I drove from the book store to the gym, up Pacific Coast Highway. I passed by Zamperini Way, a street that runs into PCH, and, with a quick left turn, goes straight into Zamperini Field, otherwise known as the Torrance Airport.
The new Laura Hillebrand book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilence and Redemption,” was riding in the passenger seat.
Hillebrand, whose only other book to date in 2001 was the one that eventually inspired the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit,” really isn’t covering much new ground here on the life and times of Louis Zamperini. After all, he wrote his own autiobiography in 2003. A column by the Daily Breeze’s Woody Woodburn on Zamperini was included in the 2001 Best American Sports Writing series.
Prior to that, a “60 Minutes” segment, which goes back to a “This Is Your Life” episode from the 1950s. Incredible stuff (above).
They’ve been trying to make a movie version of him, going back to when the star would have been Tony Curtis, up to Nicholas Cage.
What will make Hillenbrand’s version most likely be remembered over all them when all is said and done? The Random House publicity muscle behind it, for one. Oprah Winfrey has already recommended it on her website. Stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today have already been done on the book.
The texture of Hillenbrand’s prose, of course, are what could make any story special.
The first 47 pages of the 473-page book are what cover Zamperini’s athletic achievements — running the 1500 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics at age 19, earning a scholarship to USC, setting records in the mile that stood for years.
A few quick excerpts, after Hillenbrand writes about how Zamperini became a mile specialist at Torrance High, expanded that to distance running and qualified for the 5,000 meters on the U.S. Olympic team.
Zamperini finished eighth at the Games, but ran a final lap of 56 seconds and clocked a 14:46.8 mark, the fastest 5,000 by any American that year.
After cleaning himself up, Louie climbed into the stands. Nearby, Adolf Hitler sat in his box, among his entourage. Someone pointed out a cadaverous man near Hitler and told Louie that it was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s prime minister of propaganda. Louie had never heard of him. Pulling out his camera, he carried it to Goebbels and asked him if he’d snap a picture of the fuhrer. Goebbles asked him his name and event, then took the camera, moved away, snapped a photo, spoke with Hitler, returned, and told Louie that the fuhrer wanted to see him.
Louie was led into the fuhrer’s section. Hitler bent from his box, smiled, and offered his hand. Louie, standing below, had to reach far up. Their fingers barely touched. Hitler said something in German. An interpreter translated.
“‘Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.'”
On page 40:
On USC’s track team, Louie was a juggernaut. Focused on winning in Tokyo in 1940 (where the next Summer Olympics would be staged),he smashed record after record at multiple distances and routinely burned his competition by giant margins, once winning a race by one hundred yards. By the spring of 1938, he’d whittled his time (in the mile) down to 4:13.7, some seven seconds off the world record, which now stood at 4:06.4. His coach predicted that Louie would take the record down. The only runner who could beat him, the coach said, was Seabiscuit.
Hillenbrand also documents how in 1938, Zamperini went to the NCAA championships in Minneapolis, trying to break a four-minute mile.
The night before the race, a coach from Notre Dame knocked on Louie’s hotel room door, a grave expression on his face. He told Louie that some of his rival coaches were ordering their runners to sharpen their spikes and slash him. Louie dismissed the warning, certain that no one would do such a thing delibertely. He was wrong. … With his shoe torn open, shins streaming blood and chest aching, (he) won easily. In 4:08.3, the fastest NCAA mile in history, missing the world record by 1.9 seconds. His time would stand as the NCAA record for 15 years.
On a dark day in April, 1940, Louie return to his bungalow to find the USC campus buzzing. Hitler had unleased his blitzkrieg across Europe … Finland, which was set to host the summer Games, was reeling. … The Olympics had been canceled.
Louie was unmoored. He became ill, first with food poisoning, then with pleurisy. His speed abandoned him, and he lost race after race. When USC’s spring semester ended, he collected his class ring and left campus. He was a few credits short of a degree, but he had all of 1941 to make them up. He took a job as a welder at the Lockheed Air Corporation and mourned his lost Olympics.
Since Hillenbrand needed to fill the other 400 pages of the book, she writes about how he was drafted, served in World War II, and had an horiffic experience shot down of the Pacific and taken, and tortured, as a Japanese prisioner.
Zamperini, who today at 93 is still around, should be on a book tour signing copies in the next few months. It’d be worth waiting in line to meet an authentic American hero. Perhaps USC may even have him come out at a football game — the only home game left is against Notre Dame a week from Saturday — and take another bow.