Honoring Louis Zamperini – Reflections on a great American hero
“Lucky Louie” Zamperini looked out onto an excited crowd in the St. Louis Jet Linx hangar during “A Tribute to the Greatest Generation,” The excitement was tangible and the pomp overflowing as a crowd to 700 gathered in the newly opened hangar, which had been completely transformed for the event.
Jet Linx St. Louis invited Louis Zamperini to be the guest of honor for a WW II Honor Flight to Washington, DC, but Louie could not travel, as he was just beginning his final battle with pneumonia. Louis Zamperini, who was a World War II prisoner of war survivor as well as former Olympic distance runner, died July 3, at the age of 97.
Kari Johnson, Director of Safety at Jet Linx Aviation had the privilege of meeting and talking with Louie in 2001. This is his personal account:
Eldon Willis, Petersen Aviation’s General Manager, came into my office with a spry man in his 80’s and said I had to meet Louie. Eldon taught Louie how to fly after WW II right there at Van Nuys Airport. Both men were Christians and best friends. Eldon wanted me to hear Louie’s story that began when he was a starving, punk kid living in Southern California. Louie could not know the Torrance Airport would later bear his name, Zamperini Field (KTOA).
For six-hours, bright-eyed Louie, wearing running shoes and a smile, talked and I asked questions about his days as a B-24 crewmember in the Pacific, running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and about Pete, his older brother, who started his track career instead of being a thief and meeting a little known preacher named, Billy Graham. Then the “oh my word” stories started… two-months and 2,000 miles floating in a raft only to be rescued by the Japanese – taken to a camp where he was physically and mentally tortured until the end of the war. Mind-boggling stories as a POW.
Why does one person survive, while another gives up? Confronting challenges that would cause most of us to surrender, Louie always persevered and always prevailed. He spent the better part of his life sharing the message that you could do the same. His example of grace, dignity and resilience inspired everyone lucky enough to know him, myself included. Goodnight Louie, you are in God’s Grace!
Louie’s life was the subject of Lauren Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” a #1 New York Times bestseller. A film directed by Angelina Jolie, also titled “Unbroken,” will be released by Universal Pictures on Christmas Day 2014.