Chanting “Louie! Louie! Louie!,” thousands of people stomped and cheered Thursday as Torrance High School distance runners rounded the last lap of a run in honor of hometown hero Louis Zamperini, whose life plumbed the depths and soared the heights of the human experience.
Zamperini, who died July 2 at the age of 97, was a well-known icon in Torrance for decades. But in the past few years, his story has gone global.
An estimated 2,000 people filled the home-team stands at Zamperini Stadium to celebrate his life.
The two-hour event included prayer and music, speeches and emotional fly-overs. It also featured no shortage of the most famous Louie stories.
Zamperini's son, Luke, told the story of how his dad once stayed up all night, nursing his pet rats back to health; how he taught him to drive (and always to anticipate what the other driver would do); and how in his later years, he often said the words that came hard earlier in life: “I love you.”
“He was a really great dad,” he said. “He was always there for my sister and myself.”
Zamperini wore his USC ballcap everywhere, his son said.
“Louie was miraculous,” he said. “It's not that he performed miracles, but miraculous things seemed to happen to him.”
“I can't stop crying and my hair's a wreck,” said his daughter, Cynthia Zamperini-Garris. “Louie loved his hometown of Torrance and if he could see this turnout it would fill his heart with joy.”
The outdoor event was a chance for the hometown to say goodbye to “Lucky Louie,” who got his start running track at Torrance High School, which opened in 1917, the same year Zamperini was born. As a student there, Zamperini set a new interscholastic mile world record of 4:21:02, which stood for 19 years. He later went on to run at USC and compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Back then, the city rallied to send him off with a new suitcase.
If there was a sad note at the memorial, it was that Zamperini would not be on the red carpet come December. Zamperini died less than six months shy of the much-anticipated Dec. 25 release of “Unbroken,” the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic chronicling his story of survival, perseverance and redemption.
In an interview before the event, Luke Zamperini said he'd mentioned to Jolie how sorry he was that his father wouldn't see the movie.
“Oh, he saw it,” he said Jolie told him. She said she brought her laptop to the hospital to show him scenes she had been editing before Zamperini died of pneumonia.
Jolie was not able to attend Thursday's event but sent along a message that was read by Zamperini's grandson, Clay.
“Louie was my friend, my mentor and my hero,” it said, going on to praise the Greatest Generation that served a “country they believed in for morals they believed in.”
Among the touches they worked on to get right, she wrote, was “the T” on Zamperini's Torrance running uniform from the 1930s.
“My life and my family's life have been forever changed because of your ‘Torrance Tornado,' ” Jolie's message read. His legacy, she said, will be the triumph of the human spirit.
“Unbroken” producer Matthew Baer, who was inspired by seeing a clip of Louie at the 1988 Olympics, had been working for years to bring Zamperini's story to the big screen.
“I was the only person who loved talking about Louie's story more than Louie himself,” Baer told the crowd. He became so attached to the family and the project over the past 16 years that he said he became the “only Jewish Zamperini.”
The turning point, he said, came with a 2002 letter that began: “Dear Mr. Zamperini, My name is Laura Hillenbrand and I am the author of a new book ‘Seabiscuit.' ”
“Louie was always my biggest cheerleader,” Baer said, calling him a prophet of inspiration who had the ultimate underdog story to tell.
But it was probably the testimonies at the end from two young men whose lives were changed that would have pleased Zamperini the most had he been there.
Kyle Gauthier told the crowd he was trapped in a “whirlwind of drugs” just six months ago when the Zamperini family intervened. Louie provided several thousand dollars to send Gauthier to a Youth with a Mission program in Australia.
When he met Zamperini in person at his home in the Hollywood Hills, he was surprised after having read a signed copy of “Unbroken.”
He didn't boast, he didn't regale him with stories of heroism or mention the money he'd provided for his recovery, Gauthier said.
“He simply said, ‘Glory to God.' ”
“Sixty years ago the same experience that happened to me happened to Louie,” he said, referring to Zamperini's life-changing conversion to Christianity.
“If you can't believe in God, look at my life. Look at Louie's life,” he said.
For Alex Katunich, the former bassist with the rock band Incubus, the message came through Hillenbrand's book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”
On his way to rehab two years ago, he and his father stopped in at a bookstore. His dad suggested he read Hillenbrand's book, saying, “You might want to read this, presuming you can stop shaking.”
He urged the audience to ask what they could do for someone else as a way of honoring Zamperini.
A private July 13 memorial at Hollywood Presbyterian Church — where Zamperini was a member and Sunday school teacher for many years — drew childhood friends and celebrities, including Jolie.
The Torrance event was open to everyone and included several World War II veterans, among them Bill Sanchez, 96, who was in the prisoner-of-war camp with Zamperini.
Among the other highlights was the reading of the eulogy written by Hillenbrand.
“Louie and I began and ended in laughter,” Hillenbrand wrote in the eulogy read by Jolie at the memorial and by Zamperini friend Debbie Hays of Torrance on Thursday.
“I went to him drawn by the almost unimaginably dramatic and often harrowing events of his life. But when he spoke, something surprised and captivated me even more than his history. As he told of a war ordeal of profound suffering, in his voice there was no mournfulness, no self-pity, no bitterness, no anger. Instead, he was cheerful, buoyant, sparklingly witty.”
Ken Miller, who lived next door to the Zamperinis in the 1930s, recalled those early days in the 2000 block of Gramercy Avenue.
And several speakers recalled Zamperini's unlikely beginnings in light of the hero status he attained.
“In his youth, he was a juvenile delinquent,” former Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto said. “Stealing pies, cigarettes and liquor; ringing church bells in the middle of the night to awaken neighbors; fighting, shooting spit wads at girls in class — you name it, he did it.”
He was trouble. But he was also fast.
It was through the “tough love” of his older brother Pete, who later was a coach at Banning High School in Wilmington for years, that Zamperini began to channel his speed into track events. He was one of the 334 American athletes to go to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, where Adolf Hitler asked to shake his hand.
From there, his life took several turns that would give him iconic status as he shared his story throughout the world.
A bombardier during World War II, Zamperini was stranded for 47 days on a raft, only to be rescued by the Japanese who brutally mistreated him in a POW camp. He was erroneously reported as dead in 1944.
He had survived sharks, near starvation and beatings — but Zamperini could not handle what faced him when he finally returned home: an internal bitterness and anger that gnawed at his soul, visiting him in nightmares and driving him to drink. He became obsessed with hunting down the former captor who tormented him in the POW camp.
“I couldn't take it anymore,” Zamperini said in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles News Group. “... I was an athlete who went to the Olympics, and I was a soldier in World War II. But then my life fell apart.”
At the insistence of his wife, who had threatened to leave him, he attended a revival meeting on the streets of Los Angeles, where a young evangelist named Billy Graham was packing in the crowds desperate to hear his message of salvation and God's forgiveness.
“That changed my whole life,” said Zamperini, who always pointed to something deeper when personal praise came his way. “I accepted Christ as my savior, and I was on my knees. My whole life changed in a matter of seconds.”
His autobiography — “Devil at My Heels” — sparked early talk of a movie based on his life with the likes of Tony Curtis and Nicholas Cage expressing interest in playing Zamperini through the years.
But it was the 2010 publication of Hillenbrand's “Unbroken” that catapulted the renewed push in a big-screen film that stars Jack O'Connell in the title role.
In true Zamperini style, he was dubious about Hillenbrand's overtures in the beginning, telling her, “Look, lady, I wrote my book. If you want to do your own, go ahead.”