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World War II hero Louis Zamperini enthralls large audience at Rancho Santa Fe event

Paige Vanosky, Connie Pittard, Louis Zamperini, Rev. Jack Baca, Luke Zamperini
Paige Vanosky, Connie Pittard, Louis Zamperini, Rev. Jack Baca, Luke Zamperini

By Kathy Day

Sunday’s Village Viewpoints presentation by World War II hero Louis Zamperini turned out to be a celebration of sorts — of his survival, service and faith as well as about others who have served in America’s military. Oh, and you couldn’t forget his beloved fellow USC Trojans.

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The gathering at the Village Church, which had people lined up well before the 5 p.m. opening of the sanctuary doors, began at 6 p.m. with a CBS segment narrated by Bob Simon shown during the 1998 Nagano Olympics coverage. It recounted the horrors of captivity and cruelty coupled with the forgiveness the young Air Force officer found once he heard the Rev. Billy Graham speak and his joy at carrying the Olympic torch into the village of Naoetsu where he had been imprisoned.

When Zamperini, decked out in a USC baseball cap, a USA Olympic jacket, khakis and athletic shoes, walked out on stage – escorted by his son Lou — the applause was thunderous and the ovation sustained.

Now 96, he kept the audience, ranging from veterans likely close to his age to high school students, on their seats’ edges, telling anecdotes about his captors. At times, you could sense some near tears; other times they laughed at his jokes.

Looking smaller than when he was a rising track star who could perhaps have broken a 4-minute mile had he not been a POW, Zamperini was seated next to Village Church Pastor Jack Baca.

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When he was asked towards the end of the program if he could change anything in his life what it would be, Zamperini looked up and said firmly, “Just try to be a better Christian. Though God has blessed me … I am just an average Christian. God has used my life, but I never knew why until the book” was published.

That book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand,” tells Zamperini’s emotional story in vivid detail. It soon will be translated to film, in a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, who has met with the man whose story she will share.

Since Unbroken’s 2010 publication, Zamperini said he has received thousands of letters from people who also have become Christians or overcome hardships because of his story.

As he recounted bits of his experience and answered questions, Zamperini pulled the audience along with him.

Zamperini grew up in Torrance, Calif., where even the police recognized his athletic talents — in part because they couldn’t catch the young boy who was known to be a local troublemaker — to his glory days as a track star at USC and in the 1936 Olympics. But it was a fateful day in May 1943 when the young second lieutenant was serving as a bombardier in the Air Force where his story becomes legend.

On that day, aboard a B-24 that was known to be frighteningly unreliable, he and his crew crashed into the Pacific while on a mission to find a plane that had been shot down. When he came to, he and two others were the only survivors. They pulled themselves into a raft. Only Zamperini and Russell Phillips survived; their tail-gunner Francis McNamara died on the sixth day on the raft.

After drifting for 47 days, Zamperini and Phillips landed on one of the Marshall Islands, only to be taken captive by Japanese soldiers. That’s where the greater story of survival and resilience began as they faced horrendous treatment at the hands of their captives, particularly one Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Dubbed “The Bird” by his captors, he was particularly tough on Zamperini, the former track star.

The man’s face stuck with Zamperini — through recurring nightmares in prison and after his release. He didn’t understand at first that he had what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, but his post POW experience included reliance on alcohol, rowdy behavior and dreams in which he strangled The Bird.

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It was when he awoke and “had my hands around my wife’s throat,” he said, that he knew something had to change.

Though she had filed for divorce, she attended a Billy Graham program with friends and was taken in by his message. She wanted Zamperini to go to one of the services, but he initially refused, he said.

When she told him she would not get a divorce because of her conversion to Christ, he said he would go along. He went to one session but left. She reiterated she was not getting a divorce and urged him to go to another.

“When people come to the end of their rope … they turn to God,” the old airman said, talking about that night. “By the time I got off my knees, I had forgiven all of the guards and The Bird.”

A younger member of the audience asked how he could do that.

“There is only one reason,” he answered. “…May I therefore be in Christ. I was a new person. It was a great feeling.”

There were lighter moments, too, such as when he talked about how Hitler – who he met during the ’36 Olympics — had a bizarre appearance, saying that he “looked like a comedian … If he had come to Hollywood, Stan and Laurel (Hardy) would have been out of a job.”

There was also his description of walking into a room with six Japanese officers, with one saying he, too, was a USC graduate.

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“He was the most obnoxious one,” Zamperini said. “I couldn’t believe he was a Trojan” and figured “he had to be a third-year transfer from UCLA.”

Loud laughter followed.

One of the questioners wondered how Hillenbrand had written such a powerful book, having met him only once in seven years.

“She’s a genius,” he answered, explaining that she started by asking him for the names of 50 college buddies and 50 war buddies who could talk about him. “She’s perfection.”

When they met after talking for seven years on the phone, he said it was like “dad and daughter. … It was wonderful.”

Zamperini’s warm and endearing personality with a tough crust came through when he turned the tables on the audience, asking first if there were any WWII vets in the crowd. A smattering of hands went up, followed by a standing ovation.

The scene was repeated as he asked about Vietnam vets, Korean War vets, and those who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, he added, he just couldn’t ignore the USC Trojans in the audience – which brought more laughter and applause.

When the night ended, Jack Piegza, a Bishop’s School senior from La Jolla, who has read “Unbroken” and was there with his family, seemed to sum up the audience reaction. He said he was particularly taken in by Zamperini’s “outlook on life” despite having endured the POW camp. “I loved how he turned to God.”

The Viewpoints event was co-presented by the Village Church and the RSF Foundation. Visit

www.villageviewpoints.com

.

Learn more about Louis Zamperini:

www.louiszamperini.net/

See the CBS video:

www.louiszamperini.net/video.php

Read: “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand; “Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II” by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin.


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