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Lest we forget

Louis Zamperini always felt as though the devil was nipping at his heels. A gang leader and juvenile delinquent pugilist, it was not the devil, but the local constabulary who was chasing him then.

Zamperini was born in Olean, NY, in January 1917. His parents moved to Terrance, CA, in the 1920s where young Zamperini was raised, along with an older brother, Pete, and two sisters. In an attempt to keep his restless and rambunctious brother out of trouble, Pete got him interested in the school track team.

He quickly became a star. He won every event he entered as freshman on the 1932 Torrance High track team and set international scholastic running records for the mile in 1934. His 4:21 time in the mile landed him a scholarship at the University of Southern California, where he qualified as the youngest American on the 1936 U.S. Olympic Team. In that famous Berlin Olympiad where Jesse Owens won four gold medals, Zamperini ran the unfamiliar 5,000-meter event, made it to the final and was the top American finisher, although he was out of medal contention. It earned him an audience with Adolph Hitler.

Zamperini returned to California and enlisted in the Army. He wanted to be an infantry officer, but an administration mix up send him to Texas for aviation training. At first, he hated flying but soon came to like it. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in August 1942 and was transferred to the 30th Group of the U.S. Air Force, Hawaii. He was a bombardier and flew 600 plus air rescue missions.

Early on May 27, 1943, they were on a recue mission to find a B-25 that had made a forced landing. As they searched in vain, their two port engines died on them and their plane plunged uncontrollably into the Pacific. Of the eleven airmen, only three survived the violent landing in the ocean. Zamperini, the pilot, Russell Phillips, and tail gunner MacNamara made it to a life raft. Thus began day one of 47 frightful days at sea. On day 27, they survived a staffing by a Japanese plane. A week later, the youngest survivor, MacNamara, took his last breath and was buried at sea. Day 47 they were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat off the Marshall Islands. Severely weakened by the ordeal at sea, another trial awaited them in captivity.

They were separated and Zamperini was originally kept on Kwajalein, where he met a Japanese officer who had gone to college in California and knew of Zamperini’s USC track record. This seemed to work against him. He was brutalized and told he would be executed. They shipped him to Japan’s mainland where the worst awaited him. The bomber crews were considered “special prisoners” and were beaten regularly and fed insect infested rice balls. Then one day, all the guards walked away from the camp. Soon American B-29s roared overhead and the war was over.

Zamperini weighed less than 100 pounds as he headed home. He tried his best to fit into a routine, even making a brief attempt to quality for the 1948 Olympics, but failed miserably. He became very despondent and began drinking. His wife got him to attend one of Rev. Billy Graham’s sermons in Los Angeles and he left a changed man.

Since that night, Zamperini worked in ministry giving motivational talks and serving his community. Even his running career continued. He carried the Olympic torch during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. On his 81st birthday, he ran the final kilometer not far from one of the camps where he was once held prisoner.

I imagine the brightest crowns that are worn in heaven have been tried, smelted, polished and glorified through the furnace of tribulation. Many of our service men and women face such tribulations daily and then find it hard to fit in when it’s all over with. Please keep them in your prayers.

Charles R. Pearson
Chaplain
Malvern Legion Post 375

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