On Aug. 1, 1936, when Adolf Hitler opened the 11th Olympic Games in Berlin, he envisioned them as a showcase for Nazism and Aryan racial superiority. But history remembers them for African-American Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in track and field.
After Owens won the 100 meters, Hitler refused to shake his hand, even though tradition called for the leader of the host country to congratulate the gold-medal winner. But he did single out America’s top finisher in the 5,000-meter run for a handshake after a blazing final lap.
There was something special about Louis Zamperini even then, although he didn’t achieve widespread fame until many years later. When he died about month ago, at 97, People magazine said, “One of the most incredible American lives of the past century has come to an end.”
Zamperini became an overnight celebrity in 2010 when critically acclaimed author Laura Hillenbrand published a book about him, “Unbroken.” It has spent more than 170 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and hit No. 1 again shortly after Zamperini’s death.
A. Larry Ross Communications helped Random House publicize the book, and it was obvious that his dramatic story captured the imagination of millions of readers.
His running career was cut short by World War II. In 1943, his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, and he floated for 47 days on a raft, surviving shark attacks, a typhoon and an attack from a Japanese bomber.
Captured by the Japanese, Zamperini spent more than two years in a series of prison camps, where he remained defiant in the face of horrible abuse. Liberated at war’s end, he returned home a deeply haunted man.
Then one night in 1949, his wife persuaded him to go hear a young evangelist named Billy Graham preach in Los Angeles, and he committed his life to Christ.
Later, he returned to Japan, met with most of his captors and forgave them.
Although Zamperini’s story of survival captured the imagination, his tale of redemption and forgiveness appealed to the heart. Years after the book was published, our office continued to receive calls and emails from people who wanted to meet him or hear him speak.
He seemed to establish an emotional connection with everyone he met. Angelina Jolie, who directed the upcoming film version of “Unbroken” and became close friends with Zamperini, issued a statement after his death: “It is a loss impossible to describe. We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly.”
Hillenbrand called him “the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew.” When he died, the statement she posted on her Facebook page said, in part: “His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow. Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness.”