Perhaps you’ve heard of him, perhaps not. Louis Zamperini has had fame, lost it and seen it restored more than once. That happens when you are 94 years old and must be re-introduced to succeeding generations.
Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, then an Olympic distance runner who competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany (he met Adolf Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels), then an Army Air Corps enlistee.
Louis crashed in the Pacific after a rescue plane developed engine trouble. He floated for 47 days on a raft before being picked up by a Japanese warship. He and his surviving buddies were taken to a prison camp where they lived in subhuman conditions, suffering unimaginable physical and mental torture.
Louis’ incredible story of “survival, resilience, and redemption,” has been brilliantly told in Laura Hillenbrand’s latest book, “Unbroken.” I read all 398 pages in two sittings. For myself, the son of a World War II veteran, whose four uncles also served, it is another of those “greatest generation” books popularized by Tom Brokaw. Reading it reinforces one’s pride in being an American and deepens the appreciation one feels for those who gave their lives so that we could live ours.
On a recent visit to Washington, I asked Louis if he was able to call up vivid memories of his friends who died in the plane crash and the ones who subsequently died in the prison camp. He told me, “The memories never fade. It’s like indelible ink. When you go through an intense period like we did, it’s branded on your heart and mind.”
When he thinks about those who died and those with whom he served, does Memorial Day make his memories even more vivid? “You have buddies in college, buddies on the Olympic team, but there’s something about combat buddies that it’s hard to explain.” He can never forget and he doesn’t want to.
Louis says he recently read about “a kid who came back from Afghanistan about three months ago. They fixed his leg up and told him ‘Well, you can get out of the service now’ and he told them, ‘no, I want to go back to Afghanistan to be with my buddies.’ That’s the way it is in war. It’s altogether different from athletics and close friends. My buddies were a pilot, co-pilot and navigator.”
I asked Laura Hillenbrand about this much-chronicled generation. What does she think shaped it? “What struck me about these people,” she begins, “is they had all gone through the Depression … and while that was very difficult, it was like they were being forged in fire. I think the men and women who came out of the Depression were made of sterner stuff than people are today. And it made them capable of getting through what they had to get through in the war. It gave them a sense of purpose; it gave them fortitude; it gave them an ability to endure. I think that may be the biggest difference between that generation and now. We have had it easier. We have expectations we will be given certain things and things will come without sacrifice. That generation didn’t have that.”
What would Hillenbrand say this Memorial Day to those who have lost loved ones in war? “I think the sacrifices that are made by fighting men and women are among the greatest you can make in your life. This is an extraordinarily meaningful way to spend your life, whether you survive or not. Some of the most beautifully liberating things in our history have been done by fighting men and women. I hope there is some condolence for those who have lost someone that their loved one was lost in the service of something so grand as what the military stands for.”
“Unbroken” has spent 10 weeks at number one and is currently number seven on the New York Times Best Sellers List. It deserves to be in every American home and Louis’ story should be in every American heart.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist and author.