Thursday, July 3, 2014

Louis Zamperini (1917-2014): Unbroken

This post is a bit of a deviation from normal running posts, but today Louie Zamperini, Olympic distance runner turned  WWII POW passed away at the age of 97.  A few years ago, I read Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken, which traces Louie's inspiring story, a true testament to the human ability to endure most anything.  Louis survives a plane crash, sharks and strafings and 47 days in a raft, only to end up being captured by the Japanese.  Things only keep getting worse for Louie, but somehow he perseveres and survives.

Shortly after I read the book, generous local veterans donated a class set of the book for my Military History students. We spend twenty minutes or so a day reading the book and his story never gets old. My students love the book and as a teacher,  I love to hear them ask if they can read more.  For some of them, this is the first book they have actually wanted to read and during the semester, Louie becomes part of our class.

After a test this year, I gave my students an impromptu extra credit assignment, to write a letter to Louie.  I happened to have kept the letters, so I wanted to share a few excerpts today in memory of Mr. Zamperini.  Excuse the grammar and organization as they were written spur of the moment with no opportunity to make corrections.  (And if you are reading this blog, you are probably a runner.  If you haven't read Unbroken, it's a great book and the author spends the first part talking about how running saved Louie, which many of us can relate to.  It also puts all our self-inflicted suffering in perspective and makes giving up a bit harder, too.)  Here are the excerpts:

Dear Louie Zamperini, 
      I was wanting to write you and let you know how incredibly stunning your story is...You are really an amazing person and I will always remember this story and keep to myself that the human mind is almost impossible to break and the resilience that you have shown will forever signify the true meaning of perseverance. Your strengths will influence a nation. As we stand united, you have shown us that that no matter who you are are where you're from, you can remain Unbroken.

Dear Louis Zamperini,

After reading the book about your life, I've realized the strength and endurance the human body can withstand. I have so much respect for you and your family. You have taught me a lot about what it means to keep faith and never give up. I am currently enlisted in the US Marine Corps and I plan on serving my country in whatever way I am needed. I know I will probably never have to go through the experiences that you did, but if anything ever goes bad, I will remember you and your story. You
were stronger than I could ever be and you are a great role model.

Your heroism and leadership has been a great influence on me and I hope I could have been half as brave as you were in that situation. You put others before yourself, risking your life in the process. You defied the Japanese rules and guards, proving to everyone that it could be done. You endured beatings that were so severe that I really can't even begin to understand. Through it all, you kept your dignity and faith. You never stopped believing that you could make it through the war, which is more than many others could say. There are plenty of other stories of delinquent children overcoming the odds and doing great things, but your story has had the greatest impact on my life. I think everyone needs to hear your story.

You are a great hero, Mr. Zamperini. I will carry what you have taught me throughout my life and be the best that I can be. I hope your story has influenced others in the same way it has me. Thank you for your service to our country and for sharing your story.

Hello Louie,

 I've read your book with one of my classes at school and I can honestly say it's the most inspiring story of perseverance and hope I've honestly ever read. You were pushed well beyond the breaking
point but somehow your inner resilience was unleashed and your hatred for The Bird pushed you to survive and provide hope for all of the POWs around you. I never knew how terrible the conditions were in foreign POW camps until I read this story. I knew things would be unpleasant but this was far worse than unpleasant, it was some of the most unimaginable things to put a human through yet you rose above all the challenges. Your story has inspired so many and shows us how far mental strength can get you in bad situations...

Hello Louie,

We just finished reading your biography "Unbroken" in my history class and it has got to be one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read.  From start to finish there was not a second I wanted to
stop reading it... Reading this book made our class feel like we sort of know you in a way.  I could not come close to imagining how hard it was to go through what you did...

After everything you had been through and dealt with, you turned to God and found a way to forgive them and I believe not many people would be able to do a thing like that.  Your story has made me realize that there is always someone who has it worse than you so don't take what you have for granted and cherish every moment you have with friends and family, you never know when you will see them again.  I just want to thank you for having the courage to share your story with the world, thank you Louie.

Dear  Louis Zamperini,

Your story is incredible. The determination, fight, and calmness that you showed during your difficult times in World War Two is truly inspiring. I always knew that POW camps were rough, but is never realized how horrific it actually was. Hearing about the atrocities that you and your comrades had to endure has given me a new level of respect and gratification for veterans and current members of the armed services. It even hits home even more because most soldiers were not much older than I currently am. I connected more with your story because I am also a runner... (At) the Berlin Olympic race where you were falling behind, but still had a huge kick really showed how giving up is not in your personality and that you had perseverance. Just from seeing a few of your personality traits that were portrayed in the book, make me believe that you were built to make it through the war alive and that you weren't going to let the enemy "beat" you, just like you didn't let competitors beat you in competitions. Once again, I am truly grateful for what you and your comrades went through and I can only hope that no one will have to see what you saw or go through what you went through again. Also, they way that God spoke to you and caused you to change your life is very inspiring. Thank you for your service to our Country. If it wasn't for you and other members of the armed services, I would not be where I am today. To me, all members of the armed services are heroes.