Dec 10, 2014

Heroes: Louis Zamperini

Louis Silvie “Lucky Louie” Zamperini was born on January 26, 1917 and died July 2, 2014. He was an Olympic distance runner, World War II prisoner of war survivor and inspirational speaker. His story was told by Laura Hillenbrand who wrote the best-selling book, Unbroken; which was adapted into a film that will be released December 2014, directed and co-produced by Angelina Jolie. Hillenbrand also published another best seller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The stars of the film are: Jack O'Connell, Garrett Hedlund, and Domhnall Gleeson.

animated directing by Angelina
The film originally was to be made in the 1950s, after Zamperini released his autobiography book entitled Devil At My Heels, and Tony Curtis wanted the role. But the film never came to be.
Talk of a film about the World War II hero and Olympic star was discussed again in 1998 with Nicholas Cage interested in portraying Zamperini.
Louis and Angelina on set
Universal Pictures finally got the ball rolling with Angelina Jolie as director and producer Matthew Baer, who had spent 15 years trying to get the Zamperini story to the movie theaters.
Universal Pictures bought the rights to the book in 2011, a year after Hillenbrand published her book. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (known in Hollywood as Coen Brothers) rewrote the script from the 1950s after Jolie became the official director. The film began in 2013 in New South Wales and Queensland, Australia with some scenes shot at the Fox Studios Australia. The following is a released trailer for Unbroken. The film will be officially released on Christmas Day, 2014.
Louis was born in Olean, New York, his parents immigrating from Italy. He had an older brother and two sisters. His older brother, Pete, was a good influence upon him. When the family moved to Torrance, California, in 1919, Louis attended Torrance High School. He and his family spoke little English when they moved to California, which caused Louis to be picked upon by fellow students.
His father taught him to box in self-defense, and soon he was beating up the bullies that picked on him. He got so good that he began to relish fighting.
Louis' older brother, Pete, was on the school track team, and decided to encourage Louis to stay out of trouble and use his energy by joining the track team and training him. At the end of Louis' freshman year, he finished 5th in the All City divisional 660-yard run. 
Louis (left) and Pete Zamperini
It was then that he decided to quit smoking, for all he thought about was running. He did so all summer.
After that summer of running in 1932, he began his first cross-country race, being undefeated in his last three years of high school. In 1934 he set a world interscholastic record for the mile at the preliminary meet to the California state championship. The record he made the following week helped him win a scholarship to the University of Southern California.
In 1936, Louis decided to try out for the Olympics. His father worked for the railroad, so Louis got a free train ticket to the Olympic Trails. A group of Torrance merchants raised enough money so Louis could afford to eat and have a place to stay while there. Zamperini finished in a dead-heat tie against Don Lash and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. At 19 years old, he was the youngest qualifier. One night, during a bout of drinking, during the Olympics, Zamperini decided it would be great to have a German flag for a souvenir – so he stole one from a flagpole. It is now part of the Zamperini Museum in the attic of his Hollywood home.
In September of 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the US Army Air Force and earned a commission as second lieutenant. He was then deployed to the Pacific Island of Funafuti as a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator, Super Man. In April of 1943, during a bombing mission against Japanese on the island of Nauru, the plane was so badly damaged it was put out of commission – despite landing on the airstrip. The crew of Super Man were transferred to Hawaii to wait another assignment and were given another B-24 named Green Hornet. It was reputedly a “lemon” because pilots say it was always requiring maintenance. While searching for a lost aircraft and crew, The The Green Hornet experienced mechanical failure which caused it to crash into the ocean 850 miles south of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard. The three that survived drifted for 47 days with little food (eating small raw fish) and only water they could capture from rain. They caught two albatrosses, which they ate and used to catch fish. All the while they fended off shark attacks and nearly capsized in a storm.
They were strafed by a Japanese bomber several times, puncturing their life raft, but miraculously none were hit because they jumped overboard, hanging onto ropes. Underwater it was less of a chance to get hit by bullets. The strafing continued for 30 minutes, they pretended to be dead so the Japanese would stop. After a pass without strafing, the survivors thought it was over; but the bombers bay doors opened and out dropped a black object, It was a depth charge that landed 30 to 50 feet away from the raft, but never exploded. The Japanese bomber flew away leaving two rafts riddled with bullets and deflating. Somehow they kept the rafts afloat.
The tail gunner, Francis McNamara died after 33 days at sea, leaving only two survivors.
On the 47th day adrift at sea, Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) and pilot Russel Allen Phillips, (portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) the two remaining survivors, sighted land in the Marshall Islands only to be captured by the Japanese Navy. They had drifted 2,000 miles with only a few bottles of water, six chocolate bars, albatross, small fish and rainwater.
While they were captive they were severely beaten and mistreated, but remained alive until their rescue at the end of the war in August 1945. Zamperini was tormented by prison guard Mutshuhiro Watanabe who the prisoners nicknamed “The Bird”, who later would be included on General MacArthur's list of the top 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. “The Bird” would escape justice and not be condemned as a war criminal. In the film, he is portrayed by Takamasa Ishihara, a Japanese actor.
Zamperini said:
My life as a teenage delinquent had conditioned me for the war.
But it was the USC lessons he learned from his physical education professor, Eugene Roberts, who inspired him to strengthen his mind not just muscles that helped him survive 47 days in a life raft followed by being a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. When captured he weighed only 70 pounds, what was left of his original 165-pound frame.
