Vai's View: Sports help save Louis Zamperini after Hitler, Nazis, war, alcoholism
For father’s day, my married son LJ, gave me a book called "Unbroken," by Laura Hillenbrand, the best-selling author of "Seabiscuit" — the story of the Depression-era racehorse.
LJ knew I loved reading "Seabiscuit" seven or eight years ago, not because I cared about horse racing, but because of my fascination with the people of that era, and how an undersized thoroughbred rallied the country.
Having already read “Unbroken,” my son knew that it dealt with two subjects I’d connect with — a real-life World War II hero and sea survival. My mission president was an Air Force brigadier general who was a WWII fighter pilot; he earned the Purple Heart and the Flying Cross. My grandfather was a shipwreck survivor who was lost at sea for three months.
"Unbroken" is the story of Louis Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent turned USC runner who was a miler on the 1936 Olympic team where he was teammates with Jesse Owens at the Berlin Games.
Zamperini had a brush with the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler, as well as the SS when he attempted to steal a Nazi flag for a souvenir. When the war broke out, he became a bombardier, flying missions in the Pacific theater. He survived one vicious firefight where his plane was hit roughly 600 times during an attack that killed or badly wounded everyone in his plane but him.
In May 1943, while stationed in Hawaii, Zamperini was one of three survivors of a plane crash that occurred while searching for another party in a missing plane.
Adrift on a rubber raft for weeks without food or water, they managed to dodge sharks that leapt into their small raft and, even more miraculously, they escaped death after a Japanese attack plane spent several cartridges of ammo shooting at them. The shots missed the men but badly damaged their raft.
They also survived 40-50 foot swells in a hurricane. When they finally spotted land, they had unknowingly drifted into enemy territory. That's when they were picked up at gunpoint by a Japanese boat.
Zamperini's ordeal was just beginning. He would eventually be taken to Japan as a prisoner of war where he faced the brutality of a camp commander who took special pleasure torturing him physically and emotionally because of his exalted status as a world-class athlete.
"Unbroken" is about the will to live and the indomitable nature of the human spirit, even when under the thumbs of sadistic psychopaths. It’s a real-life lesson on how optimism offers hope and aids survival while its fraternal twin, pessimism, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to defeat and, ultimately, death.
Zamperini nearly lost control of his life before, and following WW II, due to crime and alcoholism. Sports saved him from crime and Christianity cured the alcohol addiction and his lingering bitterness from his imprisonment.
As I read “Unbroken,” I kept thinking of General Douglas MacArthur — an ardent believer that sports helped prepare young cadets at West Point for war — and his famous quote: "On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seed that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory."
MacArthur probably had Zamperini in mind. Clearly, among the factors that contributed to Zamperini’s ability and will to survive was his superb fitness, single-minded focus and experience in athletic competition.
So, as we begin a new school year and go root for our teams, here’s hoping that we see sports for what it is — as something that will prepare young people (and old) to do things “on other days and other fields (that) will bear the fruits of victory.”
Sports can be extremely gratifying and fun, but also difficult. That’s partly why it’s such a great lab and training ground for one's work in life. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen recently wrote that, generationally, we aren’t asking our youth to do hard things anymore — certainly not in the manner that was expected of the Greatest Generation, men like Zamperini.
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