WWII veteran talks about life and war in Truman Lecture

Louis Zamperini, 95, 1936 Olympic miler, WWII veteran and Japanese POW camp survivor, speaks with about 350 people at Avila University’s Goppert Theater via Skype, an online video conferencing program on Nov. 8. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — In the late 1960s, Sister Olive Louise Dallavis, CSJ, then-president of Avila University, decided that Avila should support a lecture series like other colleges. She admired President Harry S. Truman as an ordinary Missourian, honest and straightforward, and thought him underappreciated as a president, but believed history would prove him a great one. She presented her case to Truman and, in 1970, received formal approval and exclusive rights to offer a lecture series to Kansas City in his name. The first Truman lecture, held in 1971, was delivered by David E. Bell, Vice President of the Ford Foundation and Truman’s first administrative assistant.

Since then, Avila has hosted such lecturers as anthropologist Margaret Mead, author Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking); commentator and author William F. Buckley; former Kansas City, Mo., police chief and former FBI director Clarence Kelly and Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker, the first woman elected, in her own right, to the U.S. Senate.

This year Avila showcased World War II veteran, former prisoner of war and Olympic miler Louis Zamperini on Nov. 8. Zamperini, 95, was also the subject of a 2010 New York Times best seller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, a book recently read by all first year Avila students. Zamperini spoke via a live video conference from his Hollywood, Calif., home, while several local veterans recalled their service days in person.

Ray Geselbracht, special assistant to the director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, joined WWII veteran Carl Freeman and Korean War veteran Captain Jim Pippen, USM ret., for a panel of information, memories and chuckles. Geselbracht spoke of Truman and the War in the Pacific, which the United States entered Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Carl Freeman grew up on an 80-acre farm near Kirksville and graduated from high school in 1941. Not wanting to farm, he tried driving a milk route and then recapping tires before throwing in the towel and moving to Kansas City, Kan., in 1942.

“I had heard about Pearl Harbor,” he said, “and decided to become a navy fighter pilot. Of course, I had no clue how to fly a plane.”

Freeman enlisted in Oct. 1942, and took a battery of qualifying tests for flight training. Then President Roosevelt froze enlistments.

Freeman was drafted in Feb. 1943. After boot camp in Farragut, Idaho, he was assigned to radio and radar communications and shipped to Memphis for six months instruction before flight training. He then spent a year flying around Fort Lauderdale through the Bermuda Triangle, unaware of its reputation.

From flight training he went to gunnery training, with an unexpected side job. “They found out I could shoot skeet and play softball, so I became an instructor.”

In fact, once he expected to get orders to leave Fort Lauderdale, and was stunned when he received none. When he asked why, Freeman was told, “Softball tournament.”

In Jan. 1945 Freeman was sent to Key West. “We were on a train in Georgia somewhere when we learned that FDR had died,” he recalled, a hint of stunned sadness still in his voice. From Key West he shipped to Hawaii.

Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Truman’s 61st birthday, but the War in the Pacific was ongoing. Two major battles were fought on Japanese soil, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, while in the Philippines, the campaign to recapture the entire archipelago and end three years of Japanese occupation had been going on since Oct. 1944. The late 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf was the first time Japanese kamikaze pilots were used.

After training in Maui, Freeman boarded the USS Lexington on June 1, 1945, “sailing for Leyte Gulf by way of Wake Island,” where he and his shipmates joined the Third Fleet under Admiral William Halsey.

“The Japanese would hide in coves around the island,” he recalled, and surround our ships with submarine nets.” He explained that during World War II, lightweight metal nets were sunk below the surface of the water to ensnare enemy submarines, leaving a marker buoy on the surface to indicate where they were. The nets had a similar effect on ships, tangling them up and making them easy to fire upon.

While stationed near Wake Island, Freeman flew numerous missions against Japan. His plane was shot at three times, amassing more than 300 holes in its exterior, but none of the crew was hit.

