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Need inspiration? Look no further than Sledge and Zamperini.

E.B. Sledge

We all need our sources of human inspiration.  This year, I have been lucky enough to find two:  E.B. Sledge and Louis Zamperini.

Sledge, who died in 2001, wrote the classic Marine Corps memoir, “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.”  Zamperini, alive and kicking at 95, is the subject of an enormously successful 2010 biography called “Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” by Laura Hillenbrand.

Sledge, I never had the opportunity to meet.  But in February, I was honored to spend 90 minutes with Zamperini at his home in Hollywood, the result of which was this article in the Tennessee Cooperator.

Both men have amazing stories.  In fact, “With the Old Breed” was the main source material for the HBO miniseries, “The Pacific.”  Zamperini’s story — so absurdly dramatic, it would be hard to believe were it not for Hillenbrand’s exhaustive research — is currently being made into a major motion picture.  This all sounds very glamorous, but the fact is, Sledge and Zamperini endured hardships that few people will ever understand or have to face in their own lives.

Sledge was a mortarman in the Marines 1st Division, and somehow emerged unscathed — physically, that is — from the most brutal and horrific combat of the Pacific campaign.  A quiet, scholarly man, he struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome for 30 years before publishing his memoir in 1981, which immediately became a classic and required reading for incoming Marine recruits.

Louis Zamperini

Zamperini’s life was improbable from the word go.  A hoodlum as a boy, he became a world-class track-and-field runner and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics alongside Jesse Owens.  Five years later, as a U.S. Air Force bombardier, his real odyssey began when his B-24 crashed into the Pacific during a mission to find another downed plane.  Zamperini and two other survivors managed to climb aboard a life raft and drifted 2,000 miles into enemy territory over a record-breaking 47 days before being captured by the Japanese and held as POWs for more than two years.  Because of his celebrity status and defiant nature, Zamperini was beaten and tortured nearly every day during his time as a POW.

So, how bad was your day today?

Don’t get me wrong.  We all have our challenges — some worse than others — and I don’t mean to minimize that.  But when I’m having a particularly rough day at work, or don’t think I can squeeze out one more pushup or run that last half mile, I picture either of these two men.  Because of them, I have the freedom to have a job, enjoy a workout, and worship the Lord as I please.  My sacrifices pale in comparison to theirs, and my challenges would’ve been a walk in the park to them as they fought to simply retain their human dignity and survive another hour amid the horrors of war.

Me with Louis Zamperini.

If you are looking for unparalleled sources of inspiration, you could do much worse than E.B. Sledge and Louis Zamperini.

UPDATE: Louis Zamperini died July 2, 2014, at 97.  A major motion picture about his life based on Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken,” is scheduled for release Christmas Day, 2014.

UPDATE: Read the story of my visit with Zamperini HERE and my review of the movie “Unbroken” HERE.

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4 Responses to “Need inspiration? Look no further than Sledge and Zamperini.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    That’s awesome you got to meet Zamerini! I just finished Unbroken and his story is amazing. I can’t imagine having to go through what he did and come out sane after. – Fran

  2. Fran, meeting Louie was a highlight of my career and a huge thrill for me personally. It also made me very sad that a man in his mid-90s is STILL very concerned — obsessed, almost — with survival. He spent a lot of time telling me about his earthquake shelter and how he keeps a survival kit in the glovebox of his car in case he runs off into a ditch somewhere. Seven decades later, and Louie is still apprehensive about his safety. All in all, though, he is a remarkable fellow, to be sure, and should be treated as a national treasure.

  3. Katy Taylor says:

    At the assisted living facility where I work, I host a monthly luncheon for the veterans. Currently there are four veterans living in the unit, two of whom served during the second World War. As part of the meeting, I like to bring in news stories of interest to veterans. Last month I recognized Louis Z’s life and achievements. All were riveted by his story. We always toast someone or something in these meetings, and on this day the glasses were raised in homage to Louis Zamperini.

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