Published on April 1, 2011
If anybody knows the secret to life, it’s Torrance’s very own Louis Zamperini, who has captivated the world by the miraculous ways in which he’s cheated death.
The secret, if there is one, seems to be this: Stay cheerful through it all.
On Thursday, the 94-year-old subject of a best-selling biography enthralled students at his alma mater, Torrance High School.
With the stooped-over posture and comic timing of Bob Hope, Zamperini made light of some of the darkest things imaginable: what it was like to kill a shark with his bare hands in order to survive, what it was like to shake the hand of Adolf Hitler, what it was like to float adrift at sea in a life raft for 47 days with no food, what it was like to be a prisoner of war.
But he also waxed philosophical, saying he prefers the term “Hardy Generation” to “Greatest Generation,” the moniker coined by Tom Brokaw to describe Zamperini’s age group.
“To be hardy is to overcome adversity, and we had a lot of adversity in my day,” he said, speaking in the school’s auditorium. “Each adversity you overcame made you more and more hardy.”
Zamperini, long the pride and joy of Torrance — where an airport landing strip and high school football stadium are named in his honor — has become a national hero of sorts thanks to the book “Unbroken,” penned by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling novel “Seabiscuit.”
By now, thanks largely to the book, his story is world famous.
Zamperini grew up the son of Italian immigrants, living at 2028 Gramercy Ave. in Torrance. He began the first chapter of his life as a hooligan, ditching classes, stealing bread from bakeries and hopping freight trains. But his older brother, Pete, a track coach, pulled him aside one day and slapped sense into him, telling him it was time to grow up.
Aware of Louis’ running talent, Pete encouraged him to try out for the track team. Louis not only made the team, he became known as the “Torrance Tornado,” winning meets and breaking national records. He ran his way to a scholarship at USC and into the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he performed well, though won no medals.
Then, like so many other promising young men of the era, the Tornado enlisted with the military and found himself serving on a B-24 bomber in World War II. In April 1943, he was among a dozen men on a B-24 that nose-dived in the Pacific Ocean. Only three men survived.
“It felt like someone hit me in the forehead with a sledgehammer,” Zamperini recalled in a documentary that the students watched Thursday, referring to the plane’s head-on collision with the deep blue.
Zamperini and the two others took refuge on a circular life raft. From the perspective of a plane, it was practically invisible — but a germ on the great expanse. The men soon ran out of food and water, and literally killed sharks and seabirds to survive.
On at least one occasion, they were strafed by the machine gunfire of an enemy plane, which miraculously missed.
Newspapers in Torrance and across the country declared the men dead. By the time the raft made landfall on a remote island 47 days later, only two men remained. They were so weak they had to crawl onto the sandy beach. Zamperini weighed just 65 pounds.
As luck would have it, the island was an outpost of the Japanese Army, which had a presence there. The two Americans were taken into custody, and served as POWs for 2 1/2 years.
Speaking to the students after the movie, USC ball cap perched atop his head, Zamperini recalled one of the most emotional moments of his life. It was during the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Zamperini was running with the Olympic torch, alongside the labor camp in which he toiled. Lining the street were throngs of Japanese fans cheering him on. Later on, at a ceremony, a Japanese official asked Zamperini if anything good came out of his incarceration as a POW in Japan.
“I said, `Yeah, it prepared me for 55 years of married life,”‘ he said, cracking up the crowd. He added that his wife later saw a video of the ceremony. “I had a hassle getting in the house.”
Zamperini went on to describe his encounters with a team of interrogators. The most hard-nosed among them happened to also be a graduate of USC.
“This guy was the most obnoxious of the six,” he said. “I couldn’t believe he was a Trojan. … I finally came to this conclusion: He had to be a third-year transfer from UCLA.”
His prepared remarks were brief, but the jokes kept flowing during a question-and-answer session with the students, who stood up and shouted their questions toward the podium on stage. After each question, Zamperini, who is hard of hearing, cocked his head while the nearby student-body president who organized the event — Danish Akmal — repeated the question in his ear.
“How did you feel meeting Adolf Hitler?”
“It was no big deal at the time,” Zamperini said, referring to how the notorious dictator, impressed by Zamperini’s strong finish in the 5,000-meter dash, demanded to meet the athlete. “We always thought that he was what we call a dangerous comedian. With that mustache and the mannerisms, he would have done great in Hollywood.”
For the rest of the day, Zamperini — once the school’s student-body president — was again the big man on campus. While eating lunch in the cafeteria, a choir sang for him. He signed books for hordes of fawning students.
After lunch, Zamperini and an entourage of organizers made their way to the student quad, where the drum line and a cheer squad performed for him. Not long after, a crowd swelled around him, consisting mostly of girls, who were jostling to take a photo with him.
“He’s so cute!” gushed Jordan Brown, a junior.
“To have the will to live for that long — for longer than a month on a boat, stranded, nothing to eat, just like, sharks to kill,” marveled sophomore Saige Shive. “That’s God, all the way.”
As late as this week, the book, which soared to No. 2 on the New York Times best-sellers list, ranked No. 1 on nonfiction best-seller lists for independent bookstores around Southern California, according to the website L.A. Observed. Universal Studios has purchased the rights to the book, and actor James Franco may play the lead, Zamperini said.
Even in old age, Zamperini has lived an active life. He not only skied until age 91, he took up skateboarding at 65, and took his last ride on a board at age 81 on Gower Street in Hollywood, the city where he now lives.
“I work with kids,” he explained. “What kids do, I do — you get closer to them. And I like a challenge.”
Zamperini said the secret to longevity can be found in the Bible: “Have a cheerful countenance all the time.”
“Even if I go to a funeral, I have a cheerful attitude,” he said. “After all, their problems are all over.”