Louis Zamperini. Since its November 2010 debut, Unbroken, the much-anticipated second book from Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand, has sold well more than a million copies and spent 66 weeks and counting atop the NY Times best-seller list. The book recounts the extraordinary story of a former Olympian, World War II POW and national hero. With the phenomenal success of Unbroken, new generations have been intro-duced to this heroic man and inspired by his unforgettable story. Among Zamperini’s many fans are Southbay photographer Jeff Berting and yours truly. And so it was, on a brilliantly sunny winter morning, that Jeff, his wife, Siri, and I drove up a winding Hollywood Hills road to Louis Zamperini’s home for a once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet, photograph and interview this bona fide living legend.
- Written byMichele Garber
Wearing his beloved USC class ring and dressed in his signature SC baseball cap, navy blue Olympic jacket adorned with his U.S. Army lapel pin, a crisp white-collared shirt and cardinal v-neck sweater, Louis Zamperini looks exactly as anticipated. His trademark sparkling blue eyes and effervescent smile immediately charm. At 95, Louis is slowing down a bit, and his hearing is limited. He may be a nonagenarian, but his memory and wit are as sharp as ever. Louis is on.
With a brace on his right leg from a recent injury and a fading red circle around his right eye (the remnant of a black eye from a minor procedure on his nose), his daughter, Cynthia, jokes of worrying that someone may think he was being abused. Louis retorts, “No, tell her the truth. It was that lady in the other wheelchair.” This is classic Louis … the same wicked sense of humor he’s had since his youth.
Louis is a South Bay native son. Though born in Olean, NY, his family moved to Torrance when Louis was only two. A precocious baby and rambunctious child, he couldn’t stay still and was constantly getting into some sort of trouble. One night while still in New York, Louis was supposed to be in bed recovering from pneumonia, but he snuck out a second-floor window and went running—naked—around his neighborhood. His pediatrician suggested that with a toddler like Louis, the Zamperinis may do better in warmer climes. So the family packed up and headed for Southern California.
Hillenbrand spent seven years researching her spellbinding narrative of Louis’ remarkable life journey. Much like Seabiscuit, her dedication to comprehensively researching her subject gives texture and context to each passage of the story. Unbroken is a compelling and thorough work. She masterfully takes you through Louis’ incredible story of overcoming odds and surviving the unimaginable.
The first chapters delight the reader with vignettes of Louis, whom she appropriately nicknames “The One-Boy Insurgency,” as he evolves from precocious toddler and mischievous boy to delinquent adolescent and finally a teenager who has a scared-straight epiphany leading him to take up running. As Louis develops into a track phenom and champion, he becomes the pride of Torrance, earning the moniker “the Torrance Tornado.” The once-reviled boy is now revered.
Unbroken then follows Louis through his Olympic experience, from qualifying at the trials to competing in the 1936 Berlin games … complete with rooming with Jesse Owens and meeting Adolf Hitler. After the Olympics, Louis returns home to attend USC on a track scholarship with dreams of competing in the 1940 Olympics.
Then World War II changes everything, and Unbroken truly depicts Louis’ “story of survival and resilience.” Hillenbrand masterfully depicts with gripping detail each of Louis’ mission successes when he becomes a B24 bombardier stationed in Hawaii; the harrowing plane crash that marks the start of his ordeal; the 47 days he spends adrift at sea; and ultimately his excruciating two-and-one-half-year nightmare as a POW in brutal Japanese prison camps, while he endured the most incomprehensible mistreatment at the hands of his cruel captors.
Yet through these tribulations, Louis’ innate optimism and survival instincts helped him persevere. The war comes to end, and Louis, like so many other veterans, returns home to face unanticipated challenges in post-war life. And once again, Louis overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds, finding redemption through forgiveness.
The “Hardy” Generation
Stories in the early chapters of Unbroken highlight key parts of Louis’ temperament, ingenuity and survival skills that foreshadow his ability to endure the countless perils awaiting him. Few men could overcome such a multitude of ordeals. His years as a Boy Scout, his training to hold his breath underwater, his high threshold for pain and even his mischievous childhood thievery all helped him survive the plane crash, the weeks on the raft and years as a POW.
Yet there is something deeper in Louis’ DNA that ensured his survival. He has a stubborn resilience and an inveterate optimism that give him strength to persevere. When asked which experiences from growing up in Torrance gave him the tenacity to overcome so much adversity, Louis humbly explains, “We were called by Tom Brokaw the ‘Greatest Generation,’ but I don’t like that term because I was there. We were what I call the ‘hardy generation.’ Every day there were problems, and with determination we would attack the problem, overcome it and then in each case you grow and take on the next problem. Sometimes there was a setback, but that’s when you’d become resolute and try again and again until you’d overcome it. We were overcomers. We were a hardy breed. We were properly fit for war.”
