Thursday, January 1, 2015

Olympian Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, and the Rose Bowl Parade

Last spring a friend lent  me a New York Times bestseller to read written by Laura Hildebrand, called Unbroken which told the story of Louis Zamperini.  Zamperini grew up in an Italian family in California and was quite the troublemaker. To avoid being caught by authorities, he learned to run fast. His older brother encouraged him to turn his life around and make use of his speed in track, which eventually took him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics where his lightening speed made him the fastest American in his event. The elusive Olympic medal beckoned to him for a hopeful 1940 Tokyo Olympics where victory was certain for this man whose speed became reknown and unbelieveably faster each year.
But as we all know, war descended in 1939. Zamperini traded in his running shoes for military gear, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a bombadier. Between missions he continued to run and amazingly increase his time.
In 1943 his plane crashed at sea. Only he and two other crew members survived the crash. One of them died after 33 days drifting at sea. Whereas he insisted on the morbidness of the situation, the more positive Zamperini and pilot Russell Phillips surived 47 days, finally driftin on a Japanese  occupied island.
Zamperini and Phillips finished out the war as POWs. Zamperini was especially abusively targeted by a certain Japanese beast who the POWs nicknamed the Bird. (Since the Bird knew some English, they didn't dare call him what they really thought.) The Bird was intensely disliked and feared by both POWs and fellow Japanese alike. Endurance. Bravery. Courage. Somehow they survived to the end of the war.
Obviously post traumatic stress hindered their return to America in what they hoped would be a normal life as each fell in love with lovely young ladies whom they married as they began new lives. Understandably, certain triggers impede life, such as being served rice for dinner. (As I recall from the book, they could never bring themselves to eat rice again as it was associated with their POW days and the brutish torture they endured.)
Even more hindering to life, was Zamperini's constant nightmares and fall to alcoholism which led to his abusing his wife. Then one day he and his wife attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles where he became a born-again Christian. As incredible as his story of survival in his growing up years and then WWII was, a miracle unfolded as he learned about love and forgiveness in his new life as a Christian.
Zamperini not only devoted his life to Christ but also committed to sharing his faith, with encouragement from Billy Graham. Amazingly he returned to Japan to seek out his previous captors who were interrned in a war crimes prison to tell them he forgave them. As a result, many of his former captors became saved. However the Bird who had most tortured him was not there, because he had disappeared to escape war crime trials.
In 1998 Zamperini was invited to the Nagano Winter Olympics to carry the Olympic torch, not far from one of his former prison camps. I remember watching these Olympics with my kids, since I'm always caught up in the spirit of competition, the history of the games, and the human interest stories of past and present athletes. Here is the link to the CBS documentary (host of the television coverage of the Nagano Olympics) of Zamperini's life, which shows the entire story of his life, far more than the present movie, Unbroken. Included is actual photograhy and video clips of his running days, his Olympic 1936 run, the WWII sites he was at, and his torch run at Nagano.  While there, he tried to meet with the Bird, with whom he wanted to share forgiveness. However the Bird refused to meet with Zamperini, although the Bird did grant an interview with CBS which is included in the previous link, along with details of the torture Zamperini endured at the hands of the Bird.
In 2011, Zamperini wrote his autobiography Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in WWII.   Due to public dubiousness at the claims he  made at surviving such horrific torture, acclaimed author Laura Hildebrand (who wrote Seabiscuit) undertook to write Zamperini's biography and research his claims.  The result is the New York Times Bestseller, Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Her research verified his claims.
On Christmas Day, Unbroken premiered as a movie, which unfortunately left out the most important part of his story, that of redemption.
In May 2014, the Pasadena Rose Bowl Committee decided to honor Louis Zamperini in the 2015 Rose Parade. He was invited to be the Grand Marshal. His life became the theme of the parade: Inspring Stories. 
Zamperini lived his entire life, apart from the war, in the nearby city of Torrance and loved the Rose Bowl Parade, as many of the locals do. With great anticipation he looked forward to both the premiere of the movie and being Grand Marshal of the parade.
Unfortunately, Zamperini passed away in July 2014 at the age of  97. However his memory lives on. The Rose Bowl Parade beautifully honored Zamperini's legacy today. Zamperini was poignantly remembered by his alma mater, the USC Trojans, by a riderless horse, a symbol of a fallen soldier. Zamperini's family rode in the Grand Marshal car (which was expected to be a 1936 Packard). Behind the family was a beautiful float built by Zamperini's hometown of Torrance which not only fully honored his memory with floral reproductions of his running shoes, his WWII plane,  WWII medals and a floral photographic scrapbook page of his life in the Olympics and with Billy Graham along with many other memories. Titled "A Race Well Run" it appropriately won one of the top prizes.
I've always enjoyed the Rose Bowl Parade, but this year's parade is definitely my favorite. The book was most difficult to read, yet my life was touched.  If you've not read Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand yet, I highly recommend it for your 2015 must read list! =)

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