Segment 1


Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Olympics. He had tied the 2nd fastest 5000 meter runner in America. He was sent to New York to compete with Don Lash who had the 2 mile record. Zamperini made the team.This all took place during the Great Depression. Food had been scarce but when Zamperini went aboard the ship to the Berlin Olympics, he couldn't believe all of the food that was available to them. He ate the entire 14 days they spent crossing the Atlantic and by the time they landed overseas he had gained 14 pounds.In the Olympic village there were different foods for all of the different nations and Zamperini felt that he had to try them all. He kept gaining weight but was still able to make the finals. In the finals he couldn't keep up the pace. On the last lap he sprinted and completed it in 56 seconds. He finished 8th place.Since Zamperini ran the lap so fast that Hitler decided that he wanted to meet him. Zamperini met Hitler and Hitler shook his hand and called him "the boy with the fast finish."When Hitler entered the stadium it was mandatory that the crowd give him a standing ovation. When Jesse Owens entered the stadium he got twice the ovation Hitler had gotten which Zamperini is sure Hitler didn't like.One thing Zamperini remembers from his time in Nazi Germany was how clean the place was. It was very sanitary. They also noticed that the entire country was military. They were focused on the Olympics but were suspicious that Hitler would try to take over some nations. They had no idea it would be the whole world.The Stormtroopers [Annotator's Note: the German Army's assault troops] were in the village to protect the Olympians. They were great guys. The Olympians would joke with them.The Olympians were issued a boy scout [Annotator's Note: not Boy Scouts. More than likely members of the Hitler Youth] who spoke English.Zamperini's impression of Germany is that it was the perfect setting for the Olympics. Everything was clean and well run and the people were very courteous. But that was just during the Olympics. Jesse Owens was a peach of a guy. Nothing got him down. He would return good for evil. Everybody loved him.Zamperini had a job at Lockheed working on P-38's [Annotator's Note: Lockheed P-38 Lightning]. It was exciting and he decided that he wanted to go into the Air Force. He enjoyed it until his instructor put him in a spin. Zamperini wanted out after that. He singed some papers and got out. He tried to get into Benning [Annotator's Note: Fort Benning, Georgia, Home of the Infantry] and become a lieutenant in the infantry but when he got out of NCO school [Annotator's Note: he means officers candidate school] his orders sent him to Houston, Texas to an Air Corps outfit. He didn't realize that the papers he had signed earlier were for bombardier school. He did some publicity for the Army Air Corps.Zamperini graduated as a bombardier in Midland, Texas. They were assigned a crew and sent to Ephrata, Washington to pick up a plane, either a B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress] or a B-24 [Annotator's Note: Consolidated B-24 Liberator] . Zamperini and his crew prayed for a B-17 but got a B-24. They referred to the B-24 as the "flying coffin." The B-24s were made by Consolidated. It was the most produced plane during World War 2 with about 19,600 [Annotator's Note: according to the US Air Force over 18,000 B-24s were manufactured] planes being built by numerous companies including Ford and Chrysler. Since some of the manufacturers lacked aviation expertise they ended up with a lot of lemons [Annotator's Note: slang for a defective aircraft] and lost more B-24s in practice than in combat.The B-24 was faster than the B-17, could carry twice the bomb load, and had a longer range which was needed in the South Pacific.While they were going over in their B-24s, all of the B-17s were being shipped back to America so they could be sent over to Europe. Due to the vast distances they had to fly, 1 of Zamperini's missions was like 10 missions in Europe. They were the first to bomb Wake Island. They took 6 of the 500-pound bombs out of their bomb bay and added more fuel tanks. At midnight on Christmas night 1942 they were to fly over Wake Island.The Norden bombsight was the most sophisticated weapon of World War 2. They [Annotator's Note: the bombardiers in Zamperini's group] were told to take them out of the plane and replace it with a little hand-held, 98-cent sight that they could use for dive bombing. They practiced diving from 8,000 feet and pulling out of the dive at 4,000 feet.When they got to Midway they were told by the Marines that they were going to bomb Wake Island. They were used to pulling out at 4,000 feet, but due to cloud cover over Wake they were forced to pull out at 2,000 feet. This added additional force on the plane. The bands on the fuel tanks expanded and when they pulled up the tanks dropped about an inch which prevented the bomb bay doors from closing. They were running out of fuel as they approached Midway. When they landed, all 4 engines quit before they got to the bunker.They had devastated the island. They had attacked with 26 planes and not 1 of them was hit by ack-ack [Annotator's Note: slang for anti-aircraft fire]. Zamperini later learned that Tokyo believed that the island had been attacked by dive bombers from an aircraft carrier.


All oral histories featured on this site are available to license. The videos will be delivered via mail as Hi Definition video on DVD/DVDs or via file transfer. You will be purchasing the oral history in its entirety but will be free to use only specific clips. Please contact the Museum at if you are interested in licensing this content. Please allow up to two weeks for file delivery or delivery of the DVD to your postal address. See more information at