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[November 13, 2012]
History lession learned up-close
Nov 13, 2012 (The Kansas City Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Linked together by arms tossed over each other's shoulders, four teenage college students surrounded a World War II veteran last week in the lobby of Avila University's Goppert Theater.
Their youth and wide-eyed curiosity contrasted sharply with the 90-year-old vet's heavily creased face and the decades-old stories he was telling about war and camaraderie.
One question was on their minds Thursday night.
"We heard you flew a mission that dropped food and supplies to a POW camp in Japan where Louis Zamperini was held, can you tell us about that " asked Utah Findley, a freshman and Avila football player.
Findley and his three friends knew all about Zamperini, a former U.S. runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and World War II bombardier, who'd survived 47 days stranded on a raft in the central Pacific before being lifted off the water by members the Japanese Imperial Army.
For two years he was kept a prisoner of war in some of the most notorious Japanese war camps.
Zamperini is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book "Unbroken," which is required reading for all Avila freshmen. The students knew too, that Zamperini, 95, would be the honored guest, via video conference, later that evening,in the campus theater.
For now though, veteran Carl Freeman was holding court and ignoring the plate of food placed in front of him. It was only the second time since the war that he'd told these tales to young people.
When he was younger, talking about the war was "too hard," the Grandview resident said. Now, old and hard of hearing, "I love it." Findley's question got his attention. With amazing detail he talked about the torpedo bomber Avenger that he flew in. In August 1945, after the war had ended, the aircraft dropped sea bags full of rations to POWs still in Japanese war camps.
"That was the best mission I ever flew," Freeman said.
Sharing that story, he said, was one of the highlights of his visit to Avila.
The other would come later when, to a standing ovation, he was introduced via Skype video call, to Zamperini, the evening's featured guest.
The university, which organized the event as a Veterans Day celebration and part of the school's Truman Lecture Series, had worried that the veterans they invited might not be able to hold the attention of the several hundred students, faculty and community members who came to hear them speak.
But Freeman and World War II veteran Jim Pippen talked for an hour about their wartime experiences, sometimes bringing their audience to roaring laughter.
"That's what happens when you get old men together telling war stories," said Bob Luder, a university spokesman.
And on a screen in front of a nearly full auditorium, Zamperini talked for about 45 minutes, from a Hollywood studio, telling his own saga of courage and stamina. He spoke about surviving a vicious Japanese prison guard, starving in the POW camps and returning home to Torrance, Calif., to a hero's welcome after being presumed dead for two years.
He also told about being dragged to hear Billy Graham speak and how it "saved," his life; and in 1998 at age 81, carrying the Olympic torch through the streets of Nagano, Japan, near where he had been a POW in 1945.
Carrying the torch, Zamperini said, was a very emotional moment for him.
For most of his talk, Zamperini sat motionless behind a desk and spoke with ease about his life as if he'd told the story a hundred times.
Then he answered students' questions presented to him by Avila President Ron Slepitza, who described Zamperini's story as "one not only of trial and tribulation but also of redemption." And Zamperini's advice to students as they move forward in life "Remember that all things work together for good, and no matter what happens, keep a cheerful countenance at all times." To reach Mara Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to email@example.com.
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