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Life redeemed, POW turns to helping youths

    "The more interests (young people) have, the less chance they are going to get into trouble. If they can play tennis, go play tennis. I didn't play tennis -- I used to go rob the pie shop."
    Louis Zamperini
    WWII veteran

Louis Zamperini was an unstoppable hellraiser as a kid in Torrance, Calif., smoking at 5, getting drunk at 8 and breaking into people’s homes to steal food when he was not much older.

Luckily, he found an outlet for his energy — running — and was so good at it he thrilled the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a mad dash in the 5,000-meter race, covering the final lap in a blistering 56 seconds, a finish that earned him not a medal but a handshake from Adolf Hitler.

During World War II his life took another turn — for the worse — when as a bombardier flying out of Hawaii, his B-24 Liberator conked out and crashed in the Pacific.

Zamperini spent 47 days on a life raft, fighting off sharks, thirst and starvation, then the remainder of the war as a Japanese prisoner of war, enduring sadistic beatings, medical experimentation and disease.

The erratic arc of his life didn’t end there.

After the war, he fell into alcohol abuse and in sleep he battled the guard who delivered daily beatings in POW camps before Zamperini found God and peace in a tent where evangelist Billy Graham was preaching.

At 94, he’s still going strong.

Zamperini is the subject of the best-selling book, "Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption," by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the racehorse tale "Seabiscuit."

On Friday, Zamperini brought all that history back to Hawaii when he spoke to about 475 people on the fantail of the Battleship Missouri, in an event presented by the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Navy League.

When asked if anything good came out of his POW experience, Zamperini quipped that it prepared him for marriage.

The former Olympian followed Missouri military liaison Mike Pagano on a tour down three decks — up and down steep ladders and past doorway "knee-knockers" — to see the Missouri’s "Broadway" and 2nd Battleplot, where past crew fired the ship’s big guns.

The Hollywood Hills, Calif., man was skateboarding at age 81, skiing at 91, still drives a car and mows his lawn.

He ran an outdoors program called the Victory Boys Camp for delinquent youth — something he knows a thing or two about. He still speaks to groups several times a week mainly in California, but also around the country, and his preferred audiences are high school and college students.

Before speaking on the Missouri Friday, Zamperini doled out advice about problem kids and recalled the events that shaped his life, including his captivity in war — the greatest endurance test of all.

"I know what kids want," Zamperini said. "I don’t need a psychiatrist or anyone else (to tell me). That’s why I’ve had success with kids. You’ve got to take a kid, a delinquent kid, take him on a hike and start getting the endorphins going. They are feeling good, then they talk. I’ve done this so many times, it works every time."

Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, said he had too much idle time when he was a youth.

"The more interests (young people) have, the less chance they are going to get into trouble," Zamperini said. "If they can play tennis, go play tennis. I didn’t play tennis — I used to go rob the pie shop."

After the 1936 Olympics, during which Zamperini stayed in a cottage with several other athletes, including Jesse Owens, he studied and trained at the University of Southern California before taking a job as a welder with Lockheed, Hillenbrand writes in her book.

In early 1941, Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps and the next year he and his B-24 were sent to Kahuku airfield.

"Long bombing missions," Zamperini recalled of the wartime duty. "We would fly to Midway and then to Wake (Island) and back."

Life was good in Hawaii, he said.

"Everyone wanted to come into Honolulu, so we’d try to make it once a week," he recalled.

In May 1943, the "Green Hornet" lost engine power and crashed in the Pacific with Zamperini aboard. A life raft with the lieutenant and another crew member drifted 2,000 miles before the pair was captured by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands, Hillenbrand said.

They were taken to Kwajalein, where Zamperini would beg for water from his cell and a guard would return with a cup of scalding water and throw it in his face, she said.

Interrogators questioned Zamperini about the number of aircraft, ships and personnel in Hawaii. He said he didn’t know.

Zamperini remembers being injected at least three times with a solution that caused dizziness and his skin to burn, itch and sting, followed by a rash.

He was subsequently shipped to an interrogation center known as Ofuna, where captives were beaten and starved, and then Omori POW camp, where Zamperini would run into a guard who would beat him regularly and haunt his dreams for years to come.

Cpl. Mutsuhiro Watanabe was given special orders to work over Zamperini on a daily basis.

Hillenbrand described one encounter when Wata­nabe, called the "Bird" by the Americans, removed his belt and twice swung the heavy brass buckle into Zamperini’s temple, blows that made him feel as though he had been shot in the head and which left him dazed on the floor.

Watanabe eluded capture after the war, and he eventually opened a successful insurance agency in Tokyo.

Hillenbrand writes that in the late 1990s, Zamperini was ready to forgive Wata­nabe.

In a letter to his former captor, he wrote, "The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, "Forgive your enemies and pray for them.’ "

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