WW II vet, Olympian shares his story with students
Thanks to the death-defying resilience -- and fast feet -- of 95-year-old American veteran and Olympian Louis Zamperini, students at Barrington High School Tuesday went from reading about World War II to being one degree of separation from Adolf Hitler and one of Japan's most notorious war criminals.
Zamperini, the subject of author Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-seller, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," and an upcoming movie adaptation, shared his life story with students and fellow veterans Tuesday.
The appearance was arranged by a Barrington-area acquaintance, Fran Houlihan, and the local Rotary Club.
Growing up in Torrance, Calif., Zamperini's running speed helped channel his energies from a life of juvenile delinquency to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He finished eighth in the 5,000 meters, but his final burst of speed caught the eye of Hitler, who later insisted on meeting the young American and shaking his hand.
Zamperini had another run-in with authorities in Berlin that summer when he was threatened with being shot by soldiers after climbing up a flagpole to steal a Nazi flag as a souvenir.
Years later, instead of a return appearance at the canceled 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, Zamperini was enlisting in the military to fight the Axis powers -- particularly Japan in the Pacific.
In 1943, while searching for a lost aircraft, the plane Zamperini was aboard malfunctioned and crashed into the ocean, killing eight of the 11 men inside.
The three survivors made their way to a yellow life raft where one of them ate all their chocolate rations in a day. Though they were careful with their water supply, that too ran out.
While fighting off large sharks, Zamperini helped feed the other men by catching smaller sharks as he'd learned to do in a survival seminar. And he fed their minds by serving up imaginary Italian dishes as the sun beat down and the rain wouldn't fall.
One of the men died along the way, and it wasn't until the 47th day that Zamperini and his fellow survivor washed ashore on the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands.
And then their troubles really began.
Threatened not only with execution but barely livable conditions on the island prison camp, they eventually were shipped to Japan. There they came under the jurisdiction of the sadistic Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed "The Bird," who made Gen. Douglas MacArthur's list of 40 most-wanted war criminals in Japan after the war ended.
Zamperini recalls being personally beaten on an almost daily basis by Watanabe, as well as being forced to hold a wooden beam over his head with his weakened arms for 37 minutes before Watanabe tired of the demonstration and punched him in the stomach.
Even after being rescued after the war, Zamperini's struggles continued. He couldn't easily get clothes and other supplies because he'd been listed as deceased instead of registered as a prisoner of war. Reuters and Time magazine reporters who listened to his story helped restore his status on the way home.
Zamperini married Cynthia Applewhite upon returning home, but found himself tortured by violent dreams and eventually alcoholism. He credits Christian minister the Rev. Billy Graham and the forgiveness he encouraged for curing him of both maladies.
In 1998, Zamperini returned to Japan to carry the Olympic torch part of the way to Nagano, near the prison camp where he'd endured so much suffering.
"That last run was the slowest race of my life, but I must admit it was the most emotional," Zamperini said.
He met and forgave many of the guards he'd known at the prison camp, but Watanabe -- who died about eight years ago -- refused to see him.
Speaking to a city council while in Japan, Zamperini was asked the awkward question of whether he attributed anything positive in his life to his two years as a prisoner of war. He joked that it had been good preparation for 55 years of marriage.
Zamperini says he tries to stay as fit as he can, but he had to give up skateboarding at 81 and skiing at 91.
He said he's often asked who he'd like to see play him in the movie.
"I said Boris Karloff, but he's dead," he laughed.
He sent a thrill through his teenage audience, however, when he revealed that actor Ryan Gosling is author Hillenbrand's first choice.
Students and community members who came to see him Tuesday marveled at Zamperini's accomplishments then and now.
"It was such an amazing story," said Barrington resident John Williams, who came to the high school Tuesday because he'd read the book. "Here's a guy who did something unbelievable."
Elizabeth McGrath of Port Barrington, a member of the Barrington Rotary Club, recently read a Time magazine article on Zamperini and now plans to read the whole book. She said her own father is a sharp-minded, 91-year-old World War II veteran, but that Zamperini looked like he could still run laps around him.
Student Jack Luby said it was cool to hear firsthand from a veteran who endured and overcame so much while only in his 20s.
"It was hard to imagine myself doing something like that in just a few years," Luby said.