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Louis Zamperini: The Trojan hero speaks at USC’s Bovard Auditorium

As a student at USC, Louis Zamperini channeled his energy into running and qualified for the 1936 Olympics. (Photo/Jeff Berting)

“I’m a Trojan through and through,” said 96-year-old Louis Zamperini ’40, the legendary World War II hero and former Olympian who is fondly nicknamed the “Greatest Trojan Ever.”

On March 13,  Zamperini spoke at Bovard Auditorium in an event hosted by multiple USC organizations, including USC Spectrum, the Program Board, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Kappa Sigma and the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Zamperini’s son Luke introduced a short video documenting his father’s remarkable life story. Growing up, his father’s accounts of hardship and struggle were Luke’s bedtime stories, but, as Luke said, above all else “he’s a great dad.”

Following Luke’s introduction, the audience watched a short film that chronicled the events of Zamperini’s early life, beginning with his exploits as a self-proclaimed “little punk” from Torrance, Calif.

Always up to no good, Zamperini eventually found a more rewarding way to expend his boundless energy — running. After setting multiple track records and being accepted to USC on an athletics scholarship, Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Olympics. Though he didn’t win a medal, he met Adolf Hitler and successfully nabbed a Nazi flag as a souvenir.

The film went on to document the harrowing sequence of events that followed the Olympics. Serving in the Air Force during World War II, Zamperini survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, drifting along in a life raft for 47 days. When he and his fellow airman landed on the Marshall Islands, they were immediately taken prisoner by Japanese troops.

For two years, Zamperini and other American prisoners of war suffered medical experiments, beatings, starvation and psychological torment. Zamperini described breaking down in tears one night as he clutched his skeletal knees, mourning the wasted body that was once so powerful.

Even after his liberation in 1945, Zamperini could not escape the horrors of the prison camp. The effects of post-traumatic stress followed him for years, until a meeting with preacher Billy Graham inspired Zamperini to become a missionary to Japan and confront his past. Embodying the Trojan traits of faithfulness and courageousness, Zamperini traveled to Japan and forgave his former captors in person.

As the film ended and Zamperini stepped onto the Bovard stage, he was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation. Once the cheers died down, he began to speak about his experiences.

“People expect me to be senile, but my mind is as good as it ever has been,” he said with a grin. He continued to produce big laughs with well-timed jabs at the University of California, Los Angeles, and he quipped about how being imprisoned prepared him “for 55 years of married life.”

Zamperini later delighted the audience by acknowledging his USC cap, declaring that he wears it wherever he goes. As a special surprise, members of the track team and USG gave him a gift at the event’s close — a customized USC cap with “Zamperini” embroidered on the back.

The erstwhile Trojan promptly donned it over the USC hat he was already wearing, making the “Fight on!” sign to the sound of roaring cheers in the audience.

Zamperini reiterated this classic USC slogan when students asked him how he found the strength to endure the arduous circumstances of his life.

“You have to take the bull by the horns,” he said, “and fight ’til the finish.”

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