After the war, Freeman bought a pool hall in downtown Kansas City, Kan., employing a disabled cousin. He later sold the pool hall, and worked for the Phillips Refinery. Freeman eventually got a job at the Bendix Corporation in Kansas City, Mo., which manufactured most of the radio transmitter equipment for military aircraft during WWII. Freeman then sold insurance until his retirement. He now lives in the house in Grandview that he built for his parents in 1948.

Jim Pippen graduated from high school in 1946 and enlisted two months later. Following boot camp, he was sent to Quantico, Va., for infantry training. He served in Quantico for three years, was promoted to sergeant and transferred to the Pentagon.

The situation in Korea had been simmering for some time, and in 1950 burst into full-blown war. On June 25 an overwhelming force of North Korean soldiers poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south in the first military action of the Cold War. Under the auspices of the United Nations, America entered the war in July as part of an international army to support South Korea, as U.S. officials considered it a war against communism itself.

Pippen was shipped to Korea in 1953, where he saw fighting in the hill positions. To keep track of them, the hills were given nicknames, he said, including “Jane Russell,” “Marilyn Monroe,” “Big Berlin” and “Little Berlin.”

The people of South Korea were extremely poor, he recalled. “I saw an apple tree in a yard one day, and thought it looked strange. When I got a little closer, I realized that every apple was wrapped in newspaper, so if someone walked by and wanted to purchase an apple, it was all wrapped and ready to go, protected from bugs and critters.”

Finally, in July 1953, a truce was signed and the fighting ended. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians had died. The country remains divided to this day.

Pippen remained in Korea for several months and in 1954, was sent to New York City. He served in a recruiting office there for some time, eventually retiring from the military and returning to the Kansas City area.

Following a reception at the university’s Goppert Theatre, about 350 people gathered in the theatre where Avila president Ron Slepitza introduced Louie Zamperini via Skype.

Zamperini recounted his boyhood, his military service and his post-war life; a narrative laced with remarks that brought listeners to laughter or tears, often simultaneously.

Louie was born Jan. 26, 1917, the second of four children of Italian immigrants Anthony and Louise Zamperini, in Olean, N.Y. When Louie was two, the family moved to Torrance, Calif., where his father found work.

The boy spoke little English, which made him the butt of jokes and ridicule when he started school. His father taught him to box to defend himself, but he enjoyed fighting so much, it eventually got him into trouble.

Louie told the audience that “the more he ran from the cops,” the faster he became. Finally, his older brother, Pete, suggested he try competitive distance running at Torrance High School, to stay busy and out of trouble. The teenager loved track, and began winning titles, including setting the interscholastic record for the mile, a record that helped him get a scholarship to the University of Southern California.

At the age of 18, he tried out for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and won a spot on the 5000 meter race, the youngest U.S. qualifier in that event.

The U.S. team sailed for Berlin. Zamperini finished 8th, but sprinted the final lap in 56 seconds, raising speculation that he could be the first to run a 4 minute mile. At the end of the race, then-Chancellor Adolph Hitler called him over and shook his hand. Zamperini remembered that he wasn’t impressed. “Hitler was just another dictator.”

Later that evening, Zamperini went hunting for a specific souvenir, a swastika flag. He scaled a 15-foot wall surrounding the Reich Chancellery, and stole a flag. Spotted as he was climbing down, Zamperini was surrounded by soldiers. The army commander recognized the athlete whose hand Hitler had shaken and told Zamperini he could keep the flag. Zamperini said he still has that flag, 76 years later.

In 1938 he set the national collegiate record for the mile, a record unbroken until 1953.

In Sept. 1940, the war in Europe and Japanese aggression in Asia led Congress to institute a peacetime draft. By month’s end, Zamperini was drafted and in the infantry. After Pearl Harbor, Zamperini was shifted to the Army Air Corps and sent to bombardier school in Houston. Officers Candidate School and further bombardier training followed at Midland, Texas. Zamperini was commissioned a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force, as a master bombardier.

