GREENWICH, Conn. – Louis Zamperini, a 94-year-old Olympian and World War II Army Air Corps bombardier, plane crash survivor and prisoner of war, received a special visit in Greenwich Hospital from Brunswick School students Monday.
When Zamperini was unable to attend an assembly because of a medical issue, five students went to visit the man who, in his youth, survived a plane crash, 47 days on a raft, shark attacks and capture and torture by the Japanese Navy during World War II. His life story was featured in the best-selling book, “Unbroken,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laura Hillenbrand.
Zamperini shared several stories with the boys about his time as a young man and as an Olympian. He described what it was like on the ship that took him and the other athletes to the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, where he competed as a miler. He told them his impression of Adolf Hitler, and that “he appeared comical to me and my fellow Olympians with his silly square moustache, plastered-down hair and jumping around yelling and shaking his fists.”
Zamperini described the reaction of the German people as lukewarm when Hitler entered the stadium and overwhelmingly enthusiastic as American track star Jesse Owens came in.
“Louis told us that his philosophy on life was to, ‘Stay positive and have a cheerful attitude in all things,'” said Paul Withstandley, Brunswick Upper School assembly coordinator and senior class dean. He accompanied students Tommy Rosenkranz, Jake Matthews, Willy Fein, Michael Chronert and Rick Salame to the hospital to visit Zamperini. The students brought along two get well cards signed by hundreds of students, faculty and staff.
Just before leaving, Withstandley asked Louis one more question: “I wanted to know if he still had the urge to run. He said that he does, all the time. He said that he still runs in his dreams, where he is, ‘Going as fast as the wind, jumping over streams and logs, and twisting and turning.’ Louis finds waking up to a different reality is a bit sobering, but, ‘It’s just something I have to accept with age.’”
John Naber, Zamperini’s manager and a four-time gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, stood in to speak about Zamperini's life.
Of Zamperini’s Olympic times, Naber said, “The Olympic spirit is like the wind. You don’t see it coming and you don’t see it passing. You feel the power of its presence.”
He also spoke about the importance of being hardy and of redemption. “When Louis left for the war, he was resilient, defiant and self-confident,” Naber said. An abusive prison guard known as the Bird at the camp where Louis was a prisoner "wanted to break him down. After the war, Louis was tortured by nightmares and obsessed with vengeance. He had a religious conversion experience and eventually returned to Japan as a missionary. He saw it in his heart to forgive the Bird and was no longer haunted by his dreams.”
Naber said of Zamperini, “He believes in miracles, and in the miracle of letting go. He doesn’t carry a grudge. He walks the walk."
When a Brunswick student asked about Zamperini's idols, Naber said, “Jesse Owens was his hero for his ability to shun an insult and do his job.” Owens was a black American track and field athlete who was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens’ wins undermined Hitler’s demonstration of Aryan superiority at the games.
Naber also told the boys that Louis Zamperini stands for 3 Be’s: Be hardy. Be prepared. Be happy.
“For those of us who got to see Louis Zamperini for that brief visit was an experience we will never forget,” said Withstandley.