The Torrance Tornado

Tough Kid From California Could Always Run

As a kid growing up in Torrance, Calif., in the 1920s and 1930s, Louis Zamperini was a troublemaker. He hopped freight trains. He skipped classes. He started smoking when he was 5 years old.

Torrance's police chief, Jerry Calder, knew him as a kid who was so fast on his feet that he managed to steal beer from bootleggers. Calder and Louis' older brother Pete convinced Louis to try another sort of running: track.

"The first race Lou got in, he won, and he heard his name," his brother Pete remembers. "All the guys yelling, 'Come on Lou, come on!' I guess that turned him because it was from there on out, he had a different outlook on life."

Louis became the sensation of Torrance High School. In May 1934, at the high school state finals, he unleashed the devastating kick that was becoming his trademark and that set a new world record for the high school mile.

Pete Zamperini, Louis' brother
In July 1936, the second time he ran 5,000 meters, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in New York City. "The city's dads, when they gave me my, my suitcase, they had painted on the outside, 'The Torrance Tornado,'" Zamperini remembers with a laugh.

"I was embarrassed. I finally got a roll of adhesive tape and I put it over the Torrance Tornado," Zamperini says. "I didn't want to get on the train with all these great athletes and this little punk high school kid comes in with Torrance Tornado."

For the first half of the race, Zamperini trailed world-record holder Don Lash. Then he pulled up next to him and stayed there. The two ran stride for stride the final 100 meters. They hit the tape together, tying for first.

Zamperini had made the U.S. Olympic team. He was 19. The one many thought would wind up in jail was going instead to the Berlin Olympics.

In Berlin, before a crowd of 100,000, he ran the 5,000-meter final. He hoped to keep the front-runners within safe distance before going for broke. But his lack of his experience showed.

With one lap to go, Zamperini was hopelessly behind. He ran his last lap in a staggering 56 seconds, coming in eighth, the first American to finish. Adolph Hitler congratulated him on his closing kick. Zamperini was happy, but he believed that his moment would come at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.

But with World War II, those Olympics were cancelled. Zamperini signed up for bombardier training in Texas. With the rank of second lieutenant, he was posted in Hawaii, where he continued to train. On May 26, 1943, Zamperini ran a mile in four minutes and 12 seconds. Hours later his crew got a call to go out on a rescue mission.

The onlplane available was a B-24 nicknamed the "Green Hornet," a relic stripped of its parts to service other planes. The pilot, Russell Phillips, was told the Green Hornet had passed inspection. Phillips, Zamperini and 10 other crew members loaded it up and took off to search for a missing B-25 200 miles north of the island of Palmyra.

The Green Hornet headed south to where the B-25 had last been heard from and flew at 1,000 feet as the crew scanned the water below for survivors. Then the Green Hornet lost power from two of its four engines.

"It just dropped like a rock," Zamperini says. "The plane exploded. I felt like someone hit me in the forehead with a sledgehammer."

"My head comes out of the water; it just looked like the world has just stood still just for a moment, he says. "The plane was completely blown apart and I could see the pilot Russell A. Phillips and [Francis] McNamara."

Of the crew of 12, only Zamperini, Phillips and McNamara, the tail gunner, were alive. Zamperini spotted a life raft floating rapidly away from the burning waters.

He swam to it, then returned to scoop up Phillips and McNamara. Almost immediately, McNamara began to panic, screaming that they were all going to die.

It was, in fact, not an unrealistic assessment. They were alone in a raft somewhere in the Central Pacific. No one knew they were alive, and it probably didn't make much difference.

To find out what happened next, read "Adrift And Alone."

Produced by David Kohn