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Club Moved by Tale of Courage, Survival

Veterans Day: L.A. group salutes former Olympian who was shot at by Nazis, stranded on a raft at sea and held prisoner by the Japanese.


World War II veteran Louis Zamperini survived being shot at by both Nazis and the Japanese.

So the 82-year-old Hollywood Hills man was an obvious target Wednesday when members of the venerable Los Angeles Breakfast Club decided to honor someone for Veterans Day.

Zamperini was a bombardier on a 1943 flight over the Pacific Ocean when his plane crashed, forcing him to spend 47 days adrift on a life raft.

On Day 27 the raft was strafed by a Japanese bomber and began sinking. For the next three weeks Zamperini and two fellow crew members alternately bailed water from the raft and swatted at circling sharks with their oars before being rescued by a Japanese patrol boat.

Zamperini spent the next 2 1/2 years in a prisoner-of-war camp. When he refused to make propaganda broadcasts for the enemy, he was beaten almost daily.

His experience with the Nazis had been stranger.

Zamperini recalled how as a former Torrance High School and USC track star he was competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when, on a lark, he swiped the Nazi flag off Hitler's staff car.

German soldiers guarding Hitler's chancellery fired at him to save der Fuehrer's swastika, he said. As would be the case later in the life raft, Zamperini wasn't hit.

No wonder he was a hit at the Breakfast Club.

"Lou's one of the most amazing members of the USC family of all time," marveled university President Steven B. Sample--who presented Zamperini with a plaque during the club meeting.

Wednesday's presentation was reminiscent of one made at a 1945 Breakfast Club meeting when then-USC President Rufus von KleinSmid awarded a medal to Zamperini.

The idea of re-creating that moment came to club member Millie Eller when she set out to organize a veterans-themed program for this year.

"We're honoring all of the veterans of all of the wars," Eller explained. "But Lou's one of the great heroes of World War II."

The breakfast was a preview of activities scheduled today around the Los Angeles area to honor American military veterans. Those include the following:

* Santa Monica officials will dedicate a veterans memorial made of 8-foot granite columns representing the five branches of the armed services. The 10 a.m. ceremony at Palisades Park north of Santa Monica Boulevard will feature an aircraft flyover and comments by retired Adm. Ron Tucker, a Santa Monica High graduate.

* In West Los Angeles, Veterans Day will be celebrated today with an 11 a.m. program of music, entertainment, a demonstration of military equipment and a keynote speech by Vietnam veteran Dannion Brinkley, head of the group Compassion in Action.

* In downtown Los Angeles, homeless veterans will be saluted in a celebration co-sponsored by the Salvation Army and the Union Rescue Mission at 11 a.m. at 545 S. San Pedro St. The Los Angeles Korean Corps brass band and the mission's men's group, Voices of Harmony, will perform.

* In Burbank, highly decorated former Air Force Capt. Lillian Keil will lay a memorial wreath at 11 a.m. at the 40th annual Veterans Day ceremony at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive.

* At San Pedro's Ft. MacArthur, troops from the Los Angeles Air Force Base will hold a 4 p.m. retreat ceremony. Retired Capt. Alexander Ciurczak of Capistrano Beach, a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, will be presented with an Air Medal.

Other events recently honored veterans around Southern California.

In Norco, a reunion of Korean War veterans who served in the 40th Infantry Division's 224th Regimental Combat Team's Company F was held last week. The group of about 35 infantrymen and officers--including retired Gens. Tom De Graw of Corona and Pasadena-native Dan Hernandez--meets quarterly, according to Al Goldfarb, a former Company F combat correspondent now living in West Los Angeles.

In Riverside, about 100 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients ended a five-day convention Sunday. During the gathering, they helped dedicate a memorial to the 3,409 men and one woman who have been decorated with the nation's top medal for "gallantry beyond the call of duty" in the face of death. The memorial is at the Riverside National Cemetery.

At Wednesday's Breakfast Club, Zamperini recalled a few of the times he looked death in the eye during his wartime ordeal.

"The greatest challenge and probably the most trying time anyone can have is combat," he told the crowd of about 100 club members.

All but three of his fellow crew members were killed when engine problems forced them to ditch their B-25 Liberator in the ocean.

Assuming that Zamperini had died in the crash, the U.S. Army Air Corps officially declared him dead.

Released at war's end, he had continuous nightmares about his POW treatment until a sermon by Billy Graham convinced him to forgive his captors, Zamperini said.

When he finished his remarks and sat down, all the members of the Breakfast Club lined up to shake his hand. And to say thanks.

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