The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Remembering Our Heroes

August 28, 2011

WWII veteran shares story with Enid church members

ENID — Louis Zamperini has been through it. In his more than 90 years, he has done about everything a man can do. But he counts the time he worked with juveniles and men in prison as the greatest hours of his life.

Zamperini spoke about his experiences Sunday evening at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

His family moved to Torrance, Calif., in the 1920s. The son of Italian immigrants, he spoke no English when the family moved to California. He became a target of bullies, and eventually was so adept at defending himself, he began starting fights just to see if people could keep up with him.

His brother got him interested in the school track program as a way to keep him out of trouble. He became a runner and in 1934 set an interscholastic high school record for the mile — 4:21.2 — at the preliminary meet at the state championships.

He won the state title with a time of 4:27.8, which earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California and eventually a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in the 5,000 meters as the youngest U.S. qualifier in that event.

When considering the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he knew there were a number of outstanding milers he probably could not beat. His brother suggested a new event, the 5,000 meters. He made the team as the only high-school-age athlete.

During the boat ride to Germany, he gained 14 pounds because there was an abundance of free food. Zamperini was accustomed to foraging for food to help keep his family from starving, and could not lose the extra weight when the team arrived at training camp.

Zamperini made the finals of the 5,000 meters, but could not keep pace with the Finnish runners. He finished 8th. However, his last lap was a sprint which he completed in 56 seconds and received a standing ovation from the crowd, and an invitation to meet Adolf Hitler.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘you’re the one with the fast finish,”’ Zamperini said.

Zamperini said all the athletes thought Hitler, with his small mustache and hair combed straight forward, looked like a comedian. Pounding his fists and stomping his feet did not help.

“But (he was) a very dangerous comedian,” he said.

Hitler soon plunged the world into war, which resulted in the canceling of the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and was commissioned a second lieutenant, deploying to Hawaii as a bombardier. He and his crew initially were assigned to a B-24, but were reassigned to a search-and-rescue aircraft after the bomber was shot up during a combat mission. Mechanical problems caused the second plane to crash May 27, 1943; Only Zamperini and two others survived. They floated with little food and water for several days, periodically shot at by Japanese aircraft. One of the survivors died while they were adrift.

“They shot at us a lot, but they never hit us. Bullets went all around us, but never hit anyone. It was a miracle,” he said.

After 47 days at sea, the men struck land, only to be captured by the Japanese.

Zamperini said while they were adrift, he discovered what hope is made of.

“It is the power of the soul to endure,” he said.

He lost 100 pounds while drifting at sea and was scheduled to be executed by the Japanese, but an officer recognized him as an olympic athlete and suggested he be sent to Tokyo to make pro-Japanese broadcasts. Zamperini did not know why he was not executed, but when he arrived in Tokyo, he refused to make the broadcasts. As punishment, he was sent to a prison camp where he was tortured continually for the rest of the war. Zamperini said his primary tormentor, known as “The Bird,” took special pleasure in beating him. Between beatings, he served as slave labor for the Japanese.

After the war, Zamperini suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and became an alcoholic. A meeting with Billy Graham helped him launch a career as a inspirational speaker, and he began speaking about forgiveness and in 1950 visited some of the guards who had participated in his beatings. Speaking through an interpreter, he forgave them and afterward hugged the ones who came up to him.

“The Bird,” Matsuhire Watanabe, refused to see him.

For many years, Zamperini operated a ministry that went into prisons in California, such as Folsom, where he worked with prisoners. He ran a camp for juveniles who were in the California Juvenile Authority, teaching them a sense of accomplishment, urging them to graduate high school and then helping them find a job.

“Those days I spent with those kids, and with those men in prison and in the schools, were the most rewarding of my life,” he said.

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Remembering Our Heroes