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Louis Zamperini: a lifetime of history

Nov. 12, 2009, 12 a.m. (ET)

Louis Zamperini was only seven years removed from the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games when his life went spiraling out at sea. During the Pacific Theater in 1943, two port engines failed in his B-24 bomber, one after the other, and his aircraft tumbled and eventually slammed into the open water.

Zamperini said he momentarily blacked out from the impact, and then woke to find himself about 70 feet under water and entangled in cable and coiled wires. He managed to escape the underwater wreckage and surface to the top. Floating in salt water mixed with hydraulic fluid, gasoline, oil and blood, he inflated his life jacket and noticed two other crew members about 20 feet away. Crew member Russell Phillips and tail gunner Francis McNamara were hanging on to the side of a gas-tank float. Zamperini inflated the raft he found, picked up the oars and rowed over to pick up his two mates.

They saw the B-25s search for them the next couple of days, but the bombers never saw the flares or dye markers in the sea. "Lucky Louie," as some came to know him, lost one of his mates. After 47 days and nearly 2,000 miles at sea, he made landfall at the Marshall Islands-which were occupied by Japan. A prisoner of war, Zamperini went through harsh treatment.

It seems luck would eventually run out for Zamperini; but he endured. Zamperini will be 93 in January, and he's still active.

Now, the luck may lie within those who ever get to meet Louis Zamperini, a 1936 Olympian and World War II hero who has witnessed more history in an nine-year stretch than most will ever see in a lifetime.

And it's only appropriate that on Veteran's Day, that his remarkable life is remembered.

Zamperini was a roommate of Jesse Owens. He shook hands with Adolf Hitler. He survived the Great Depression by earning a track scholarship to the University of Southern California. Zamperini can recall names and dates of events in his life like they happened just yesterday. Books have been written about him and movie scripts have been pitched. He speaks to marines before they head off to war. He tours the country to give motivational speeches.

He sends a Bible verse to a tall, blonde-haired freshman football player at the University of Southern California every week during football season. It's to a kid Zamperini met last spring while talking to one of the sports classes at his alma mater.

"This kid came up to me and introduced himself as [USC quarterback] Matt Barkley," Zamperini said. "I asked what he was already doing in school, and he told me that he enrolled early. Now Matt's kind of like a grandson to me."

Even Pete Carroll, the famous USC football coach, likes to invite Zamperini to campus as often as he likes.

"Just like Matt is like a grandson, Pete Carroll is like a son to me," Zamperini said.

The journey for Louis Zamperini began in 1917, when he was born in Olean, N.Y. His family moved to Torrance, Calif., in the 1920s. He grew up as a kid who would rather use his fists and street wits to get by rather than rational thinking.

He was a rebellious adolescent who liked the taste of booze and good times. Even during the early 1930s, he found a way to get by.

"We were flat broke, so we'd get up early in the morning to gather bottles from trash cans and we'd sell them for money," Zamperini said.

Zamperini wanted to live the rough, rowdy gangster lifestyle. He hopped freight trains and did just about every imaginable thing a rambunctious teenager with bravado could do. And he always got in trouble.

One day his brother had a heart-to-heart chat with him and he transformed himself in the blink of an eye.

"I quit everything overnight," Zamperini recalled of the conversation he and his brother had as they lay at night trying to go to sleep. "I started running to take out my aggression, and I found out I was good at it."

Good wasn't good enough. He wanted to be the best, so he gave up other little things in life.

"I decided to quit everything wrong," Zamperini said. "No candy, no ice cream. Nothing. I just wanted to excel because every kid wants recognition."

He became such a gifted athlete in the mile that he had one of the fastest interscholastic times in the nation. One local newspaper called him "Zamp the Champ." He earned a track scholarship to the University of Southern California, but he had a couple of stops before he ever stepped foot on campus as a student.

"There was a meet out here in Southern California, and they asked if I wanted to run against a guy who was supposed to be the fastest in the country," Zamperini said. "I kept up with him and thought I had a chance to beat him."

What happened next was bizarre. While lapping runners during the 5,000 meter race, an official from the track would signal to the slower runner to move to the outside lanes so the leaders could pass.

"I had the lead going into the last turn and the guy in front of me wasn't going to the right," Zamperini said. "I went to pass him on the right just as he was making his move to the outside. I lost too much time and barely finished second."

Zamperini earned a trip to the Olympic Trials in New York City during the summer of 1936. One problem though-he and his family could not afford to send him. Luckily, Zamperini's father worked for Southern Pacific Railroad and was allowed one round-trip fare anywhere in the United States for free, so little Louis got it. A local department store outfitted Louis with a new suitcase and clothes and shaving kit for the trip.

In New York, Zamperini qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team and was Berlin bound from there. He and other Olympians boarded the USS Manhattan, a ship that had more luxury than anything Zamperini had ever seen.

"I had never seen that much food and drink before, and during the Depression, you ate whenever you could," he said.

He ate so much during the 12-day voyage, in fact, that Zamperini gained 14 pounds on the cross-Atlantic trip and lost any hope of winning a medal at the event.