He shared memories of combat missions to Wake, Nauru, Makin and Tarawa islands: “It was early 1943. We plastered the Japanese at Wake Island, and flew six more missions to Nauru, Makin and Tarawa. Over Tarawa, our B-24 was riddled with bullet holes — we counted 600 — one wheel and the right tail were shot off. Half our crew was dead or wounded. But the rest of us landed safely.”

Flight crews avoided a B-24 bomber nicknamed the “Green Hornet,” which had a nasty reputation as a “lemon.” When, on May 27, Zamperini’s crew received orders to search for another bomber reported shot down near Palmyra Island, the only B-24 available was the “Green Hornet.” Reluctantly, the crew took off, flying south. They were searching for the downed plane when first one, then the other, port engine failed. The “Green Hornet” tumbled and turned, and within two minutes, slammed into the Pacific and exploded. The fuselage and left wing hit the water simultaneously and the aircraft cartwheeled. “It felt like someone hit me in the head with a sledgehammer,” Zamperini recalled. “I was forced forward and down into the water. I blacked out. When I came to, I was tangled in wires and cables that wound around me like metal spaghetti. The water was hot, full of flaming aircraft parts, pieces of the crew, oil and blood.”

Eight of the crew were dead. The survivors, Zamperini, pilot Russel Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara, found a life raft floating near the wreckage and climbed into it while fastening “Mae Wests” (life jackets). They were about 850 miles west of Oahu, adrift with six bars of chocolate and six bottles of water between them.

The first night on the raft, McNamara consumed all the chocolate and water, so to survive, they trapped rainwater in the empty bottles and caught small fish, which they ate raw. “We caught an albatross and used some of it to catch fish. We fended off the sharks that were attracted to the raw meat. A storm nearly capsized us. We were strafed twice by a Japanese bomber, which punctured holes in the raft, but none of us were hit.”

McNamara died after 33 days, and Zamperini and Phillips buried him at sea.

Two weeks later, they sighted land. Their excitement grew as they neared the beach, but was immediately squelched — captured by the Japanese Navy. They had drifted more than 2,000 miles to the Marshall Islands.

The two Americans were held in captivity for more than two years.

Carl Freeman tells of flying a navy fighter jet during World War II while Korean War veteran Jim Pippen listens. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

U.S. officials declared Zamperini “Missing in Action” and a year and a day later, “Killed in Action.” As a result, he was held in Ofuna as an unregistered captive. Carl Freeman piloted one of the American supply planes that periodically dropped supplies into the POW camp, supplies that were often sold by the guards. Zamperini and Freeman never met.

A sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (“The Bird”), singled Zamperini out for special torment. But he never lost his spirit. To help other POWs keep their minds off conditions and the lack of food, he would write out Italian recipes in the sand. The Bird once forced him to stand holding a heavy piece of lumber over his head, which Zamperini did for 37 minutes before collapsing in agony.

He finally was released and returned home in late 1945, where he received a hero’s welcome. He had lost more than half his body weight and suffered nightmares nightly.

Shortly after his return to California, Zamperini met Cynthia Applewhite, whom he married in 1946. The nightmares continued. “Once I woke up with my hands around my wife’s throat,” he remembered.

Now termed post traumatic stress disorder, his nightmares and other symptoms hounded him and frightened his wife. She convinced him to attend a Billy Graham crusade where he became a “born again Christian.” The nightmares ceased.

Graham helped Zamperini launch his career as a Christian inspirational speaker. Over the years Zamperini visited many of his POW guards to let them know that he forgave them.

He has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees. The track and field facilities at Torrance High School and the entrance to USC’s track and field complex are named after him, as well as the Torrance airport.

To celebrate his 81st birthday, Zamperini ran a leg of the Olympic Torch relay of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. His wife died in 2001.

He appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in June, talking about his life and war.

To Zamperini, Freeman, Pippen and to veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf War, the War on Terror (Iraq and Afghanistan) and other international uprisings, the memories may be decades old, but they are as clear as if they happened this morning.



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June 07, 2020
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph