Jesse Owens and Louis Zamperini
The Buckeye Bullet
Birth name: James Cleveland Owens
Name change: Jesse Owens
Nickname: The Buckeye Bullet
Born: September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama
Died: March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona
Buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, IL
Weight: 165 lbs.
Hair color: Black
Eye color: Brown
High school: Cleveland East Technical High School
College: Ohio State University
Parents: Henry and Emma Owens
Siblings: Six brothers and sisters
Children: Gloria, Beverly and Marlene
Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913. J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name (to enter in her roll book), he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
Jesse’s promising athletic career began in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio where he set Junior High School records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump, and leaping 22 feet 11 3/4 inches in the running broad jump, now known as the long jump. During his high school days, he won all of the major track events, including the Ohio state championship three consecutive years. At the National Interscholastic meet in Chicago, during his senior year, he set a new high school world record by running the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the accepted world record, and he created a new high school world record in the 220 yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds.
A week earlier he had set a new world record in the long jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches. Owens’ sensational high school track career resulted in him being recruited by dozens of colleges. Owens chose the Ohio State University, even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship at the time. He worked a number of jobs to support himself and his young wife, Ruth. He worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, he pumped gas, worked in the library stacks, and served a stint as a page in the Ohio Statehouse, all of this in between practice and record setting on the field in intercollegiate competition.
Jesse gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin, while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result from a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly Jesse recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history…setting 3 world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.
His success at the 1935 Big Ten Championships gave him the confidence that he was ready to excel at the highest level. Jesse entered the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany amidst the belief by Hitler that the Games would support the idea that the German “Aryan” people were the dominant race. Jesse had different plans, as he became the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad.
This remarkable achievement stood unequaled until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when American Carl Lewis matched Jesse’s feat. Although others have gone on to win more gold medals than Jesse, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished. During a time of deep-rooted segregation, he not only discredited Hitler’s master race theory, but also affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.
Owens traveled widely in his post-Olympic days. He was an inspirational speaker, highly sought after to address youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high school and college commencements and ceremonies. He was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford and the United States Olympic Committee. He applied his Christian faith to his work with the National Council of Christians and Jews.
The first record of Owens bringing his oratorial splendor to Phoenix, where he lived out his last 8 years, was at a November 1964 banquet honoring the state’s Tokyo Olympians. “Your medal will tarnish. Your emblem will fade,” cautioned Owens, who admired great speakers more than great athletes and was both himself. “But the experiences you derive from sports mold a code of practice that will remain with you all your life.”
A patriotic, black Republican with a message of self-reliance and opportunity for all in America became appealing to corporate America. But Owens’ views held no appeal for the more radical U.S. athletes who saw the Olympic Games as a forum to protest racism. “By the 1960s, he was out of touch with any cutting edge of society,” said William Baker, a University of Maine history professor whose 1986 biography of Owens is regarded as the most balanced and definitive. Owens views were not popular with those “Radical” elements. “If the Negro doesn’t succeed in today’s America,” Owens wrote in the 1970 book Blackthink, “it is because he has chosen to fail.”
The Torrance Tornado
Name: Louis Silvie “Louie” Zamperini
Born: January 26, 1917, Olean, New York
Died: July 2, 2014, Los Angeles, California
Nickname: The Torrance Tornado
Spouse: Cynthia Applewhite (m. 1946–2001)
Movies: Zamperini: Still Carrying the Torch
Books: Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II, More
Children: Cissy Zamperini, Luke Zamperini
Parents: Anthony Zamperini and Louise Dossi
Siblings: Pete, Virginia and Sylvia
High school: Torrance High School
College: University of Southern California
Weight: 132 lbs.
Summary: Louie was a US prisoner of war survivor in World War II (in Japan), a Christian evangelist and an Olympic distance runner.
Louis Zamperini “Louie” was born in January 1917, in Olean, New York. Louie was raised in Torrance, California after his parents decided to move because his lungs were “Weak” when he was young. At first reluctant to do anything but rebel and cause trouble (he learned how to run away from trouble — so as to not get caught!, his brother thought it would be a good idea if he joined the track team. He soon discovered that he had a competitive streak a mile wide when it came to long-distance running.
