Louis Zamperini’s Childhood: Thief to Champion

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What was Louis Zamperini’s childhood like? How did it help him become the man that was overcome incredible odds later in life?

Louis Zamperini’s childhood was marked by his rebellious nature and troublemaking. He was considered a terror by people who knew him. However, Louis Zamperini’s childhood was changed by his older brother Pete’s faith in him, and Louis’s natural defiance became his greatest asset.

Louis Zamperini’s Childhood: The Wayward Child

Long before Louis Silvie Zamperini was an Olympic athlete and soldier in WWII, he was a child criminal no one knew how to handle. Born to Italian immigrants in New York in January 1917, he was the second of what would become four children. His parents were Anthony, a coal miner and boxer, and Louise, who had Louis when she was 18. After Louis came down with pneumonia at the age of two, the family moved to Southern California to live in warmer weather. Louis Zamperini’s childhood was spent mainly in California.

The family moved to the town of Torrance just south of Los Angeles. In Torrance, Louis’s antics earned him the reputation of being the town terror. He once ran across a busy highway and was almost run over. At five, he started smoking cigarette butts found on the street. At family dinners, he climbed under the table and stole his parents’ glasses of wine. One night, he grew so inebriated, he fell into a rosebush in the yard. On another, he almost drowned in a refinery well after diving off the top of an oil rig. When they pulled him out, he was covered in oil.

Mostly, Louis Zamperini’s childhood was spent as a a thief. He learned how to pick locks with wire and broke into neighbors’ homes to steal their dinner off the tables. The sight of Louis sprinting down an alley carrying a whole cake was not infrequent. He stole a keg of beer from a local party and pies from the local bakery. He was always on the run, with enraged community members trailing behind, two of which threatened to shoot him if he came by again.

Louis also ran random money-making rackets. He jammed up pay phones and returned later to collect the lodged change. He stole copper from a scrap lot and returned to sell it back to the owner the next day. He staged fights with other kids so adults would pay them to stop. It seemed no behavior was off limits for Louis. 

Although a terror, Louis was brazen, clever, capable, and fearless. These traits would serve him well as an adult in the war.

The Downward Spiral

During Louis Zamperini’s childhood, he was an outcast, not only for his mischievous ways, but also for his looks. He was scrawny and still struggled with his lungs because of the childhood pneumonia. He had big ears and unruly hair. Louis also spoke little English as a young boy because of the Italian spoken at home, and he stayed quiet through most of kindergarten and first grade. Thinking he was slow, the teachers held him back a grade. 

Louis was often bullied, but he never reacted to anything that happened to him. Other boys would punch and kick him, and he’d be bruised and bloody. But he never ran away, cried, or complained. He’d simply cover his face and wait for the abuse to be over.

As he got older, Louis grew more broody and brutal. He started hanging out with a rough crowd, but although he acted tough, he was crippled by shyness inside. He asked his father to teach him how to box and started lifting weights. He was able to fight his offenders now, but his rage was growing and turning toward everyone. On separate occasions, he punched a girl, shoved a teacher, and threw tomatoes at police officers. He even broke one kid’s nose and beat another unconscious. 

His parents didn’t know what to do with him. They were always required to make amends to the neighbors either through apologies or payment for damaged or stolen items. His father’s salary barely supported the family for the week, and the extra money was a burden. Anthony often punished Louis with spankings, but Louis never faltered. Like with the bullies, he took the beatings and continued his behavior.

Nothing anyone did worked. Louis was untameable and becoming more destructive. He was failing school and showed no skills other than mischief. If he continued to follow this path, there would be no real future for him. 

An Effort to Change

A turning point in Louis Zamperini’s childhood would cause him to change his ways. American scientists had started touting eugenics in the 1930s. Eugenics was the idea of removing all undesirable people from the gene pool as a means to strengthen the race. The list for who would be sterilized was long and included the mentally ill, women deemed promiscuous, slow learners, criminals, the sick, the disabled, and the homeless.

At the beginning of the decade, California was deep into eugenics. They would sterilize close to twenty thousand people.

A teenage boy at Louis’s school was considered mentally incompetent and sent away to a mental institution. The boy’s parents had to legally fight to save him from sterilization. Louis knew that who he had become was exactly the kind of person slated for the same kind of trouble. This realization snapped him out of his behavior, and he started trying to change.

Louis started to engage more with others in a positive way. He helped around the house, made biscuits for his community, and gave away the things he’d stolen. Still, he was restless, and he’d lie awake at night dreaming of traveling far away from home.

A Change of Heart

After a school prank went badly, Louis’s brother Pete convinced the principal to let him train Louis in track instead of kicking him out. Louis’s adventure on the road was such a disaster, it would force him to take stock of his life. Louis and another friend jumped a train headed north and ended up trapped in a boxcar in the heat with no ventilation. Panicked, they escaped by climbing through a roof vent.

A railroad detective found the boys and forced them to jump off at gunpoint while the train was still moving. Days of loitering and thieving left them exiled from towns. They were destitute and stranded in a railyard. Louis saw a train with a fine-dining car go by, and something about the refinement of the people inside made him realize he was wasting his life. He started for home immediately and reconciled himself to let Pete train him.

All of the effort Louis had put into plotting and scheming now went into running. He no longer ran to escape trouble or an altercation. He ran because it was what started to feel the most natural.

With his world suddenly falling into a cathartic focus, Louis’s body and behavior worked to reach their potential. He quit boozing and smoking and worked on increasing his lung capacity by submerging himself in the local pool in Redondo Beach, sometimes for as long as three and a half minutes. 

Louis also became interested in the career of a runner from the University of Kansas, Glenn Cunningham. Cunningham had survived a tragic accident and had to teach himself how to walk again, then run. He was quickly becoming a legend in the making for his prowess in the mile. Louis idolized him.

Louis Zamperini’s childhood wasn’t always easy. Though he had a loving family, Louis struggled with rules. Though Louis Zamperini’s childhood was troubled, he later believed his resilient nature and determination as a runner and person helped him survive.

Louis Zamperini’s Childhood: Thief to Champion

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Unbroken summary :

  • How Louie Zamperini was on track to become an Olympic athlete until the war started
  • The unbelievable story of his capture as a prisoner of war
  • The ultimate fate of Louie and his captors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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