A parade needs celebrities, but for all its international renown and millions of viewers, the Rose Parade has an unusually short list. Besides the local heroes—the Tournament of Roses President, the Mayor of Pasadena, the Rose Queen and her Royal Court—and Rose Bowl Hall of Fame inductees, the only celebrity chosen by the Tournament is the Grand Marshal. And what a man he is, Louis Zamperini, who was chosen for the seat of honor in the 126th Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 2015.
TOR President Rich Chinen chose the theme “Inspiring Stories” after reading a biography of Zamperini written by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Olympian, World War II hero, POW, dynamic speaker, and a thoroughly spiritual man, Zamperini is the image of the theme.
Chinen said at the Friday press conference at Tournament House that when he read the book, “the theme crystalized” in his mind. The theme “pays tribute to people, those who have done great things,” he said. “It’s remarkable. So much of what they do leads to the unthinkable being achieved.”
Asked after the press conference what Zamperini’s reaction was when asked to be the Grand Marshal, Chinen told Examiner, “His kids sort of watch out for him. They really didn’t think he could do it, but he wanted to so badly to do it, and it’s a perfect fit for the theme.”
The book has been made into a movie, Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, which will premiere on Christmas Day, 2014, just a week before Zamperini rides down Colorado Blvd. in the Rose Parade. When Zamperini accepted the honor, he had nothing but compliments for Jolie.
He said that 15 or 16 of his friends were interviewed for the book, which was published in 2010. “All of them are dead now,” he said, “but I made a new friend in Angelina Jolie. I’m kind of all alone, except for Angelina. She loves me,” he said, sharing that she is quite affectionate. “She gave me a good conduct medal. It’s the worst medal I’ve ever gotten.”
Like his two previous books, Devil at My Heels and Devil at My Heels: A World War II Hero's Epic Saga of Torment, Survival, and Forgiveness, the newest book has been life-changing for people, Zamperini said, especially kids in trouble. A new book is in the works to cover some areas not previously written up.
“She (Hillenbrand) didn’t know about my adventure sailing a schooner down to Mexico,” he said. “It will be a different book altogether. Writers of my previous books were shocked to find out I had another life. Well, at my age, you’ve got to have another life.”
Zamperini’s story is indeed inspiring. At age 19, he became and remains the youngest athlete in the United States to qualify for the 5,000 meter Olympic run. At age 97, he becomes the oldest Rose Parade Grand Marshal. Though he finished eighth in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, his last lap of 56 seconds so impressed Adolf Hitler that he was called to a personal meeting with the dictator. There’s a story, reported on Bill Stern’s Sports Newsreel, that Zamperini climbed a flag pole during the games and stole the personal flag of Hitler.
He enlisted in the US Army Air Force in September, 1941 as a second lieutenant. In April, 1942, several of his crewmates were lost in the Pacific from a combat-damaged plane. He joined the search in a B-24; that plane crashed 850 miles west of Oahu. Only he and two other crew members survived. They spent 47 days on an inflatable raft though one died at sea on the 33rd day. They were strafed multiple times by Japanese, and when they came ashore on the Marshall Islands, they were captured and tortured.
After his release, he came home, married, and struggled to deal with his experiences and to be able to forgive his captors. “After becoming a born-again Christian,” Chinen said, “he sought the guards who tortured him to forgive every single one.”
After the press conference, Zamperini’s son Luke spoke with reporters. We asked what his father’s reaction was when he was asked to serve as Grand Marshal.
“Excited,” he told us. “It’s always an honor when people want to do something like this. It’s just another great thing to happen in his later years. It looks to be quite a year.”
One of the duties of the Grand Marshal is to toss the coin at the Rose Bowl Game. The younger Zamperini said his dad will enjoy doing that, and would be very happy if his alma mater University of Southern California was in the game “for the greatest Trojan ever.”
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