Ninety-five-year-old Louis Zamperini, whose World War II heroics are the subject of the bestselling book "Unbroken", spoke to students, veterans and community leaders at Barrington High School on Tuesday, April 3 about survival and forgiveness.
The frail, slightly slouched figure sitting on stage belied the tough-as-nails, shrewd, former Olympic runner portrayed in the book. But when Lieutenant Zamperini began to speak, after a twenty-minute CBS video on his remarkable life, the room fell quiet as he wove tales of shark attacks, starvation and torture in a crisp, clear and lucid voice.
"When we floated ashore on to the enemy island after 47 days adrift in a small raft, our Japanese captors were most interested in how their air attack could have punctured dozens of holes in the raft but miss three adult bodies. They just couldn't believe it."
Neither could Zamperini and his three crew mates at the time. His story, as told by bestselling author Laura Hillebrand, is chalked full of breath-taking harrowing escapes from the claws of death through Zamperini's shrewd survival skills and sheer will to live.
After his Air Force bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean in May of 1945, Zamperini and two crew mates survived stranded on an air raft longer than anyone in recorded history. But their story of starvation, dehydration and shark attacks was a mere prelude to what would befall them in the tortuous hands of their Japanese captors.
A sadistic Japanese corporal, nicknamed "The Bird" by the American POWS, seemed to dedicate his life to beating his prisoners into submission, both physically and emotionally. Zamperini endured daily pummelings by the Bird and cruel dress-downs intended to strip the POW of his dignity. Determined not to become demoralized, Zamperini would smile gleefully as he scooped human waste from the "benjos" and clench his fists passively while enduring vicious beatings from the Bird.
But even after Zamperini's triumphant return home after V-Day and a tearful reunion with a family who had been told he was dead, the effects of the Japanese "monster" had left its mark.
"Today, you would call it post-traumatic stress syndrome," Zamperini said. "We didn't have a name for it then, but every night the Bird would enter my dreams. And every night I wanted to strangle him."
As a civilian, the WWII hero started down a path of self destruction consumed by alcohol and revenge, until one day he saw the Reverend Billy Graham at a Los Angeles tent revival. Listening to the Evangelist's sermon of redemption and forgiveness, Zamperini renewed his prison cell commitment to God. "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." Zamperini began a new life as a Christian speaker, telling his story all over America.
Barrington High School junior August Anderson asked Zamperini how he fought off sharks while stranded in the Pacific Ocean.
"There's something about a shark's nose that's very sensitive," the guest speaker responded. "I just kept hitting them in the nose and they'd swim away...for awhile."
The Lieutenant's hair raising presentation was not without humor. He told the story of how his mother refused to cash the $10,000 life insurance policy when he was declared dead, believing her son had somehow survived. When he and his mother tried to return the money to the insurance company, an office bureaucrat told them that the announcement of his death was not his fault, so he could keep the money. The company simply required Zamperini to fill out a form with the details of his plight. A short time later, he received a form letter stamped "Request Denied."
"They gave the reason as 'unauthorized travel,'" said Zamperini to a swell of laughter.
Students seemed particularly interested in the upcoming motion picture based on the book.
"I was hoping Boris Karloff would play me but he's long gone," said Zamperini to more laughter.
A collective swoon from the female audience members reverberated throughout the auditorium at the mention of Ryan Gosling playing the Zamperini role.
One student asked what Zamperini would say to the Bird if he ever got a chance to meet with him again.
"I think I'd just hug him. Wouldn't he be shocked."