From Delinquency to Fame

By Georgie Bright Kunkel

Those who follow the New York Times list of best sellers are acquainted with the book Unbroken that has taken the literary world by storm. It chronicles the life of Louis Zamperini who was an Olympic track participant and WWII survivor. I became aware of the book when the author Laura Hillenbrand called to interview me about my brother Norman Bright who was Zamperini’s track friend. Zamperini and my brother roomed together after arriving in New York a week before the 1936 Olympic track trials. My brother suffered severe foot problems during that harrowing week of practice but he went on to finish the final Olympic trials while others dropped out. However, he came in fifth when only three could advance to the Olympic Games to be held in Hitler’s Germany.

Zamperini was one of those who made the Olympic track team.

Hitler refused to allow any Jewish runners to take part and as a result Zamperini was asked to be one of the replacements for the Jewish runners originally entered in the relay race. Even though Hitler championed what he called the Aryan race, the great Jesse Owens came through with four gold medals during these Olympics. That must have upset Hitler’s belief that only Aryans were superior.
Zamperini lived a tempestuous life in his early years and might have ended up in prison if his brother had not recognized his running ability and urged him to participate in track. He went on to finish college. His perseverance provided him with the guts to survive a harrowing WWII experience. He was in the air corps when he was ordered on a search and rescue mission in a B-24 bomber which was downed in the Pacific Ocean. He survived on a life raft and lost half his body weight before reaching the Marshall Islands. There he was captured by the Japanese and sent to a notorious prisoner of war camp. He was tortured and tormented. After he returned from the war and was married he began drinking in an attempt to deal with traumatic stress. He was at risk of losing his wife and his peace of mind until his wife suggested that he attend a Billy Graham tent meeting. There he suddenly realized that he must turn his life around.

Zamperini is now ninety five and is still greatly sought after for publicity appearances. His son and daughter accompany him to such events as the celebration held at a posh resort in Arizona and a fundraiser held recently on the Navy carrier Hornet where Zamperini offered three opportunities to have lunch with him for a bid of $5000 each.

Fame has its frustrations, however. Zamperini cannot possibly accept all the wonderful opportunities to travel and speak about his life. A film about it all is being produced with Louis serving as adviser. He once remarked, “I am impatient and hope that at my age I can live long enough to see this movie completed.” He has become the 21st century version of bad boy turned hero, helping delinquent young boys turn their lives around. Everyone loves this male version of the Cinderella story.

I am looking forward to the movie and wonder who will be playing the part of my brother—my red headed track star and mountaineer brother--- who set his sights on winning, even running Masters races into his eighties after losing his sight. In the past, many younger people looked up to him as a model of staying the course and giving life the best that he had. Zamperini is still doing just that.

Georgie Bright Kunkel is a freelance writer who can be reached at or 206-935-8663.

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