Well That’s Good Eating
During the Great Depression, the Zamperinis, like many families, found creative ways to put food on the table, though theirs had a distinct South Bay influence with a Northern Italian flare. As Louis reminisces, “The thing that really toughened us for WWII, besides working as kids—we worked an hour picking strawberries to fill one crate and we got a dime. A dime would buy a pound of hamburger. We’d take the dime home to Mom and Dad.” Louis goes on to describe how his family, like most of that era, would run out of money a few days before payday. Louis’ mother would send him out to the slough (now the location of Home Depot) to shoot a duck. “It may take hours to get one,” but as Louis sums it up, “Well, that’s good eating.”
Sometimes she would send him to the beach for abalone, which according to Louis was considered “poor man’s food,” adding that now it’s worth $100 a pound. Wading knee-deep in the water with a tire iron, he’d catch meaty mollusks. Or sometimes he and his siblings would visit the grassy fields where local Torrance dairy cattle would graze. According to Louis, “They fertilized the fields nicely to the point where the city of Torrance was full of the best mushrooms in the world. We had four kids, and within an hour, we’d have a grocery bag full. My mother would take a big pot and boil them.” He continues, “We’d shoot them on the fly with my 22 rifle. Everything was cacciatore, cottontail or duck, and it was pretty good.”
Learning to make do with what was locally available prepared Louis to survive the 47 days at sea. It also prepared him well for military training. As Louis recalls, “I remember going into the service at Camp Roberts on the firing line on the first day I made expert. The sergeant came by and said, ‘I don’t understand it. We just gave you instructions how to shoot the rifle, and you made expert. How come?’ I said, ‘Well, the target’s not moving.’”
Pass it On
Beyond dealing with the day-to-day hardships of the time, the glue that held the Zamperinis together was love of family and community. Louis proudly describes how the families in their neighborhood would look out for one another.
“If some family was having trouble, or if a guy lost his job, everybody would pitch in a buck to pay his house payment until he got another job,” he explains. “Or on Thanksgiving, the people who were really desperate all the others in the neighborhood secretly would build up a big basket full of turkey and all the trimmings. We would go to the house at night, put it on the front porch, ring the bell and run.
We were a different breed. We had our hardships, but those were the things that really made us be overcomers and made us happy. We enjoyed helping one another. Another thing we did—people for about four square blocks—about four times a year we’d have a picnic. Everyone brought food. We’d have watermelon and ice cream pie-eating contests and races. Those picnics were great. But you don’t see that anymore. So those were the things we grew up under, and I cherish every moment of it when I think back.”
Ties That Bind
During WWII, the U.S. policy was to officially declare soldiers dead if they were missing more than 13 months. As Louis was “missing” for nearly two and one-half years, he was considered lost. His Olympic fame ensured his death declaration was national news. Yet the Zamperinis, ever faithful, never gave up hope he was alive.
When asked if the love of his family helped him maintain his resolve during those dark days, he replied, “When I got home from the war—everybody saw the picture—my entire family was there to greet me. This is a family that stood by me all through my delinquent years. This is a family that supported my running to make the Olympic team. And this was the family that, even though I was officially declared dead, they refused to believe it. That’s a faithful family.”
Surely the bittersweet twist of longevity is that you lose so many you have loved. Not only did Louis lose all three siblings in a brief period, he also lost one of his dearest lifelong friends, Payton Jordan, at the same time. Louis’ beloved Cynthia, his wife of 55 years, passed several years earlier in 2001. Louis, once declared dead, had outlived them all.
Louis and Cynthia were blessed with two wonderful children, daughter Cynthia and son Luke. Louis also has one 25-year-old grandson, Clay, whom he invited Clay to assist him with his speaking tours. He adds, “Clay is excellent … he’s strict.” If the doctor gives Louis instructions, Clay is the enforcer. “Clay is just like his dad (Luke). He can fix anything, figure out anything,” the grandfather beams. “Between the two of them, I have to listen. I can’t fight back.” Louis then gestures toward his daughter and says, “She’s brilliant and strict too. I can’t get away with anything.” Ingenuity runs through the Zamperini lineage. The apple does’t fall from the tree.
The Story Continues
In Unbroken, Louis is ultimately healed by his renewed Christian faith and, more importantly, his ability to forgive those who tortured and tormented him. Beyond a religious message, Louis’ triumphs over adversity, his undaunted optimism and courage and his enduring faith are the aspects that have inspired millions. Many schools have added Unbroken to their required reading curriculum.
As Louis says, “The letters from young people tell the story. And people in hospitals. A nurse called and said, `I’ve got a guy that has been on dialysis so long, he wants to die. He just read your book and said, If that guy can spend 47 days on a raft, I can do this.’ The book is therapeutic. The letters come pouring in from kids, 10 years old, reading the book, and they sign their name ‘Your Pal, Billy.’”
At age 95, Louis continues to inspire. He travels the country signing books and giving speeches to packed houses, often standing room only. He continues to play a role in Victory Boys Camp, the nonprofit he founded in 1954 to help troubled boys straighten up by convening with nature. And Unbroken, Louis’ remarkable story, is now in development for a film version, which will undoubtedly inspire millions more with the message that they too can persevere if they never lose hope.
As Hillenbrand writes in the first line of the acknowledgements in Unbroken, “‘I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,’ Louis once told me, ‘because I can talk.’” l