Thursday’s event consisted of a lunch period, a video detailing Zamperini’s life story and Zamperini himself as a guest speaker.
Known as a troublemaker in his youth, Zamperini said he was constantly running from the police in his hometown of Torrance — outrunning them, in fact. Under the guidance of his brother Pete, Zamperini started to channel his fast feet toward honest sportsmanship. He set the high school track record for a mile with a time of 4:21.2.
At age 19, Zamperini won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. He finished eighth in the 5,000-meter distance event, hoping to redeem himself at what was supposed to be the 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The games never happened because of World War II. Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. After a rescue mission across the Pacific Ocean went horribly wrong, Zamperini was stranded on a blow-up raft with two other comrades, Russel Phillips and Francis McNamara. McNamara died after five weeks at sea, and Zamperini and Phillips were left to float for two more weeks before the landed on the Japanese camp on the Marshall Islands.
Zamperini and Phillips were taken prisoner and were held in captivity in various Japanese prisons on the mainland for more than two years. They were released when WW2 ended in 1945.
Zamperini spoke honestly about his experiences in the prison camps, briefly talking about a period after he got home, afflicted by heavy alcohol use and hatred toward those who tortured him at the prison camp. But evident during the talk were his humor and resilience.
“You know what I ate?” he asked the audience, after recounting his arrival at a U.S. military camp. “Snickers.”
The event was attended by community members and Boys & Girls Clubs administrators and youths from all over Santa Barbara County.