While addressing Team Edwards during a Wingman Day resilience training event Dec. 10, he shared his personal testimony of how his life transformed from a childhood filled with mischief and rebellion into an inspirational story of faith, hope, caring for others and never giving up.
“Mr. Zamperini is such a humble hero. He is very frank about his weaknesses and faithful to his beliefs. He is truly a hero who has found hope beyond himself.
Part of integrity means owning up to the times when we need help, which includes claiming failures and learning from them. I think a mark of good integrity is reaching out for help when you need it,” said Col. Dan Daetz, 412th Test Wing vice commander.
“That means being real, not pretending that you have it all together. That gives you the right attitude of serving your friends, coworkers and family members by recognizing your own weaknesses. By being real, just like Mr. Zamperini, people will know they can be real with you because you’re not putting on a false image,” he continued.
It doesn’t get any more real than Louis Zamperini and his knack for thievery and trouble as a young boy. At an early age, Zamperini quickly became an experienced runner, as he often found himself sprinting from the local police.
Learning to channel his natural athleticism, Zamperini became a skilled runner and attended the University of Southern California.
He then competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he gained the attention of Adolf Hitler for running the last lap of the 5,000 meter race in just 56 seconds. While in Germany, Zamperini decided that he would enjoy a souvenir and while in the process of stealing a Nazi flag, he once again found himself being chased by the authorities.
Zamperini, who finished in 8th place at the 1936 Olympics, began looking ahead to the opportunity to compete again in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. He had no idea those games would never take place and that his time in Japan would change his life forever, in a dramatically different way than he had previously expected.
As a world-class athlete, perseverance and the notion of never giving up had already been ingrained in Zamperini. However, during his time serving as a bombardier in the United States Army Air Forces during WWII, his faith and commitment to those principles would be tested to the limit.
“This incredible 95 year-old man, who started life as a rascal and a sprinter, thought his purpose in life was to run really fast. But, as time went on, he pressed on and proved himself to be much more of a “marathon man,” one who has endured things far beyond anything we could imagine,” said Daetz.
In 1943, Zamperini and his fellow B-24 crew members set out to conduct a rescue mission for a B-25 that had gone down in the Pacific Ocean. During the mission, his aircraft experienced mechanical malfunctions and crashed into the sea, killing eight of the 11 crew members.
After drifting more than 1,000 nautical miles over the course of 47 days and losing an additional crew member, Zamperini and pilot Russell Allen Phillips reached the Marshall Islands where they were captured by the Japanese Navy and taken to Kwajalein, known then as “Execution Island.”
While at Kwajalein, Zamperini faced an interrogation panel of Japanese officers and came face to face with a fellow University of Southern California alumnus, who had become the lead Japanese interrogator of all prisoners of war.
“Out of the six [Japanese] officers he was the most obnoxious. I couldn’t believe he was a Trojan. We believe in excellency in education, excellency in sports, excellency in morals. I finally had to come to the conclusion he was a third year transfer from UCLA,” joked Zamperini.
For 30 months, Zamperini was held as a POW. During the last year, he was tortured and beaten by Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird,” who would later be named among Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted Japanese war criminals.
It was during Zamperini’s most trying times that he turned to faith, hope and helping his fellow man. His spiritual state saw him through being adrift at sea, while battling sharks and machine gun attacks and then allowed him to survive the many tormenting encounters with Watanabe.
“A team of individuals who complement and support each other can achieve more than each of us can as individuals, much like what occurred in the POW camp. The men survived by leaning on each other, leaning on their faith, leaning on strength beyond themselves. That’s how they endured,” said Daetz.
Zamperini made a decision to persevere, fight back and help those in need. He stepped up and served as an exemplary Wingman.
“I’ve never thought that there was anything I couldn’t overcome. You just make a decision to never give up, keep fighting back, be resolute,” said Zamperini.
When the war finally ended, Zamperini had high hopes of great food, new clothes and a new life. The fastest man on the West Coast, an athlete who was once the epitome of strength and health, was now emaciated and struggling from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Zamperini was drinking heavily and fighting the nightmares that continued to haunt him, long after he and “The Bird” parted ways.
“Every day Watanabe was after me, so every night I had these nightmares, where I’m always strangling the guy. I thought everything was over. When I finally got home, the nightmares continued. I met the girl of my dreams and the nightmares were still there,” said Zamperini.
“I went to a VA hospital and they had no idea what PTSD was. One night I woke up strangling ‘The Bird’ and it was my wife. I’ll tell you what; it just shocked me to death. She called her mother and they decided to have a divorce. It was a hopeless situation,” he continued.
When a young evangelist by the name of Billy Graham came to Los Angeles, Calif., Zamperini’s wife encouraged her husband to attend, having herself come to faith and deciding not to pursue the divorce.
After attending, Zamperini became a born-again Christian and his nightmares suddenly disappeared.
“They talked about how when you’ve come to the end of the rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, people turn to God. And I thought that’s what I did on the raft, I turned to God. That’s what we did in the prisoner of war camp, turned to God. All the prisoners I knew were praying the same prayer, which was to get back to our families alive,” said Zamperini.
“I realized what a scoundrel I was. I made a commitment and my life changed in that moment. I was through getting drunk and going to stay married. It was the best news I ever got in my life. Everything happened in that moment. Only God can change a person that much that quick,” he continued.
Zamperini later returned to Japan to offer forgiveness to the guards who had mistreated the POWs. He did not get the chance to see Watanabe, but he harbors no bitter feelings.
While it is difficult to imagine the dire circumstances Zamperini faced, his powerful message of resilience will continue to inspire the Edwards community to overcome adversity, persevere and reach out to support our fellow Wingmen in need.
“This incredible man has endured so much and continues to go speak and tell his story because he genuinely cares for other people. He wants to encourage and inspire. Louis Zamperini is the epitome of a good Wingman,” said Daetz.
Before Zamperini departed Edwards for the day, he had the opportunity to tour the base and learn about the people and mission of Edwards. He even had the chance to get up close to the B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
“This is the first time I’ve been to Edwards. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit. The people were fantastic and it was an amazing opportunity to see all the airplanes,” said Zamperini, with his typical graciousness. “This day was a special gift, a dream come true.”
Many at Team Edwards would say the same.