Thursday, June 9, 2022

Notable Californians: A Series (Part 2)


One of my favorite books of all time is Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Zamperini Unbroken:  A World Ware II Story  of Survival, Resilience, and Redeption.   

Although he was born in New York in 1917, Louis Zamperini's parents (both native to Verona in Northern Italy) moved the family to Long Beach, California when he was two years old.  The family moved to Torrance where Louis attended Torrance High School.  He was raised in a strict, devout Catholic household and his family spoke no English when they moved to California making him an easy target for bullies.  He was chased and caught by the police for stealing beer and brought home to his parents for punishment.  His father taught him how to box in self defense.  

Louis was introduced to track by his older brother Pete who was already a star on the school team.  In 9th grade Louis' classmates challenged him to a footrace where he was humiliated by coming in last.  

Pete took Louis on several training runs. Zamperini began winning races, and he was getting much faster and eventually took up distance running. At the end of his freshman year, he finished fifth in the All City C-division 660 yard (600 m) dash.

It was the recognition, nobody in school, except for a few of my buddies, knew my name before I started running. Then, as I started winning races, other kids called me by name. Pete told me I had to quit drinking and smoking if I wanted to do well, and that I had to run, run, run. I decided that summer to go all-out; overnight I became fanatical. I wouldn't even have a milkshake.

After a summer of running in 1932, starting with his first cross-country race, and throughout the last three years of high school, he was undefeated.  He started beating his brother's records. In 1934, he set an interscholastic record for the mile, clocking in at 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds (4m21.2s) at the preliminary meeting to the California state championships. The following week, he won the CIF California State Meet championships with 4m27.8  That record helped him win a scholarship to the University of Southern California. 

In 1936, Zamperini decided to try out for the Olympics. In those days, athletes had to pay their way to the Olympic trials, but since his father worked for the railroad, Louis could get a train ticket free of charge. A group of Torrance merchants raised enough money for the local hero to live on once he got there. The competition for the 1,500 metres spot was fierce that year, with eventual silver medalist Glenn Cunningham, Archie San Romani, and Gene Venzke all challenging to get on the team.

Zamperini did not contest the 1,500 meters; instead, he ran the 5,000 metres. On one of the hottest days of the year during the 1936 North American heat wave in Randalls Island, New York, the race saw co-favorite Norm Bright and several others collapse during the race. It was reported that 40 people died from the heat in Manhattan alone that week With a sprint finish at the end, Zamperini finished in a dead-heat tie against American record-holder Don Lash and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Having qualified at age 19 years, 178 days, he remains the youngest American 5,000 meters qualifier.

Neither Zamperini nor Lash was believed to have much chance of winning the 1936 Olympics 5,000-meter race against world record holder Lauri Lehtinen. Zamperini later related several anecdotes from his Olympic experience, including gorging himself on the boat trip to Europe: "I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich in his life," he said, "and all the food was free. I had not just one sweet roll, but about seven every morning, with bacon and eggs. My eyes were like saucers."  By the end of the trip, Louis Zamperini, in common with most athletes on the ship, had gained a good deal of weight: in Zamperini's case, 12 pounds (5 kg). While the weight gain was not advantageous for his running, it was necessary for his health, as he had lost 15 pounds (7 kg) while training in the summer heat in New York for the Olympic Trials.

Zamperini finished 8th in the 5,000-meter distance event at that Olympics, in the time of 14 minutes 46.8 seconds, behind Finland's Gunnar Höckert's Olympic record time of 14 minutes 22.2 seconds (world record holder Lehtinen was second, and Zamperini's teammate, Lash, 13th). However, his final lap of 56 seconds was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting.  As Zamperini told the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said, "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish."

During his college life at USC, he was part of the Delta Eta chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity (Delta-Eta Chapter). In 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile (~1609 metres) record of 4 minutes 8.3 seconds, despite severe cuts to his shins from competitors attempting to spike him during the race; this record lasted for fifteen years, earning him the nickname "Torrance Tornado."

He had set the U.S. record for the fastest mile by a high schooler and competed at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. And while it was generally considered that Louis Zamperini’s best years as a runner lay ahead, his athletic career was put on hold when the United States entered World War II.

Zamperini entered the U.S. Army Air Corps; his military career would be remembered for generations.

A bombardier in the Pacific theatre, Zamperini flirted with danger on several occasions. During one run, his B-24 was damaged by enemy fire and made an emergency landing. Upon closer inspection, the plane had more than 600 holes from gunfire and shrapnel.

But on a search and rescue mission on May 27, 1943, Zamperini’s plane had two engines fail and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini untangled himself from a mass of wires and floated to the surface, where he discovered a raft, inflated it and rowed over to fellow soldiers Russell Phillips and Francis McNamara. The other eight crew members did not survive.

The trio was lost and afloat at sea, surviving on the few provisions they had, withering away, while desperately trying to catch fish and salvage rainwater. Their raft, scorching in the sunlight, began to wilt, while sharks occasionally scoped them out. Zamperini lost nearly half his body weight. McNamara passed away after 33 days. Zamperini and Phillips two weeks later were captured by the Japanese after floating nearly 2,000 miles to the Marshall Islands.

Unaware that Zamperini had survived, his parents received a message from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, notifying them of their son’s death.  Zamperini spent the next two years as a prisoner of war, tortured many times over, though his status of being Olympian perhaps dissuaded the Japanese from killing him. He credited his athletic training for helping him survive.

“For one thing, you have to learn self-discipline if you are going to succeed as an athlete,” he said. “For another thing, you have to have confidence in yourself and believe that no matter what you’re faced with, you can deal with it — that you just can’t give up. And then there’s the aspect of staying in shape. And humor helped a lot, even in the gravest times.”

Zamperini was freed only when the Japanese surrendered in 1945 and the war ended.

Zamperini wrote two memoirs by the same title, Devil at My Heels. His story rose later to prominence when retold by author Laura Hildebrand in 2010 in the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, which rose to No. 1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list and was made into a movie.

Zamperini returned to Japan in 1998 to run a leg of the Nagano 1998 Olympic Torch Relay.

He passed away in 2014 at age 97.

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