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James Ferragut, Published April 03 2011

Ferragut: Inspired by story of Louie

I read an amazing book about an amazing man. The book is “Unbroken” by Lauren Hillenbrand, and the man is Louis Zamperini. There isn’t a word big enough to describe Louie.

As a kid, he was a bright, mischievous, incorrigible little stinker and just minutes away from going down the wrong road. He came from a close-knit, first-generation family of Italian immigrants. They were poor but rock solid. His older brother, Pete, was Louie’s polar opposite, the perfect firstborn: disciplined, respectful, excellent student, role model, star athlete, the whole works.

Pete saw in Louie a gifted delinquent with endless potential who was wasting his talents. So Pete helped his kid brother channel his energy into running track. Louie was a natural. Pete knew it, and he pushed his brother, who took to the sport like the proverbial fish to water. Even though Louie started the sport late in high school, he was so good that he broke California state track records in the mile and other long-distance races.

He earned a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where again he set records. Against all odds, he made the 1936 American Olympic team and competed in the Berlin Games. Louie made such an impression on Adolph Hitler that the Fuhrer asked to shake his hand. Since mischief was in Louie’s DNA, he managed to steal a Nazi flag off a downtown Berlin building after the closing ceremonies.

Enter Pearl Harbor. He enlisted as a lieutenant in the Army Air Force, became a bombardier on a new B-24 bomber and was sent to the Pacific. On one mission, his plane ditched in the Pacific. Louie, his captain and a tail gunner were three in a crew of 12 who survived. Thanks to Louie’s discipline, training and determination to live, he and his captain survived for 47 days in the Pacific; the tail gunner didn’t make it. Louie had no way of knowing that the longest human survival in a life raft until then was 25 days.

Louie and his captain washed up on a Japanese atoll, were captured and sent to a series of POW camps. Louie and his POW brothers endured horrors that would make our worst nightmares look like a kid’s birthday party. The cruelties inflicted on allied POWs by their captors have been documented by post-war tribunals.

Louie’s survival story doesn’t end with the liberation of the POWs and the end of the war. Forces continued to work against Louie that were as damaging and insidious as his treatment in Japanese torture chambers.

There isn’t a better book that speaks to the strength and courage of the human spirit. It will require you to look at trials and challenges in your life.

Do you think you’re having a tough day or a string of bad luck? Do you think life is hopeless and your challenges are unbeatable? Did you really dig down into yourself as deeply as you could? I thought I had. But I was wrong. But I know that there is more fight and spirit in me than I could ever have known.

Louie proved it.

Ferragut is director of marketing for a Fargo public relations/advertising agency.