One of Zamperini's tormentors was James Sasaki who studied at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale before attending USC. Later Zamperini learned that Sasaki had been a Japanese spy, reporting on ship movements in the harbor at Long Beach. When December 7, 1941 came, Sasaki fled to Japan and later would be in charge of 91 POW camps because of his knowledge of English and American customs. Sasaki tried to recruit Zamperini into making anti-American propaganda broadcasts, but failed to convince him. Sasaki tried to break Louis' spirit by forcing him run relay races with Japanese runners. Despite his starving condition, Louis prevailed.
In September of 1945, the camp was liberated and in a Red Cross mess feeding hungry POWs, a New York Times reporter approached him looking for a story. When approaching Zamperini, he asked his name, which he told him, and the reporter stated that:
It can't be. Zamperini's dead.
He has been reported missing in action and later KIA when neither the plane or survivors were found. Angrily, Zamperini produced his USC Silver Life Pass, the only ID he had left. Angry at the reporter, Louis was more interested in food than fame, searching the floor for chunks of dropped donuts.
Invited for a two-week rest in Miami, Florida, the POWs were put in a hotel and on deep-sea fishing trips. One night, he and a friend crashed a private party and one of the beautiful girls there was Cynthia Applewhite [portrayed by Morgan Griffin].
Cynthia and Louis - newlyweds
After a two-week romance, Louis and Cynthia married; which would last 55 years until her death, raising two children: Cissy and Luke.
Zamperini then settled into post-war life, like many other veterans. First he got into war surplus, selling Quonset huts and other materials to film studios. He also sold commercial real estate, even invited to be a community leader and join the state legislature; but declined because his business interests would be a political conflict.
The war was over, but not psychologically for Louis. He continued to revisit the horrors, haunted by his experience as a POW. As he later wrote:
I was all churned up inside. All I could think about was revenge. I'd dream about strangling my prison guards. One night while half-asleep, I grabbed Cynthia around the neck.
Louis began to drink heavily thinking the nightmares would stop. Finally tired of it, Cynthia left to live with her mother. When she started talking about divorce, Louis knew he had to change or lose the love of his life.
Instead of divorcing Louis, Cynthia forgave him and tried to convince Louis to join her at the local church and listening to the sermons of Billy Graham. She finally convinced Louis to come to a meeting and was impressed with Graham. During the sermon, Zamperini remembered a moment when he prayed that if God spared his life he would dedicate service and prayer. Realizing he had not kept his promise, he commended himself to Christianity, stopped drinking, and no longer had nightmares.
Inspired by Graham, Zamperini toured as a public speaker, describing his message of forgiveness, which stopped his nightmares about his captors. In 1950, Louis visited Japan and spread the gospel to Japanese civilians. At one of the gatherings, he met one of his former POW guards. Louis recognized him and threw his arms around him in a greeting. The Japanese man was terrified and ran away. This began his systematic pursuit of finding his captors, embracing them, and try to convert them to Christianity.
At Sugamo Prison, Louis found his former classmate and tormentor, Sasaki. He has been given a 10-sentence for war crimes, which Zamperini tried to reduce without success. In 1952, Sasaki was released and died in 1979.
For the years after that period, Zamperini stayed busy, his Hollywood home becoming an impressive museum of souvenirs. He continued to tour as a speaker in prisons, schools, and other places. 
He also spent time with Angelina Jolie, director of the film about his story
Louie's daughter recalls the instant connection of Angelina Jolie and her father and Jolie becoming the director ...
...Jolie had directed one film prior to “Unbroken,” called “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” But, her reservations were justified considering she wanted to get her dad’s story right. That’s when Baer assured her Jolie was the right person for the job. ... After we first met with her, we all met her the same time she met Louie and for the two of them love at first sight. She was more in love with Louie first, because he was still reeling from getting a kiss on the lips from Catherine Zeta-Jones, because they were both on the Tonight Show and so he was reeling from that. And you know, he still had it. He was 96 years old at the time, but he still had an eye for the ladies. But, it was love at first sight between them and I could tell it was going to be a fantastic journey.
Bond between Angelina and Louis
Louie was a role model for his children as well as others ...
He was a wonderful role model for us. He would drop anything to help anyone – a stranger in need. He continued to rescue lots of people throughout our life, including me. He saved me from drowning once. I know it feels horrible to have resentment against people, so I always try to let it go. And my father would actually, he would pray for his enemies, or pray for people who had done wrong to him, and that’s a wonderful way to let it out of you. So he taught us that as well.
I am sure this film will be considered the best of four films directed by Angelina. The film Unbroken opens Christmas of 2014

Cynthia Garris, Louie's daughter, shared her thoughts and the making of the film's background with Townhall:
After we first met with her, we all met her the same time she met Louie and for the two of them love at first sight. She was more in love with Louie first, because he was still reeling from getting a kiss on the lips from Catherine Zeta-Jones, because they were both on the Tonight Show and so he was reeling from that. And you know, he still had it. He was 96 years old at the time, but he still had an eye for the ladies. But, it was love at first sight between them and I could tell it was going to be a fantastic journey.  
When asked if today's generation could survive such an ordeal. Cynthia answered:
No, I don’t. ...back in that day, I think my father and a lot of those men were just boys. They grew up really fast, because they grew up in the Depression and then the war came and they had to be men. Whereas these days, our young men sometimes remain boys well into their thirties. So, unless you are in an elite part of the military, I don’t think that your average trained military person would survive and have those skills.
Louis Zamperini remains, as the many heroes of World War II and other conflicts, also to be remembered as an Olympic athlete who stole Hitler's flag at the games; a man who was an inspirational American and should be the icon of a role model for youthful generations to come. It's all about living by a code based on solid principles - and living them.

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