Last week, while Americans prepared their fireworks for the fourth of July, Louis Zamparini quietly slipped the bonds of this earth at the age of 97. After a 40-day struggle with pneumonia, his body finally surrendered. He was surrounded by his family.
Zamparini started his remarkable journey as a wild youth in Torrance, California. He was constantly on the edge of juvenile detention or jail, a failing student and a troublemaker. Determined to alter his destructive course, he channeled his untamed energy into athletic competition. In 1936, at 19, he set a national interscholastic mile record that stood for 15 years, and became the youngest runner on the U.S. Olympic team in Berlin. His performance was so outstanding in the 5,000 meter that Adolf Hitler asked to meet him.
During World War II he became a bombardier in the Pacific. Assigned to a B-24, popularly known as the “flying brick” he crashed at sea and survived for 47 days on a raft with only rainwater for survival and no protection from the scorching sun. When he and his buddy were washed ashore, they were captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war under torturous conditions in POW camps.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent condolences to the Zamparini family in 1946 when Louie was presumed dead. After the war he returned to his family alive. But he was bitter, angry at God and dreaming of revenge on his captors. He began to drink heavily and again his life was on a destructive course for disaster.
In 1949 his wife compelled him to go with her to a tent in Los Angeles where a young unknown evangelist named Billy Graham was preaching. On the second night, he gave his life to Christ. The transformation was remarkable. When they returned home he immediately poured all the bottles of liquor down the drain. He gathered up his secret stash of girlie magazines and cigarettes and threw them in the trash.
He later forgave his Japanese captors, traveling back to that nation to find his tormentors and personally tell them of his forgiveness. He established Victory Boys Camp for troubled youth and spent the rest of his life helping young men find a way out of their addictions and broken homes.
In 1998, Louis Zamperini returned to Japan to carry the torch in the Nagano Winter Games.
Laura Hillenbrand, the author who wrote Seabiscuit, documented Zamperini’s remarkable life in the biography, Unbroken, published in 2010. It remains a best seller. A movie about his life is scheduled for release this year on Christmas Day.
Hillenbrand commented on Zamperini’s death, "Farewell to the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew. Thank you, Louie, for all you gave to me, to our country, and to the world. I will never forget our last, laughing talk, your singsong 'I love you! I love you!' and the words you whispered to me when you last hugged me goodbye, words that left me in happy tears, words that I will remember forever. I will love you and miss you to the end of my days. Godspeed, sweet Louie."