Louis Zamperini, American hero, soldier, patriot, passes at age 97

unbroken_angelina_jolie_louis_zamperini_a_lLouis Zamperini and Angelina Jolie.

If you have not yet, you need to purchase a copy of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, in order to understand the massive courage, strength, fortitude, courage and patriotism of Louis Zamperini, who passed away early Thursday at the age of 97, after a 40 day battle with pneumonia.

He was absolutely everything The Greatest Generation embodied, and then some.

Louis Zamperini Wins the Mile in Seattle, 1939Louis Zamperini, born in New York in 1917, was a young roustabout who developed a penchant for running after his family moved to Torrance in Southern California in 1919.  Because the family spoke no English, Louis’s father taught him to box for self-defense.  After getting into various forms of trouble behind that, Louis took up track.

In 1934, Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile, clocking in at 04:21.2 at the preliminary meet to the state championships.  He won a scholarship to USC for his track skills.  Whilst at USC, Zamperini qualified for a spot on the 1936 US Olympics team, held in Berlin, Germany.

Zamperini met Adolf Hitler. Hitler shook his hand, and said simply “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”  Zamperini then stole a flag from Hitler.  Guts.

From Wikipedia:

Two years later, in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record of 4:08 despite severe cuts to his shins from competitors attempting to spike him during the race.  This record held for fifteen years, earning him the nickname “Torrance Tornado”.

Louis Zamparini, WWIILouis enlisted in the USAAF and was, as a bombardier, at his base assigned a final plane to fly in order to search for a lost crew.  This aircraft was a piece of crap and went down into the ocean, killing 8 of the 11 men aboard.

His commander knew the plane was a piece of crap.

It still sealed his and the fate of others: he would face his torturer directly and then triumph over incredibly-stacked odds.

And this only after 47 days adrift upon the open ocean and then captured by the Japanese Navy on the 48th.

From 1943 until August of 1945, Zamperini was kept as a POW.  He was tortured and specifically targeted for torment by prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed “The Bird”), who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

Zamperini was first declared “missing at sea,” and then “missing in action.”  He was held at the same camp that then-Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington, in his book, Baa Baa Black Sheep, was held.

Conflicted and suffering from what we now know as PTSD, Zamperini became a born-again Christian in 1949.  He made it a point to forgive The Bird.

He said, after that, he finally began to sleep at night.

And now, perhaps you’re just finally beginning to understand who Louis Zamperini truly was.

For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. While there, he attempted to meet with his chief and most brutal tormentor during the war, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who had evaded prosecution as a war criminal, but the latter refused to see him. In March 2005 he returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there.[23]

There was no other.  Louis Zamperini was the best and the greatest of the great.  He became an inspirational speaker who allowed others to see their plight and then exceed expectations.

His was a cause that Angelina Jolie took up, to the point that he became inspiration for a movie to be released later this year — which he will not see terrestrially.

The movie “Unbroken” will be released at Christmas this year.

I have touched only but upon a few highlights of this wonderful man’s life.

He said:

“When you have a good attitude your immune system is fortified.”
– Louis Zamperini

Yes it is — yes it is, Louis Silvie Zamperini.  You lived life to the fullest, met every challenge head on, survived, thrived and looked death and adventure in the eye.  You were the true embodiment of every good thing about The Greatest Generation.

He was scheduled to be the Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California.

“After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives,” the family statement said. “His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”

How perfect that I write of you for my 4th of July post.



Memorial Day, 2013:


The Greatest Generation is almost entirely gone.  As Tom Brokaw wrote, “it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”[2] He argued that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do”. When they came back they rebuilt America into a superpower.

Dad In Cockpit, Pilot Seat-AMy father passed away in 2009, at the age of 88.  He flew aircraft in WWII for the US Army Air Corps, the US Army Air Forces, was an instructor pilot in bombers, and retired a full Colonel.  He served in the Pentagon and at Wright Patterson AF base, Roswell NM, Mather AFB in WWII, the 8th AF flying B-17Gs, and retired from McClellan AFB.

Dad, Standing, Propeller-AHe was proud of having served in the Air Force, but would not willingly speak of what occurred in WWII.  This was the humility and the quiet honor of those men who served and survived.  And that is the cover my father wore as a USAF Colonel, at the top of the post, sitting on my desk adjacent the computer as I write this.  Clouds and thunderbolts.

BZ and Dad

Dad and BZ

These men of The Greatest Generation fought under circumstances and with equipment that would now be considered barbaric, cruel, primitive and guaranteed of a certain death.  Yet they persevered as their brothers were cut down in wide swaths.  They were young, one might say idealistic, and each one knew in his heart that others would die — but not them.  It was a false premise but it kept them going in the face of terrible odds.

Of the 80 original Doolittle Raiders, for example, only four remain.  There will be, literally, a final toast for these men.

On this Memorial Day, 2013, please allow me to focus on those who won the Second World War and kept the entire planet safe for, at least temporarily, a succeeding generation.  Because there are so damned few remaining.

And so few of the Doolittle Raiders remaining.

This April, the final four Doolittle Raiders were scheduled to meet in Fort Arbor, Florida.  Only three of them attended.  But, 71 years later, their cognac will be opened.

