Posts Tagged ‘hero’

A man unbroken: the hero of Angelina Jolie’s new film

December 14th, 2014

Unbroken’s saviour has been Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the 2010 biography on which the film is based. Hillenbrand had written Seabiscuit, which became a screen success. Her book persuaded the studio that the film was likely to be popular. The search was on again for a director. Jolie scored the job.

Cynthia and Luke knew the outline of their father’s life, but it wasn’t until Hillenbrand’s book that they realised quite what he endured. “We knew what he went through,” says Cynthia, “but not the graphic or extreme nature of it. My father did not share every detail of his suffering with us because he wasn’t that kind of a man. He lived a positive life. I only discovered the true depths to which he was pushed – the degradation, the dehumanisation – in Laura’s book.”

Reading about her father changed the way Cynthia saw him. “I fell in love with him. It was a very strange feeling. I saw this beautiful, tragic, heroic, capable young man being tormented and suffering. Had I been at the camp, I would have died for him.”

Jolie’s film has intensified Cynthia’s feelings. “I knew I would cry when I saw it,” she says. “I was hoping I would be deeply moved.”

As children, Cynthia and Luke found their father’s tales fantastical. “They were my bedtime stories,” says Luke. “Dad would tell me about wrestling the sharks or his plane going down. He had no problem talking about it; he just didn’t obsess over it.”

Louie Zamperini in the US air force during the Second World War

But it took Louie several years to get to this point. After returning from the war, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Every night, he dreamt of strangling the most sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (“the Bird”), once almost strangling his pregnant wife. He drank excessively and fixated on returning to Japan to kill the prison officer. His wife threatened divorce.

Then, in 1949, she dragged him to a rally led by an evangelist preacher, Billy Graham. Hearing the sermon, Louie, a lapsed Roman Catholic, remembered the prayers he’d said on the raft and in the camp, forgave his captors instantly and never had another nightmare.

Over the following years, he returned to Japan to forgive the guards in person, and was fond of telling his children, “Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die.”

Louie’s transformation, say Luke and Cynthia, was typical of his character. Until his late teenage years, Louie was always fighting and stealing in Torrance, California, where he grew up. It was Pete, his older brother, who changed his life, by encouraging him to run.

Louie was the fastest high-school runner in the US, and in 1936 competed in the Olympics in Berlin. He finished eighth in the 5,000 metres, but he caught the attention of Hitler by running the final lap in 56 seconds. The Führer commented, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.” Once Louie committed to something, that was it. He just had to get to that point.

Louie was known as the Torrance Tornado for his speed

It was Louie’s rebelliousness and defiance, they say, that got him through the war. He refused to surrender to his torturers; he refused to die. After his religious conversion, it was the same defiance that led him to pursue such an active life, the life his captors would have taken away.

Louie went mountain climbing and white-water rafting, and ran a camp for delinquent boys to improve their ways. In 1998, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and ran a mile uphill every day in his 80s. He credited and celebrated his faith, but didn’t force it upon his children. “It was a religious household, but a very happy and joyous one,” says Cynthia. “We were taken to Sunday school, but we were free to believe what we wanted. It was not his style to force it down people’s throats.”

Luke and Cynthia remember their father as attentive – he once stayed up all night nursing Luke’s pet rats back to health – and resourceful. “He had every tool you could imagine in his workshop,” says Cynthia. “He fixed everything.”

“We’ve both inherited his mechanical mind,” says Luke. “If we see a problem, we find a way to fix it – whether it’s a broken car, a watch or a person.”

Neither sibling, however, has inherited Louie’s passion and talent for running. Cynthia was more into ballet. “I was Dad’s little athlete,” she says. “Mum would bring me home from class and Dad would have an athlete’s dinner waiting on the table for me: steak, potatoes and a glass of milk.”

Meanwhile, when Luke’s coaches at school asked whether he was going out for track, he’d be devising a way to have a cigarette. Louie would be proud of the defiance.

It was only as adults that Cynthia and Luke glimpsed times when their father’s more harrowing memories returned.

