Beating the Odds All The Way: Louis Zamperini

Beating the Odds All The Way - Louis Zamperini

I was a rotten kid. My excitement came from seeing what I could get away with.
– Louis Zamperini

As the GI Generation and the Silent Generation leave us, we run the risk of losing their stories and the people who lived those years not as historical figures, but as those who made those historical figures what they are. The men and women of those years, whether in the live conflicts in multiple theaters and the people at home were no less the face of World War Two than MacArthur or Eisenhower, Roosevelt or Truman. Their stories are remarkable, and the stories of their lives after the war can be even more so.  Louis Zamperini was one of those men, and he beat the odds so many times that before he was in high school, he earned the nickname of “Lucky Louie.”

I couldn’t speak English. I’m in kindergarten, and the only reason I got through to first grade is because I cheated.
– Louis Zamperini

Louis had a rough start as the child of Italian immigrant parents in Olean, New York and then two years later when the family moved to Torrance, California. They spoke no English at all, and young Louis was bullied in school so much that his father taught him how to box. Before long, Louis was “beating the tar” out of them. He was hotheaded, rebellious, and relished hopping moving freight trains. He was going to end up in trouble if something didn’t change in his life, Louis was running the risk of ending up like other young men during the Great Depression – with no job, education, or hope for a future.

That’s one thing you learn in sports. You don’t give up; you fight to the finish.
– Louis Zamperini

It was his older brother Pete who got him into running track at Torrance High School, and at the end of his freshman year – after quitting drinking and smoking – he finished 5th in the All City C-Division and the whole school knew his name. Running opened doors for him, not only in high school, but with a scholarship to USC, and then to the 1936 Olympic trials. He succeeded despite a heatwave at the field that dropped seasoned runners in their tracks, and went onto Berlin where he roomed with Jesse Owens, and met Adolph Hitler.

All I want to tell young people is that you’re not going to be anything in life unless you learn to commit to a goal. You have to reach deep within yourself to see if you are willing to make the sacrifices.
– Louis Zamperini

It was after he enlisted in the army that his life took another turn. Sent to the Army Air Corps, he was a lieutenant on May 27th 1943 when his bomber developed mechanical trouble and went down over the ocean. That began an ordeal that would last until the Japanese surrender in 1945. His life story became a book and then a 20104 film, both called “Unbroken.” Adrift at sea with two other survivors, Louis lost much of his body mass to malnutrition, another man died of his injuries, and they were strafed by Japanese planes, and then taken prisoner. He endured unimaginable treatment, torture, hunger, and brutality until the war ended and he could go home. That he survived at all is remarkable.

All I did was pray to God, every day. In prison camp, the main prayer was, ‘Get me home alive, God, and I’ll seek you and serve you.’ I came home, got wrapped up in the celebration, and forgot about the hundreds of promises I’d made to God.
– Louis Zamperini

After the war and returning home, Louis needed help with the next chapters of his life. He married and became a father, but nightmares of his ordeal and heavy drinking took a toll in a time where soldiers faced enormous pressures to conform and return to civilian life. PTSD was decades away as a diagnosis, and he could not forget the years of brutal treatment as a POW. At his wife’s urging, he attended one of Billy Graham’s crusades, and remembered his prayers to God during weeks adrift at sea and years in POW camps, and committed his life to God.

If you hate somebody, it’s like a boomerang that misses its target and comes back and hits you in the head. The one who hates is the one who hurts.
– Louis Zamperini

He gave up skateboarding at 81 and skiing at 91, but between those years, he was an outspoken evangelical advocate for youth and seniors, and a striking speaker for an act that changed his life – forgiveness. He went to Japan in 1950, visiting his former captors who had been imprisoned for war crimes, and gave them his forgiveness. He carried the Olympic torch to the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan – just a short distance from one of the camps where he had been held over 50 years earlier. Though he passed in July of 2014, his story is more than a movie and an overcoming the odds, but a powerful tale of the strength and grace it takes to forgive.

Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It’s not so strange. Where there’s still life, there’s still hope. What happens is up to God.
– Louis Zamperini

The moral core of a human being can be tested in adversity, but fail when that adversity is removed. What is remarkable is not survival, but the moral courage and grace exhibited by a man who lost it all, and then came back and triumphed over the wounds to his heart and soul. Louis Zamperini not only survived unimaginable odds, he faced his demons to build a successful life and business, and dedicated his life to helping others to overcome their own demons and to heal. This grace and humility, should be remembered as his legacy to us.

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