In the small town of Torrance, California, during the early hour darkness of an August 1929 morning, Louis “Louie” Zamperini, then twelve-years-old, and his older brother Pete watch the German airship, the Graf Zeppelin, pass over their house. The size of two and a half football fields, the flying machine was three days from completing its trip around the globe. The Zeppelin had passed over Nuremberg, Germany, where Adolf Hitler gave a speech on selective infanticide. It also flew over Tokyo, Japan, where four million Japanese people shouted “Banzai!” as it passed. Unable to make out the details of the Zeppelin, Louie sees it as an “ocean of darkness” that blots out the stars in the sky.
The Graf Zeppelin shows up only once in the book, but its appearance in the first chapter reveals its importance as a symbol for war. Though the Zeppelin is on a mission of peace, Hillenbrand describes how it passed over the two nations, Germany and Japan, whose militarism would spark WWII. The Zeppelin, which Louie describes as if it were a black hole blotting out the stars, is a symbol of the coming war because, like a metaphoric black hole, the war will also blot out the lives of so many people.
The son of Italian immigrants Anthony and Louise Zamperini, Louie was a boyhood scoundrel. Smoking cigarettes by age five and drinking by eight, he steals from the locals and pulls pranks on the whole town. Other boys would beat him up for being Italian-American, but he never ran away or broke into tears. Later, his sister Sylvia would say that Louie would rather die in a fight than cry.
Louie’s refusal to cry is a sign of his defiant will to maintain his pride and dignity no matter what. This defiant spirit will prove useful in the POW camps where the Japanese will physically and emotionally try to strip him of his dignity, though at this point in his life he channels his defiance to less than constructive ends.
Pete Zamperini, Louie’s older brother by two years, was everything Louie was not. Pete treated adults with respect, was kind to younger kids, and woke up every morning at two-thirty to run a three-hour paper route. Louie took after his mother Louise, who also loved making mischief. One Halloween, she dressed up as a boy and went trick-or-treating with her sons, even getting into a scrap with local toughs who tried to steal her pants.
The comparison between Louie and his brother highlights Louie’s rebellious and defiant nature. But, like Louie, Louise also defies traditional norms, rebelling against the expectations of her as a woman and mother in the 1930s. Her defiance will also prove useful when, refusing the U.S. Army’s suggestion that she give up Louie for dead, she holds onto the belief that he is alive.
As Louie enters high school, his crimes become more serious. He punches a girl, throws rotten fruit at police officers, and leaves a boy he nearly beat to death in a ditch. During this period in America, people were fascinated with eugenics – the pseudoscience that promised to enhance the human race by sterilizing or putting to death people deemed “unfit.” After the California state government tried to sterilize a local boy deemed “feebleminded,” Louie realizes that his Italian ethnicity, criminal record, and poor grades could get him sterilized or worse. Deciding to clean up his act to avoid such a fate, Louie tries harder at school, helps around the house, and curbs his violent impulses.
Hillenbrand’s portrayal of Louie’s youth sets up the theme of Redemption. As he grows from a boy into a teenager, he moves from being a child menace to what might better be described as a lowlife villain, and is certainly far from the admirable war hero that the preface portrays. Louie’s fear motivates him to alter his behavior just enough to avoid external repercussions, but at this point he lacks the internal motivation to redeem himself in the eyes of his family and community for its own sake.