Meeting “Unbroken”: The Privilege of Time Spent with Louis Zamperini

Writer Jim Thompson recalls meeting war hero and Olympian Louis Zamperini in 2011 on the eve of the publication of Laura Hillenbrand’s book, "Unbroken."

It was 2011 and Laura Hillenbrand’s book, "Unbroken," was about to hit the shelves and tell people around the world that Louis "Louie" Zamperini was an individual whose life was worth knowing and celebrating. I found him well into his 10th decade, living outside of Los Angeles in a Spanish-flavored ranch house. The "Today" show had sent me out for an interview to preview the book.

On my arrival, Louie took a break from his gardening and met me in the driveway. He explained that most days he liked to work out on his terraced property doing “repeats on the stairs.” But when he didn’t feel up to breaking a sweat, he limited his activity to minding the plants and flowers cozied up to his home. The place felt like a well-kept secret.

For our interview, he gave me free rein. I could shoot wherever and whatever I wanted. No questions were off limits. When I asked him if he had any issues with Ms. Hillenbrand’s book he confessed to one, “she wrote it so well, it made me miss my friends so much.” This truth made him pause. For a loaded minute, I thought he was going to cry. He did not.

Amazed by his survival at sea in World War II, I wondered why he didn’t just curl up in the bottom of the raft and wait for death. His answer spoke to the vast divide between my generation and his. “I was too busy trying to live to ever think about dying,” he said. I made a mental note that I thought a lot about dying though I have never had to work too hard to live.

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After the interview, Louie insisted we have lunch. I am used to asking the questions but Louie wanted to know about my family, my background, what I liked to do. When I told him I was a runner, his eyes lit up – Louie was an an elite runner who compted at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. We talked workouts, races, goals to pursue and goals never met.

When it was time to go, I changed in his bathroom and came out in my running clothes. “Where you going?” he wanted to know. I thought I’d hit the big hills at nearby Griffith Park. With an athlete’s hunger he looked at me in the golden light, “Wish I could go with you.”

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I’m not a hugger but I asked Louie for one. He had the biggest heart of any man I have ever met. “Forgiveness” is not a favorite quality in our American heroes. But it proved to be Louie’s super power in dealing with his Japanese enemies who tortured him while he was serving as a prisoner of war.

I wrapped my arms around his bony shoulders and we held each other for more than a moment. It should have been but it wasn’t weird. It was special, intimate, a privilege to be embraced by this unbroken man. I drove away and because of him, felt obliged to be better.

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"Unbroken" opens in theaters on December 25, 2014.

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