Column: Louie Zamperini

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Lessons from ‘Toughest Miler Ever’

Generally, I cannot recall what I had for lunch the previous day and certainly if you ask me about three days past I will draw a blank. Yet I can tell you that the daily special in a Hollywood café on a sunny July afternoon 14 years ago was meatloaf.

Louie Zamperini with my son Greg, a fellow Trojan distance runner, and me.

Louie Zamperini with my son Greg, a fellow Trojan distance runner, and me.

I remember this not because I ordered it, but because my lunch companion did – only to have the waitress return from the kitchen with news they were out of gravy. She asked Louie Zamperini what he would like to order instead.

My dessert that day was spending the rest of the afternoon with the legendary 1936 Olympic runner and World War II hero, listening to his life story while looking through couch cushion-sized scrapbooks.

Zamperini’s death arrived on July 2 after he battled pneumonia for 40 days. That may well be a world record for a 97-year-old to hold off pneumonia, but Zamperini always had the mettle for long, tough battles.

After his B-24 Liberator was shot down on May 27, 1943, Air Force Captain Louis Zamperini (and one crew member) drifted nearly 2,000 miles in the South Pacific, surviving for 47 days while fighting hunger, fighting thirst, fighting sharks.

“Two big sharks tried to jump in the raft and take us out,” Zamperini – then 83 and so fit he still regularly hiked, skied and skateboarded – told me. After a sip of iced tea he added: “We went seven days without water. That was brutal.”

Nourished only by rainwater, a few fish and sea birds, and two small sharks, the 5-foot-9 Zamperini weighed 67 pounds – 80 below his racing weight – when a Japanese patrol boat picked him up.

Then the brutality turned truly hellish. For good reason Louie titled his autobiography “Devil at My Heels.”

For good reason Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography of Zamerini is titled “Unbroken.” Even two and half years in a POW slave camp couldn’t break him.

Certainly Japanese Army Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe tried to break Zamoerini. “The Bird,” as the prisoners called this devil incarnate, beat him daily. Beat him bloody. And during one savage streak used a belt buckle to beat Louie into unconsciousness 14 days in a row.

For these reasons I called Zamperini “The Toughest Miler Ever” in my column after interviewing him.

Louie Zamperini during his glory days at USC.

Louie Zamperini during his glory days at USC.

Here is how great a miler Zamperini was: his national prep record set at Torrance High stood for a full 20 years. He was a back-to-back NCAA champion at USC and his 1939 national collegiate record (4:08) stood for 15 years.

Zamperini’s greatest running victory came off the cinder track.

“Absolutely, my athletic background saved my life,” he told me. “I kept thinking about my athletic training when I was competing against the elements, against the enemy, against hunger and thirst. In athletics, you learn to find ways to increase your effort. In athletics you don’t quit – ever!”

Zamperini shared other life lessons with me, like: “Faith is more important than courage.”

And this: “I forgave The Bird.” Only by doing so, he explained, did he finally escape his own post-war emotional prison.

And now there is a lesson in his death, too: that a single flower for the living is better than bouquets on a grave.

While it is wonderful “Unbroken” became a bestseller, it is sad a movie of Zamperini’s heroic life will finally reach the screen this Christmas Day after his death.

How much sweeter had the film been made in the 1950s (Tony Curtis wanted the role) or in the late 1990s (Nicolas Cage was interested) when Zamperini could have enjoyed it.

Similarly, how sorrowful that the Tournament of Roses waited until 2015 to honor Zamperini as its Grand Marshal. Did it think he would live forever? Why wait until he was 97? Was he any less worthy of the honor at 87 or 67?

Back to lunch. I fondly remember Louie’s answer when the waitress told him there was no gravy.

No matter. Not after what he had endured. The Toughest Miler Ever smiled and ordered the meatloaf anyway.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”