The original 16 aircraft were:

AAF serial # Nickname Sqdn Target Pilot Disposition
40-2344 Tokyo Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle crashed N Chuchow, China
40-2292 37th BS Tokyo Lt. Travis Hoover crashed Ningpo, China
40-2270 Whiskey Pete 95th BS Tokyo Lt. Robert M. Gray crashed SE Chuchow, China
40-2282 95th BS Tokyo Lt. Everett W. Holstrom crashed SE Shangjao, China
40-2283 95th BS Tokyo Capt. David M. Jones crashed SW Chuchow, China
40-2298 The Green Hornet 95th BS Tokyo Lt. Dean E. Hallmark ditched at sea Wenchu, China
40-2261 The Ruptured Duck 95th BS Tokyo Lt. Ted W. Lawson ditched at sea Shangchow, China
40-2242 95th BS Tokyo Capt. Edward J. York interned Primorsky Krai, Siberia
40-2303 Whirling Dervish 34th BS Tokyo Lt. Harold F. Watson crashed S Nanchang, China
40-2250 89th RS Tokyo Lt. Richard O. Joyce crashed NE Chuchow, China
40-2249 Hari Kari-er 89th RS Yokohama Capt. C. Ross Greening crashed NE Chuchow, China
40-2278 Fickle Finger of Fate 37th BS Yokohama Lt. William M. Bower crashed NE Chuchow, China
40-2247 The Avenger 37th BS Yokosuka Lt. Edgar E. McElroy crashed N Nanchang, China
40-2297 89th RS Nagoya Maj. John A. Hilger crashed SE Shangjao, China
40-2267 TNT 89th RS Kobe Lt. Donald G. Smith ditched at sea Shangchow, China
40-2268 Bat Out of Hell 34th BS Nagoya Lt. William G. Farrow crashed S Ningpo, China

From CBSNews.com:

Crowds line up to meet Doolittle’s Raiders for last time

(CBS News) FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — It’s easy to spot Doolittle’s Raiders. They’re the guys in the white hats. Take a good look at Edward Saylor, David Thatcher and Richard Cole. This is the last time you’ll see them together.

“If you didn’t decide to wind it down, you might end up having to plan a reunion and so forth and end up with no people,” Cole says, when asked why they decided to stop participating in public reunions.

They’re all in their 90s now, but in the darkest days of World War II, they were daring young men who launched the first American attack on Tokyo, flying B-25 bombers that were never meant to take off from an aircraft carrier.

It’s been 71 years.

“We thought they’d forget about it by now,” Cole says.

Not a chance. The line for autographs at a museum in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was over an hour long. Paul and Danna Fleming, of Maryland, took their children out of school to see them.

“Drove straight through, 16 hours straight to get here for today,” Danna says. “We drove all night,” adds Paul.

Doolittle Raid, Mitchell Leaving DeckI say: as well you should.  These men struck the very first blow against Japan immediately following the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941, though America, at that time, possessed such a minimal chance of overcoming the might of the Japanese War Machine.

WWII  DOOLITTLE RAID ON TOKYOWhat you may not know: each Raider realized that, logistically, they would never be able to return to their carrier, the USS Hornet.  They would have to hit Tokyo and hope for some kind of safe landing in China.  On the day of the raid, however, they were told that, worse, the Japanese knew of the plan and — because of this — the raid would be launched from a point much farther from Tokyo.  As a result, their B-25 Mitchells now carried insufficient fuel to guarantee anything resembling a safe landing anywhere.  These men — volunteers — had no hesitation: they vowed to continue the raid with unanimity.  This then became, in essence, an unspoken suicide attack.

The Doolittle Raiders have a tradition.  Beginning in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each April to commemorate the mission.  The reunion is in a different city each year.  However, in 1959, the city of Tucson, AZ presented the Raiders with a set of 80 silver goblets, each engraved with the name of an individual Doolittle Raider.

Every year a wooden display case bearing all 80 goblets is transported to the city of the Doolittle Reunion and, each time a Raider passes away, his goblet is turned upside down.

Doolittle Raiders GobletsContained within this case is one bottle, a marque of 1896 Hennessy Very Special Cognac.  1896 is the year that Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle was born.

The plan: when only two Raiders are left, they are to open the bottle and toast the comrades who preceded them in death.

At the beginning of this year, 2013, there were still five living Raiders. In February, Tom Griffin passed away at age 96.  He did this: after bailing out of his plane over a mountainous Chinese forest following the Tokyo raid — which did little actual damage — he contracted malaria, recovered, and was sent to Europe to fly more combat missions.  He was shot down, captured, and spent 22 months in a German POW camp.

Further, here’s the kind of man he was:

When his wife became ill and required a skilled nursing facility, Mr Griffin visited her every day, walking from his house to the home itself.  He fed his wife and brought home her clothes each day, washing and ironing them.  He would walk back and return them the next morning.  He did this for three years until her death in 2005.

Only four Raiders remain living: Dick Cole (who could not make the Florida reunion), Doolittle’s co-pilot, Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher — all in their 90s.

They decided there are too few of them remaining to warrant any further public reunions and that, at a later date this year, they will get together privately and open that bottle of Hennessy.  The four remaining upright goblets will be filled with an 1896 cognac.

In a final toast to those who dared, and to those who are gone.

God bless America.

The best and last hope of the entire planet.


Many years ago, when I was much younger, I can remember my father saying he met Jimmy Stewart and drank with him at Mather AFB.  He also said that he saw numerous B-25s in Sacramento at McClellan AFB practicing short field take-offs in the early 1940s.

I believe he saw the Doolittle Raiders.

He said he liked Jimmy Stewart and that he wasn’t arrogant.  And that he drove him back to the barracks.

DSC00495Col Richard Lee Alley, USAF
1920 – 2009
WWII, Vietnam