SANDY — He survived 47 days at sea, years of torture and beatings at a Japanese prisoner of war camp and conquered the hellish nightmares that came afterward.
Louis Zamperini, whose tale of survival was detailed in Laura Hillenbrand's best selling book, "Unbroken, A World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption," dazzled a book club meeting in Sandy Saturday night, entertaining the audience with humor and humble candor.
Book club member Andrea Flynn said she finished reading the book about two weeks ago, wondered what became of Zamperini and tracked him down.
She said he hasn't flown out for a speaking engagement in over a year, so she was delighted when he agreed to come to Utah.
"We were very honored that he would come out here for us."
In Saturday night's presentation, Zamperini spoke for about 30 minutes and answered several questions following a video presentation.
He described seeing his own death certificate in his mother's home, an airfield that was named after him when everybody thought he was dead and his playful attempt to get "travel pay" out of the government for the days he spent adrift at sea.
Their response? They declined. Their reason? It was unauthorized.
His mother, who refused to believe he was dead, never spent the $10,000 in life insurance she got for her son's "death," and instead kept it in the bank. When they sent it back to the company, Zamperini said the company refused to keep it and returned it to his mother.
"The announcement of his death was through no fault of his own," he said, detailing their response.
Zamperini, in fact, said humor is what makes life more pleasurable, and he follows what the Bible says: to have a cheerful countenance at all times.
"Those words come directly from God, so they gotta work."
It wasn't always that way for him.
He described himself as a hopeless drunk plagued by nightmares. While what he had would come to be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Zamperini was struggling in an era when little help was offered.
"During World War II, nobody had an answer or a cure."
After he woke up strangling his wife because of a nightmare, Zamperini ultimately got straight with God, and remembered his promise he had made while stranded on the raft at sea.
"I knew I was through getting drunk. That was 1949, and I never had a nightmare since."
When asked how he was able to never give up hope, Zamperini said it was his competitive nature honed when he was an Olympic runner that helped him through the darkest days.
"You fight to the finish," he said.
He also credits survival courses he took — including one about the sea and sharks — with his triumph over death.
"Preparation. I've taken every survival course I can."
Zamperini, 96, said that over the years, he's probably saved about 15 people — enough that he sometimes can't even recall the circumstances.8 comments on this story
"I had a call just yesterday and its, "oh, you saved my life.' If you ever get a chance, take a survival course. It will help you in every phase of your life."
Hillenbrand's book is being made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, who has become fast friends with Zamperini. Filming begins Monday in Australia, and Zamperini said he agreed to be in the movie — if he can play her boyfriend.
The movie will be released Christmas Day 2014.