One of Zamperini's four roommates in Olympic Village was Jesse Owens, an African-American who trumped Hitler on the German stage by winning four Olympic gold medals. Zamperini finished eighth, but he was the fastest American in the 5,000 meters.

"Hitler came and shook my hand after the race," Zamperini recalls. "I was one of three Americans who shook his hand. But what happened was that one of his advisors told him that once he starts shaking hands, he'll have to shake all of them. We all knew he wasn't going to shake Jesse's hand."

That wasn't Zamperini's last brush with militant fascism. With war raging in Europe and with Japanese aggression in Asia, Zamperini went to Army Air Corps flight school in the spring of 1941. During that year's peacetime draft, he was called to duty into the army. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was shifted back to the air corps and sent to bombardier school in Houston, all despite his plea to remain in the infantry.

He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii as a master bombardier with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force. His first combat mission was Christmas Eve 1942, when his crew pummeled the Japanese at Wake Island.

On other missions at Nauru, Makin and Tarawa Islands, half his crew was left dead or wounded when 600 Japanese bullets found their B-24 bomber. They managed to land the plane safely. Then, luck seemed to run out for Zamperini. It was reported that a B-25 had been shot down near Palmyra Island. Zamperini's crew left in the only B-24 available to search for the downed plane. His port engines began to fail and the aircraft slammed into the sea.

Zamperini drifted at sea with McNamara, Phillips and very little food and water. Once their ration of six chocolate bars and a few cans of water were depleted, the three-man crew survived on what they scavenged at sea, including two small fish, a 2-foot shark, three birds and four albatrosses. There was also an occasional shark that would pass closely by and peek at them.

The man who was once one of the fastest mile runners in the world turned into one of the best at entertaining a helpless crew at sea. Zamperini cooked imaginary meals three times a day and got his stranded partners to sing along with him to Bing Crosby tunes.

Sometimes they received an occasional rain shower, but not too often. One day they received a surprise visitor when a twin-engine Japanese KI-213 "Sally Bomber" spotted them at sea and began firing.

"I went into the water to avoid the bullets even though there were sharks in the water," Zamperini said. McNamara and Phillips did the same and none of them were hit. But on day 33 at sea, McNamara took his final breath and sank into the sea.

"We held a small eulogy and buried him at sea," Zamperini recalled.

On Day 47, a Japanese harbor boat spotted them off the coast of the Marshall Islands. Zamperini had gone from a 165-pound bombardier to a shriveled 79-pound survivor.

Then, things got worse.

Zamperini and Phillips were transported to a detention building at Kwajalein, where Zamperini said they were beaten every day, fed insect-filled rice balls and confined to 8-foot deep holes carved in coral. He was a guinea pig for a Japanese doctor trying new substances. He was forced to do push-ups over the latrine and the guards would push his head into it.

When the Japanese guards realized he was a famous athlete, they broke his nose three times. While in a wooden cell, he noticed an engraving that simply read: 9 Marines marooned on Makin Island-Aug. 12, 1942.

The names of the marines followed, all of whom had been beheaded. Zamperini memorized all nine names so he could report it back home-if he ever made it.

Zamperini was moved from one camp to another and kept on the brink of starvation. High-ranking Japanese officials would toss rice on the floor where he would have to eat it.

One of Zamperini's classmates at USC was a fellow named James Wasaki, who eventually became one of Zamperini's guards. As it turns out, Zamperini said, Wasaki was a spy back in college who reported ship movements in the harbor of Long Beach.

Wasaki went to Japan when the war began and was placed in charge of 91 POW camps. The old USC alum tried to get Zamperini to broadcast anti-America propaganda, but the American refused. Instead, Zamperini and his extraordinarily frail body was ordered to run a relay against healthy, fit Japanese runners. Zamperini prevailed.

Zamperini finally agreed to do a broadcast to the United States, but only if he could write it. In 1944, he made it, much to the surprise of his family, who had already received his Purple Heart for the wounds resulting in his death.

Once he refused to do a second broadcast, Zamperini was shipped to the harshest of prisons and prison guards. He survived the brutal beatings he received on a daily basis.

Not long after, the Japanese surrendered and the war was over. Once he made it back to the United States several months later, and somewhat rested and recuperated, he received a promotion to captain along with the Air medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, the Philippine Liberation Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the American Campaign Medal with battle star.

He arrived home to a hero's welcome in Torrance, where an airport and athletic field later were  named in his honor.

Zamperini said he quit watching movies about 40 years ago.

"I wanted to do everything I could possibly do," he said. Zamperini said he has held 112 professions in his life, including that of a cowboy. He said he gave up skateboarding on his 81st birthday and gave up skiing on his 90th.

He still travels the world to speak to groups. He's been documented on 60 Minutes. Laura Hildenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, has penned the latest biography of Zamperini, which has not yet been released.

As for anything else?

"I've talked to Ron Howard and he's looking at doing a movie script," Zamperini said. "Ron read a book about me and then read a movie script that was done on me. He said the script was way off and he wanted to do one that was more accurate. I agree. The first one wasn't too accurate."

As for Lucky Louie, he will live in Olympic lore, but more importantly as an American hero who never gave up and still teaches hard working values to this day.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Scott McDonald is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.