CBS News - July 6, 2014
A FINAL SALUTE now to Louis Zamperini, an American hero in both war and peace who died this past week at the age of 97. The suffering he endured during World War II was matched only by the remarkable forgiveness he later extended to his former tormentors.
Chip Reid's visit with him two years ago is this Independence Day weekend's Cover Story:
"The house is full of antiques," said Louis Zamperini. "Including me!"
Zamperini's home is too small to hold memories of a life so large. There are the trophies honoring his athletic accomplishments, including the five torches he carried at five different Olympic Games
And then there are the souvenirs from the prison camps where he spent two years of his life, including a bamboo fork, and an old belt buckle he still has.
"I'm surprised the Japanese didn't take it away from me, 'cause they were short of brass," he said.But Zamperini's story was pretty much ancient history -- an elderly man waving in a parade -- until a bestselling book, "Unbroken," reminded the world of his harrowing tale.
His first fame came when he was just a teenager. In 1936, he made the U.S. Olympic team; at 19, he was the youngest qualifier in the 5,000 meters.
He didn't win, but Louis Zamperini became a household name -- a sports hero.
A few years later, the nation was at war, and Zamperini was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. In May 1943, his B-24 crashed into the Pacific.
"Our number one engine, the rpm stopped," he recalled. "This plane was barely flying with four motors, and with two gone, it just dropped like a rock. And so we hit the water nose down. I felt like someone hit me on the forehead with a sledgehammer. The plane was completely blown apart."
As documented in a 1998 CBS News story from correspondent Bob Simon, Zamperini spotted a life raft floating rapidly away from the burning water. He swam to it. He spent 47 days in the inflatable raft.
"I never prayed before," Zamperini said. "When you're on a raft, you pray like in a foxhole."
He fought off sharks, and battled the sea.
Things went from bad to worse. Zamperini was near death when he was captured by the Japanese and taken to a place known as "Execution Island," where every known prisoner had been put to death.
"They took great joy in telling us we were going to be executed," he said. "They'd always go through the motions [slitting throat]"
It got even worse. His fame back home led to hours of torture and beatings at the hands of a sadistic guard nicknamed The Bird. "I couldn't bear to look at his eyes. I just couldn't do it. To me, they were that sadistic," he said.When he wasn't being beaten, he was starved, like most of the Americans held by the Japanese. But somehow, he survived.
Louis Zamperini returned home a hero. There were TV appearances, including "This Is Your Life." His life appeared to return to normal.
But the war years, while gone, were anything but forgotten. Haunted by nightmares, he turned to alcohol.
Then, in a last-ditch effort to save his marriage, and perhaps his life, Zamperini joined his wife Cynthia at a prayer service led by a young Billy Graham. Graham's sermon touched on the power of forgiveness.
"That was the first night in two-years-and-a half that I didn't have a nightmare, and I haven't had one since," recalled Zamperini. He said forgiveness "was the complete healing factor in my life."
Which is why Zamperini decided to commit himself to a lifetime of forgiveness.
And that meant he had to go back to Japan, to see the prison guards who'd tried so hard to destroy him.