In 1934, Zamperini set the national high school mile record, and his time of 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds would stand for an incredible 20 years! His track prowess also caught the attention of the University of Southern California, and he earned a scholarship to attend. Louie missed qualifying for the 1936 Olympics due mainly to his lack of high-level competition experience. So, instead, his brother (again) figured he ought to be able to run and be competitive in the long-distance (5,000 Meter) events.
Zamperini competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics against well known distance runners, and kept a modest pace (in the back of the pack) but then realized he had little time left at the end and so ran the fastest time anyone had ever run in the last lap – and wound up in 9th place! His feat impressed Hitler so much, that Adolph Hitler shook his hand and said “Last lap – very fast.” Nobody will ever know if Hitler decided to congratulate him because of his Italian heritage or whether he was really just impressed. Louie came out with no medals, but his roommate had 4 and was, you guessed it, Jesse Owens.
Zamperini was set to compete again in the 1940 games in Tokyo, which were canceled when World War II broke out. A bombardier in the Army Air Corps, Louie was in a B-24 Liberator that crashed in the South Pacific. After spending 47 days in a life raft, and a short POW stay on an island where Japanese soldiers had executed U.S. Marines only a few months earlier, he arrived in Japan and was tortured nearly every day for two years. Because of his fame, the Japanese never published record of his being a POW and so it was assumed that Louie had perished in the crash of his airplane in 1943. Torrance Air Field was renamed “Zamperini Memorial Field” (later renamed to just “Zamperini Field, after he returned following the war) in his honor.
After his release (following the Japanese unconditional surrender), Zamperini became an inspirational figure, and his life served as the basis for the Laura Hillenbrand 2014 biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Louie had earlier published his own story under the title: Devil At My Heels (1956, with Helena Itria). He also resisted numerous attempts by Hollywood to “Glamorize” his life’s story and to turn it into something it was not. Zamperini was a broken man after he returned home. His fame was quickly used and his notoriety helped him get into “Society” but the pain and suffering he had endured during his capivity led to nightmares and what we today call “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD.
He had dreams of killing his primary nemesis, nick-named “The Bird” (Mutsuhiro Watanabe) and was driven by his childhood predilection towards “Getting even”. Still, he met his wife at a society gathering and married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946. The PTSD nearly drove him over the edge, however, and he woke one night to the horror of choking his wife in her sleep! He knew he needed help, but the understanding of what was happening in tens of thousands of soldiers was very poor, and the resources were such that most simply gritted their teeth, and never talked about it (see Tom Brokaw’s excellent book on this subject, The Greatest Generation). Louie’s wife knew he needed help, but she had no recourse and so decided to divorce him. In a last-minute desperate move, she decided to attend the Revival Meeting of a young preacher named Billy Graham who had pitched his tent in Los Angeles.
She came home a changed woman – and told Louie she had decided not to divorce him. She urged him to go to a revival meeting. She almost dragged him to the first meeting, where he did not get saved that first night. But he went back! And he was saved that second night. And per Louie’s own testimony: He stopped drinking that very day and those nightmares he had been suffering from PTSD stopped that same day as well! Praise God!
Louie went on to found a camp for troubled youths called Victory Boys Camp (in the Sierra Nevada in California) and forgave his Japanese tormenters. Some received Zamperini’s forgiveness in person in 1950, when he visited a Tokyo prison where they were serving war-crime sentences. In 1998, Zamperini returned to Japan once again to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games. He stated his intention to forgive the Bird, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but Watanabe refused to meet with him. Zamperini also went on to become a prominent inspirational speaker.
This is what Laura Hillenbrand said about Louie’s recollection of the 1936 Berlin Olympics during their “Historic” meeting when she was writing the story that became Unbroken: “It was almost 80 years ago for Louie, and his memories of it remained vivid and lasting. It demonstrated what an honor, what a defining moment, it is for anyone to look up and realize they are participating in the grandest, most historic athletic competition our world has to offer. How could that not etch itself into your memory forever?”
Cheryl and I got to hear Louis Zamperini speak in 2013 and he was just as sharp and inspirational then as he ever was! I wish we’d have gotten to hear Jesse Owens speak. Two athletes. Two track stars. Both went on to have incredible impact on their world by virtue of their tenacity, their determination and the providence of a great God who inspired them and helped them to see the good they could offer to others.