Louis Zamperini, the Olympic track star and World War II hero who died in Los Angeles on July 2, traveled far and wide during his 97 years.
He competed in the 5,000-meter run in the 1936 Berlin Games, where he met Adolf Hitler and later swiped a swastika flag from in front of Hitler’s headquarters.
As a B-24 bombardier, he crashed in the Pacific Ocean and survived an incredible 47-day ordeal on a rubber life raft, only to be captured by Japanese forces, imprisoned and beaten mercilessly. (They wanted to force him to become a radio propagandist, and he refused.)
And, as an inspirational public speaker after the war, he once traveled to Princeton.
Zamperini’s story will be told in the movie “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled for release in December.
But more than six decades earlier, a capacity audience at the Mission Covenant Church (now known as the Evangelical Covenant Church) got to hear Zamperini’s story firsthand.
On Feb. 5, 1951, Zamperini traveled to Princeton to speak at the invitation of the Illinois Valley Christian Business Men’s committee.
According to the Feb. 8, 1951, Bureau County Republican, “Zamperini, suffering from a throat infection after coming into frigid Illinois weather from a warmer climate, made his talk here despite near loss of his voice.”
In a preview story the week before, “Lou Zamperini, raft survivor, Olympic miler, here Monday,” the BCR told of Zamperini’s background.
“Zamperini’s life has been a series of miraculous escapes from death. Headlines have reported him missing several times. During the war he collected his own life insurance. He was listed by the War Department as one of the 10 men who suffered the most during World War II.
“The former Olympic miler has just returned from Japan where he recently converted two or three of the men who were his captors and tormentors during his imprisonment in World War II. …
“Zamperini became a Christian leader a year ago. Since that time he has been in full-time Youth for Christ work and has spoken to large audiences all over the United States, Canada and Japan. He has been in churches of all denominations, various clubs, and civic organizations.”
People who heard Zamperini speak may have also learned about his post-war struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and early in his life, juvenile delinquency and anti-Italian bigotry. And they surely heard about the key role that evangelist Billy Graham played in Zamperini’s life.
Earlier this year, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of Zamperini, “Unbroken,” which I highly recommend. Later, while doing research on Princeton’s own Richard Widmark, I came across the articles about Zamperini.
If you read the book or watch the upcoming movie about Zamperini, you will marvel all the more that such a fascinating person once visited here.