Louis Zamperini: the last mile of an Italian American hero

Louis Zamperini, Italian American hero, Italian culture, Italian heritage, Italian american, Italian news, Italian traditions

Louis Silvie "Louie" Zamperini was an American World War II prisoner of war survivor, inspirational speaker, and Olympic distance runner.

 

Captain Louis Silvie Zamperini was about 26 years old when he died for the first time. In 1943, he was serving as a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force, flying over the Pacific Ocean on a rescue mission, when the plane crashed due to malfunctioning. Only 3 out of 11 crewmembers survived, remaining adrift for 47 days with little food and water on a life raft, at the mercy of sharks and storms.
 
Eventually, they reached the Marshall Island where they were captured by the Japanese, imprisoned, and tortured until the end of the War in August 1945. 
 
Louis Zamperini was one of them. He was first declared “missing at sea” and then “killed in action” by the U.S. Military. When he finally returned home, he was welcomed as a hero with medals and honors.
 John Naber and Louis Zamperini. Photo by Michael Callopy 

 John Naber and Louis Zamperini. Photo by Michael Callopy 

 
Among them, Torrance Airport and High School’s stadium, as well as USC’s track and field stadium in Los Angeles, were named after Capt. Zamperini. He was also presented two honorary degrees in Humane Letters from Azusa Pacific University and Bryant University, and he was chosen to serve as Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade that kicks off the college football playoff game in California. 
 
As a matter of fact, before enlisting in the Air Force, Louis Zamperini was an athlete and Olympic racer. He was born in Olean, New York, in 1917, but two years later he and his family moved to Torrance, California. His parents emigrated to the U.S. from a small town near Verona, in northern Italy, in the early 1900s. In high school, Louis couldn’t speak English and became a target for bullies.
 
Therefore, in order to keep him out of trouble, his brother Pete encouraged him to join the track team. He did it, and in 1934 he set a national high school record in the mile at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that earned him a scholarship to the USC and a qualification to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, in the 5000 meters. Even if he finished 8th in that event, his final lap was so fast - 56 seconds – that it caught the attention of Adolf Hitler himself, who wanted to shake the hand of such a promising athlete. Two years later, “Torrance Tornado” – this was Zamperini’s nickname in college – set a national collegiate mile record that stood for 15 years. He graduated from USC in 1940, and soon after he went to war against Germany. 
 
The athletic training, based on strong discipline and self-confidence, certainly helped Louis stand both the physical and psychological torment as a war prisoner. Even if he had survived torture, that horror inevitably affected his personal life: he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was obsessed by nightmares featuring his torturer, Japanese prison guard and war criminal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird”.
 
Thanks to his wife Cynthia Applewhite, who was very close to evangelist Billy Graham, Louis was converted again and became a Christian inspirational speaker in Los Angeles. In particular, he preached forgiveness, traveling around the USA and even to Japan, where he met and forgave many of his persecutors. The only one who didn’t apologize for his crimes and didn’t want to meet Zamperini in Nagano - where he was invited to bear the torch at the 1998 Winter Olympic games - was “The Bird”.
Nevertheless, the power of forgiveness restored his peace of mind, and so he died, peacefully. Sadly enough, this time it was for real. 
 
On July 2, 2014, Louis Silvie Zamperini passed away in his Los Angeles home at the age of 97, just a few months before the release of the movie Unbroken. Directed by renowned Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, it is an adaptation of Zamperini’s biography written by Laura Hillenbrand in 2010 and entitled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The actress and filmmaker commented on Zamperini’s death: “It is a loss impossible to describe.”
 
Pneumonia succeeded where accident, starvation, and torture had failed, but his family stated that he died peacefully. Despite all the harsh experiences that he faced during the War, his fighting spirit never broke: he inspired the life of many people and became a great ambassador of forgiveness and patriotism. Louis Zamperini’s incredibly fascinating story throughout the 20th century will be justly celebrated and remembered as an example for future generations. 
 
This is how his close friend and Olympic medalist, John Naber, remembers him: “I met Louis in 1983 and I was amazed by how energetic he was and how interested he was in helping other people. Louis had a great sense of humor, and delighted in making other people laugh. He never considered himself as a hero, but only as a survivor. He often spoke about the value of preparation, hardiness and forgiveness. He was very proud of his Italian American heritage, his membership on the US Olympic team and his time as a student at USC.  
 
Most notably, he often spoke about his relationship with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I was fortunate to light his torch as part of two Olympic torch relays, but it is Louis who sparked my life and inspired me on how to behave as a Trojan, Olympians and Christian.”

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