperini, at its annual formal dinner. Former PC, Bob Wyllie, arranged for Luke to speak at this outstanding event, held at the Lions Gate, formerly the Officers Club for McClellan AFB, Sacramento. Attendance had to be limited to 73 guests due to the size of the room. This dinner weekend is the only event of the year that 1921 does solely for its own enjoyment. After the traditional toasts, we enjoyed a film on the life of Louis Zamperini followed by a presentation by Luke to put a personal touch on his father’s life.

    Those wanting to learn more may wish to view the movie “Unbroken” by Angelina Jolie or one of the books such as “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. There have been TV programs about Louis as well.

    The incredible story of Louis Zamperini.

    Louis was born to Italian immigrant parents on 26 January 1917 in Torrance, CA. He had an older brother and two younger sisters. He was the target of bullying by other boys in the neighborhood, so his father taught him to box for self defense. He said, “I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.” He would now provoke fights with other boys to prove that he could win.

    He was a bit of trouble maker in other ways as well. He began smoking by age five and drinking booze by age eight. By the time he was a teenager he would hop trains into Mexico and get into all kinds of mischief. He let the air out of the car tires of a teacher who had disciplined him and he lobbed tomatoes at a cop. He would also steal from those who aggravated or annoyed him.

    In high school his older brother, Pete, convinced him to begin running track. He was an instant success and soon a star athlete, setting the national high school record of 4 minutes - 21 seconds in the mile run. He was invited to train for the 1936 Olympic team on a

    track scholarship at the University of Southern California, where he set a national collegiate mile mark of 4 minutes - 8 seconds. That record stood for 15 years. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin he finished the 5000 meter race in 8th place with a time of 14 minutes - 45 seconds. But he had a final kick near the end producing one of the fastest lap times ever recorded. For that, he was congratulated by Adolph Hitler who shook his hand. Many believed that by the next Olympics, Zamperini would be favored to win Gold in 1940. That was not to be; World War II got in the way.

    In 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Corps seeking pilot training. He eventually became a Bombardier on the B-24 Liberator assigned to the 372nd Bomb Squadron.

    On 27 May 1943, Zamperini was part of the B-24’s crew of eleven on a search mission looking for another downed plane. The B-24 Liberator, named “The Green Hornet,” suddenly lost power in both engines on the port wing. Eight of the crew were killed when the aircraft crashed into the Pacific in a minimally controlled ditch at sea. In addition to Zamperini, the left seat pilot, Russell Allen Phillips and tail gunner, Francis McNamara survived.

    Thus began 47 days at sea in a very small life raft. They survived on rain water, fish, and birds. On one occasion they were strafed by a Japanese airplane. McNamara died after 33 days and was buried at sea. They drifted some 2,000 miles before making landfall in the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands and were immediately taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy, who took them to the island of Kwajalein where they were held for six weeks before being moved to the Japanese mainland. Once in Japan, Zamperini was held at three different POW camps over the next two years, and was beaten almost daily. The worst guard was a sadistic man named Mishiro Wantabe nick-named “The Bird” by the POWs. “The Bird” singled Zamperini out for harsh treatment and abuse. Perhaps this was because the guards knew of his celebrity status as an athlete or saw that he was tough and respected by other POWs. On one occasion, as depicted in the video, he was required to hold a large wooden beam over his head, being told he would be shot if he dropped it. He held it for 37 minutes before passing out. At the time, Zamperini wanted to find a way to kill “The Bird.”

    Zamperini was starved, getting down to 63 pounds. One part of the story of particular interest to us Scots was that Zamperini was befriended by a few tough prisoners who were Scots. They had been released from British prisons to serve in the British Army. They were, like Zamperini, tough and resourceful. These Scots had hidden some sharpened bamboo sticks on their persons. When they got a chance to get near the bags of sugar or rice without the guards seeing, they would pierce the bags with the sticks and drain some of

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