Serendipity is thrilling. My recent flight to Singapore was uneventful, but for a riveting read during the entire journey. I was crossing the pacific for a stopover in Tokyo with Louis Zamperini as my literary companion. Sometimes you pick up a book you were meant to read and then cannot put it down. This Key is about what I learned from Louis Zamperini. His amazing story is told in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
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Unbroken – An Improbable Odyssey
Everyone else on the flight was asleep. It’s a smart way to adjust to the time change from Seattle to Tokyo. But I could not sleep. The improbable survival story of Zamperini kept me awake. I looked outside at the distant ocean from 38,000 feet and imagined Zamperini and his pilot Phil floating on a small punctured raft, surrounded by sharks, drifting for 47 days, covering 2000 miles with no food or water. If ever there was a description of impossibility, this was it. But Zamperini lived to tell about it and the even more difficult chapters that awaited him in a Japanese prison camp. Here are a few of the lessons from this incredible mesmerizing odyssey:
- A rough beginning does not define your destination – Zamperini’s early years were challenging. His childhood was filled with mischief. Escaping school, jumping trains, breaking the rules and stealing were his main preoccupations. He was often chased by the police but was just too fast to be caught. These early experiences were formative but they did not define the person he was to become. This jagged beginning served as his self-conditioning to build a character not defined by the environment and what others thought. In retrospect he was developing the character formation that later saved his life.
- Running is the first salvation – As a boy, running was my first healing and salvation, both physically and psychologically. Zamperini’s story made me relive how running saved my life. I defied the doctor’s order, took up long distance running and went on to win the Israeli long distance running championship at age 14. Every obstacle I have overcome since can be traced in part to this formative experience. In Zamperini’s case it was his brother who redirected his energy and talent to competitive running. Louis found his purpose and exceled immediately. His sensational record run of the mile on his high school track team held firm in the Scholastic Book of World Records for two decades. It accelerated his unparalleled ascent and he went on to qualify for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His youthful appearance at the Olympics and finishing the final 400 meters of the 5000-meter run in 56 seconds caught Hitler’s eyes. A future Olympic glory clearly awaited Zamperini. The story left me haunted, desiring with him for the Tokyo Olympics in 1940, where he was destined for gold and a world record. But the Tokyo Olympics never happened. Zamperini’s eventual arrival in Tokyo was under very different circumstances. He faced the battle to win a much more difficult race. His long distance running forbearance and resilience were tested in the most extreme conditions and became the foundation for his incredible survival and salvation.
- An unrealized potential seeds an even greater destiny – As the war got underway and the dream of the 1940 Olympic gold was snatched away, Zamperini was left disoriented, his goal and purpose out of reach. This unfulfilled energy and unrealized potential had to be redirected into a new goal – the race to stay alive. He was flying against the odds in the Pacific theater, fighting the Japanese Imperial Air Force. His Olympic race took a new form after the Green Hornet, his bomber, crashed into the Pacific and a rescue mission was unable to find him and two other survivors. He could have disappeared into the Pacific like many others before him, but his odyssey became staying alive while drifting on a very small raft. Sharks, starvation, no water and the Japanese firing into the raft at close range should have ended Zamperini’s journey. But 47 days and 2000 miles later he and his surviving pilot friend were washed ashore on the Marshall Islands. This was just the beginning of the Japanese chapter, in which he was to play an even greater destinic role.
- Courage is the first of all qualities – During my fighter-pilot-training years in the Israeli Air Force I studied the history of air fights but somehow never realized the impossible odds and mind-numbing statistics of survival in the Pacific Theater in WWII. These brave men went to work and took off day after day, to watch their friends crash or be shot down and disappear into the abyss of the Pacific. Taking off every day when you know that your chances of coming back are slim takes immense courage. Courage has a mesmerizing and hypnotic power in the face of impossibility. This is the courage that saved the world in WWII. Courage is indeed the first of all human qualities.
- Human cruelty can be horrific. It is only paralleled by an even greater resilience – As we approached our Tokyo landing I was filled with horror as I quickly turned each page of my Kindle through the experience of Zamperini’s torture. His POW ordeal in a Japanese prison camp where he was continually tormented by a sadistic, psychopathic guard is a difficult read. What shines through this impossible pain and courage is his incredible resourcefulness and a resilient power to go on in the race against death.
- Helping others is the greatest help to self – Zamperini’s POW experience is a difficult and painful account to read. Actually it’s horrifying to the extreme. But the beauty of the story shines forth in the compassionate help and support prisoners found with each other and few guards. Helping each other to survive the increasing odds of imminent death takes the reader through the impossibility of their situation to the triumph of their determination to not only survive but have leadership and power over their situation and over their own despair.
- Redemption is glorious and a lot of work, too – A few years after he returned home and married, Zamperini’s life started to implode. The trauma and the emotional and mental scars, of which there was little understanding in the years after the war, were just too much. But then he climbed back and reclaimed his life once again. Zamperini and his survival is a moving story in the most profound way. It is a mirror that reflects to us all the human potential and power of not giving up, of resilience, of working hard, and of the human spirit and all that it may do.
Now it’s your turn. Turn the Key. Discover and get inspired by Louis Zamperini and how far a resilient will and determination can carry us forward into the challenges of the future. Learn about the power of survival, courage, forbearance, redemption and forgiveness. This world is filled with inspirational people. And you have your stories and inspiration to tell and share.
© Aviv Shahar