Running track in high school. Zamperini in flight gear.
PHOTOS THIS PAGE COURTESY OF LOUIS ZAMPERINI
Home from the war.
26 ;e Costco Connection DECEMBER 2014
He and two other survivors drifted for 47
days (one lost his life during that time), rations
running out quickly. Zamperini captured circling sharks and birds for food. They found
land, but were picked up by a Japanese patrol
boat. He would see the inside of more than one
prison camp on different islands and in Japan.
He was beaten and tortured, and barely survived. At one point, his family received notification of his death. But Zamperini was a survivor.
He returned from the war a hero, but
posttraumatic stress disorder, not an official
diagnosis at that time, left him angry and
embittered. His goal was to return to Japan,
find his most venal torturer—a Japanese officer nicknamed “the Bird”—and kill him.
Zamperini met and married a beautiful
young woman named Cynthia Applewhite.
The torment of his war experiences caused
him to drink and explode in fits of rage. In a
last-ditch effort to save their marriage, and to
save her husband, Cynthia convinced him to
attend a local crusade, led by a charismatic
young minister named Billy Graham.
Something clicked. Zamperini became a
born-again Christian, and his life immediately turned around. He gave up drinking,
and the rage dissolved. He forgave his tormenters, even traveling to Japan to personally
deliver his forgiveness. Sadly, the Bird refused
to meet with him.
Zamperini, who was a Costco member,
spent the rest of his life sharing his incredible
story, helping others at every opportunity.
Cynthia Zamperini-Garris, Louie’s
daughter, calls him “a complicated person.”
“He would stop anywhere and help anybody out,” she tells The Connection. “He rescued neighbors’ animals from disaster. Even
into his 90s, if he saw a bee that had run out
of steam in the middle of the street, he would
get it, bring it inside, give it his miracle Karo
syrup and water treatment, and wait until it
got enough energy to fly on its way. He loved
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 25
to help troubled people, especially youth. He
was very funny, had a marvelous sense of
humor, a very quick wit. He kept us laughing
all the time.”
Bringing the story to the public
While the preceding summary of
Zamperini’s life cannot do it justice, others
who heard the story saw the need to convey
its complete scope and depth to a wider audi-
ence. He wrote two books, with two different
writers, and sold the rights to his story to
Universal in 1957 to be made into a movie
starring Tony Curtis. The film never material-
ized, and the story faded from the public eye.
In 1998, as Nagano, Japan, was preparing
to host the Olympic Games, CBS aired a documentary on Zamperini’s story, as he was
invited to run with the Olympic torch.
Producer Matt Baer and many others were
inspired by that documentary.
“I had seen that and thought, ‘I cannot
believe that this story has never been told for
film,’ ” says Costco member Baer. “But fortunately for me, it hadn’t.”
Baer wasn’t the only producer interested
in the story. Zamperini-Garris and her husband, filmmaker Mick Garris, helped Louie
get an agent. They met with several producers, ultimately deciding on Baer.
Baer commissioned a script based on
Zamperini’s memoir, Devil at My Heels (not
available at Costco), but he could not get the
financing or the necessary talent to make the
film. Some felt the story lacked authenticity.
Sure, it was a great yarn, but it lacked verification. It was just one man’s story.
Finding the facts
Validation was on its way, courtesy of a
young writer named Laura Hillenbrand. She
was working on her first book, Seabiscuit,
which would go on to become a best-seller and
a movie. A meticulous researcher, Hillenbrand
The Zamperini family: (back) Cynthia,
Louie; (front) Cynthia and Luke.
In our digital editions
Click here to see the trailer
for Unbroken. (See page 11
bought old newspapers to get a sense of context.
“I had a clipping on Seabiscuit winning a
big race, and I flipped it over, and on the exact
opposite, the back of the page, was a story on
this young running phenomenon named
Louis Zamperini,” she recalls in a phone interview from her home on the East Coast. “It was
prior to the war, but his story was already
really interesting to me. I wrote down his
name, and later learned something of what
had happened to him in the war. I thought,
‘When I get [Seabiscuit] done, I’m gonna try to
find this guy, if he’s still around.’ ”
In 2002, Laura Hillenbrand wrote
Zamperini a letter, introducing herself, telling
him about Seabiscuit and expressing her
interest in telling his story.
“When I said, ‘I’d really like to tell your
story,’ he said, ‘I’ve done this,’ ” Hillenbrand
recalls. “I talked to him about the difference
between biography and autobiography. As a
biographer. as opposed to autobiography, I
could look at his whole life from the point of
view of others, and I could put him in the
context, and basically tell the story of the
whole Pacific war through the eyes of one guy.
He was interested in that, and he said, ‘Go
right ahead. I’m happy to work with you.’ ”
It was not an easy undertaking for
Hillenbrand, who battles chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating disorder, but, over the
course of the next seven years, she and
Zamperini spoke by phone about 75 times,
often for two to three hours. Those conversations became starting points for her, leading off
on different trails. “I worked every single day.
I never stopped,” says Hillenbrand. “I didn’t
want to stop. It was such a pleasure; I loved it.”
“She’s an incredible researcher,” says Louie’s
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