Rose Parade Will Celebrate Zamperini's “Unbroken” Power to Inspire

As much as the real life hero of the film "Unbroken" was looking forward to riding in the Rose Parade as grand marshal, he worried he would not be able to carry out his commitment.

Doing his duty was something Louis Zamperini never took lightly, recalled his daughter.

"He always met his obligations," said Cynthia Zamperini Garris, who knows she won't be able to stop the tears when she and her brother take her father's position New Year's morning in the grand marshal's car.

No one questions their father's spirit will be there.

Few 20th century mortals had lives as eventful as Louis Zamperini, who overcame a series of daunting adversitites with the sheer force of his indomitable will. In his youth he abandoned early missteps toward juvenile delinquency to excel as a track star first at Torrance High, then at USC. He competed in the 1936 Olympics, became a combat aviator in World War II,  crash landed into the Pacific Ocean, and then survived weeks in a life raft,  only to be captured by the enemy and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Japan where he endured horrific torture.

Following the grand marshal's car down Colorado Boulevard next Thursday morning will be a float decorated to reflect the challenges Zamperini overcame.  Leading the grand marshal's car will be a white steed, riderless, with boots backward in the stirrups.

"It will be a moving tribute," said Richard Chinen, president and chairman of the Tournament of Roses.

The Tournament's 2015 theme, "inspiring stories," was in fact inspired by reading Laura Hillenbrand's account of Zamperini's life, "Unbroken," Chinen said.  "He led a life of inspiring stories."

Angelina Jolie was also inspired to direct the film released on Christmas Day.

Zamperini was the Tournament's first choice to embody the theme. But when Chinen first broached the subject, Zamperini's daughter thought it might be too much for her father and turned Chinen down.

As soon as dad found out, he set her straight.

"He said, 'Get them on the phone before they choose another grand marshal,'" Garris recalled with a touch of chagrin. "My father was so excited. He said, 'It's one of the highest honors you can have.' It was a big deal to him."

So she called back.  But Chinen was not in the office.  So she called again.   And again.  When the message reached Chinen, he was delighted, and immediatly phoned Garris.  97-year-old Zamperini was in.

In May, Zamperini attended the announcement ceremony, beaming with joy, but within a month was hospitalized with what would be his final illness. He died in July.

Never before had a grand marshal passed away prior to New Year's Day. Only once before had there been a posthumous grand marshal - Jackie Robinson, the Pasadena native and star UCLA athlete who desegregated Major League Baseball. In Robinson's case, the tournament honored him years after his death along with three others chosen to serve as grand marshals in 1999.

Despite being in uncharted territory for 2015, the tournament association had no doubt how to proceed, Chinen recalled.  There would be no replacing Louis Zamperini as grand marshal, and the grand marshal car would become his family's.

"We will be there waving and probably crying a little bit," said Garris, who will be joined by her husband Mick (executive producer of the "Unbroken" film), and her brother Luke and his wife, and likely younger Zamperinis as well.

It was well established that Louis Zamperini had remained a loyal Trojan, for whom there is no more beloved a steed than Traveler, the white horse that prances the sidelines whenever the USC football team scores a touchdown. So it was that the Tournament made arrangements with USC for Traveler to be the riderless horse leading the grand marshal car.

"I just tear up thinking about it," said Garris. "It will be so beautiful."

The float paying tribute to Zamperini is entered by the city of Torrance, where he grew up. The float is now in the process of being decorated at the Fiesta facility in Irwindale.

"His life is so huge we can't put it all on one float," said Roseanne Villalobos, president of the Torrance Rose Float Association, as she glued bright white rice to one of the many stars that will adorn the city's entry in the parade.

Torrance decided to dedicate its float to Zamperini as soon the inspiring stories theme was announced, well before he was named grand marshal. Villalobos said the choice was a no-brainer.

"Lou Zamperini is the guy. How can you get more inspiring than his life?" Villalobos said, not as a question, but a statement.

As difficult as was her father's ordeal during the war, it is the strength he showed afterward that leaves the boldest impression on his daughter, marveling at his ability to move beyond PTSD, to shake the alcoholism that temporarily gripped his life, and to find redemption in faith.

"He found it within himself to forgive," Garris said. "He made good his promise to God in the life raft."

Zamperini dedicated his life after the war to his family and to motivating others by recounting the story of his own struggles. His power to inspire, rediscovered by generation after generation, outlives him.

He held no grudge against Japan, and therein lies another wonderful symmetry in his selection as grand marshal.  His champion, Chinen, is of Japanese ancestry.

Chinen wishes Zamperini would have been able to hear the cheers of the hundreds of thousands who will line the parade route Thursday, and the millions watching on television.   But he knows they will feel his unceasing inspiration.

"We want everyone to say, 'Here we come, 2015!'" said Chinen.  " And I think Louis is the right guy to do that."

Contact Us