By Donna Littlejohn
The Daily Breeze
Louis Zamperini will be given a hometown farewell Thursday night when the city of Torrance sponsors a public celebration of life at the high school football stadium named in his honor.
“He was our hometown hero and I think it will give people some closure, if you will,” said Debbie Hays of the Torrance Historical Society. “It’s just a way to pay tribute to the person who put Torrance on the map.”
Zamperini died July 2 of pneumonia, less than six months before the long-anticipated release of the film based on his life. “Unbroken” — based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-selling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” — will debut Dec. 25.
Zamperini’s July 13 memorial service at Hollywood Presbyterian Church was by invitation only to the 97-year-old’s close friends and family.
This week’s public outdoor ceremony begins at 6 p.m. and will feature remarks by Zamperini’s family — daughter Cynthia Zamperini-Garris, son Luke and grandson Clay — as well as Matthew Baer, producer of “Unbroken.”
Hays, who was a personal friend of Zamperini’s, will read the eulogy written by Hillenbrand. Angelina Jolie, who is directing the film by the same name, read Hillenbrand’s tribute at Zamperini’s memorial service.
Zamperini’s epic story of perseverance and survival spanned a run in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 47 days adrift in the Pacific where he encountered sharks, and two years in a Japanese POW camp.
But before all of that, he was a track star at Torrance High School — the family home still stands in the 2000 block of Gramercy Avenue — and USC. His late brother, Pete, was a coach at Banning High School in Wilmington for many years.
While Zamperini moved to the Hollywood Hills after World War II, he never forgot his hometown — and the love was mutual.
The original field where Zamperini ran, known as Wood Field, was on the high school campus, near where the parking lot now stands on Martina Avenue and 218th Street. The city opened the new Torrance Stadium in 1962 in his honor and renamed it Zamperini Stadium in 1987, a push begun by the students at Torrance High.
In September 2010, it was rededicated with Zamperini in attendance.
In 1944, when Zamperini was erroneously declared dead, the city named the Lomita Flight Strip Zamperini Memorial Field in his honor.
On Dec. 7, 1946, a ceremony was held to rename the field Zamperini Field (at what is now Torrance Municipal Airport), dropping the “Memorial.”
Aero Way, which leads to the airport, also was renamed Zamperini Way, thanks to the efforts of Zamperini’s longtime friend Jim Standifer, who will lead the flag salute at Thursday’s gathering.
When Zamperini returned from the war, he was plagued with bitterness and anger, drinking heavily and vowing to track down and kill his former POW camp captor, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe.
At the insistence of his wife, Cynthia, Zamperini attended a 1949 Billy Graham tent revival meeting on the streets of Los Angeles, experiencing a rebirth and Christian conversion that was to guide the rest of his days.
Rounding out Thursday’s schedule of speakers are musician Alex Katunich, the former bassist for Incubus, whose life was changed when he read “Unbroken” in rehab; Kyle Gauthier, one of the last at the Victory Boys Camp ministry that Zamperini influenced; Gail Morgan, president of the Torrance High School Alumni Association; and former Mayor Ken Miller, Zamperini’s former neighbor and childhood friend.
Several flyovers, including a banner tow salute and a missing man formation by the Tiger Squadron, will be held from 6-6:30 p.m.
Singer Laura Savitz, a music teacher at Victor Elementary School in Torrance, will sing “Amazing Grace.”
Other participants include honor guards from the Torrance Police and Fire departments; the Torrance High School Track Team distance runners, who will run a symbolic lap around the field; chaplain Dan Hudson; and former Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto.
Hays said the gathering will be part of a long tradition of honoring Zamperini in Torrance.
“The city has always come together to recognize Louis,” she said. “Louie would love it.”
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WANT TO GO?
What: Public celebration of life honoring Louis Zamperini
When: 6-8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Zamperini Stadium, 2125 Lincoln Ave., Torrance
Highlights: Flyovers, music, a symbolic lap by Torrance High School track team and remarks by several speakers, including Zamperini family members and Matthew Baer, producer of “Unbroken,” the Zamperini biopic being released on Dec. 25
Parking: Torrance Park, 2001 Santa Fe Ave.; Southern California Regional Occupation Center (SoCal ROC), 2300 Crenshaw Blvd.
More: Bottled water will be provided by the city of Torrance for guests, who will be seated on the home team side bleachers. Several World War II veterans also are expected to attend and will be seated with the VIPs and speakers on the field.