Cynthia once visited Louie in hospital, where he was being treated for an irregular heartbeat. “I walked in and he had this haunted look on his face. He was facing his mortality for the first time since the war. He told me, ‘I was just thinking about being in the prison camp.’ It was the first time in my life that my father said, ‘How could someone do that to another human being?’

“He had travelled back emotionally. He was thinking, ‘This could be the end.’” Louie went on to live for several years.

Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini in ‘Unbroken’

Luke had a similar experience with his father when Louie was reading Hillenbrand’s book. “The descriptions were so detailed that when my father read it, he had a very difficult time. He had to stop and look out of the window to make sure he was still in California. Laura put him right back into prison camp; it was that realistic.”

Neither sibling worried too much, however, about the impact on Louie of making a film. The more his story was told, the more it helped him – and his children – process his experiences.

And they are sure that Jolie was right for the job. “She bought all this feminine passion to the film,” says Cynthia. “Louie became a father figure to her because she hadn’t really had her own father in her life.”

Angelina Jolie watches footage of ‘Unbroken’

Unbroken, of course, can’t show everything, and the Zamperinis would have liked it to include more of Louie’s pranks and his love of music (the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller). But ultimately, it’s a record of a Louie they loved. The Louie on screen, says Cynthia, is “someone with flaws who becomes a heroic survivor. We all make mistakes and we all want to be able to conquer our fears and our anger. Louie’s an inspiration.”

‘Unbroken’ is out on Boxing Day

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The World War Two Spitfire hero finally remembered

November 24th, 2014

And so, Ernest Russell Lyon lay. His body was never officially identified, instead he became one of 20,456 men and women from the air forces of the British Empire who died during World War Two and are recorded as having no known grave. Their names are carved into the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial in Surrey.

But the week before Remembrance Day in 2006, Lyon’s nephew decided to renew the search for his body. Richard Lyon, a Cambridge architect then in his late 50s, had never met his uncle, but grew up looking at his photograph which his father Stanley always kept on his desk. With no military contacts, he decided to appeal for information on a Scottish family history website.

Flight squadron 234

He typed his name, rank, the date he was shot down, and the town, Plomeur, which was closest to the crash site. Five months later, an email arrived in rudimentary English sent by the chairman of a local history group in Brittany who, in 2001, had discovered the crash site of Lyon’s Spitfire and were attempting to trace relatives of the airman.

What has followed has been a decade-long battle by Richard Lyon and the French which has gone to the very top of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to officially acknowledge the grave. They have trawled public archives from Kew to Washington DC, interviewed surviving witnesses and compiled various exhaustive reports. Now, they have secured a remarkable victory.

Not just is Ernest Russell Lyon’s name soon to finally be added to his grave, but the MoD has been persuaded to overhaul the burden of proof required by the families of those who have died serving their country to have their identities officially recognised.

It has taken, so says My Lyon, a lot of serendipity, perseverance and “being a bloody nuisance”. But the decision could have a major impact, with the MoD currently considering 45 similar cases to identify unknown graves. Not bad for a man whose only prior military experience was in the CCF at Pocklington School in North Yorkshire where he grew up.

“A lot of feathers have been ruffled,” he says. “There were a lot of people in the traditional bit of the MoD who didn’t want these changes. Now I hope other names will be recognised.”

Mr Lyon, who is married with four children, has pieced together his late uncle’s life in precise detail. When we meet, the living room table in his family home in Cambridge is covered in files and old photographs. At times, he says, Anne, his wife of 42 years, has worried about his sanity.

Ernest Russell Lyon volunteered to join the RAF on March 1, 1941, after he had turned 18. Following training, he was posted to the USA as a pilot instructor. By 1943, he had grown weary of his surroundings, and requested an operational posting.

“That,” says Lyon, “was his big mistake”.

He was sent to 234 Squadron, whose insignia bears a dragon rampant, flames spewing from the mouth. Its motto, Ignem mortemque despuimus, translates as “We spit fire and death”. Lyon found himself in the thick of it, flying near constant missions in the run up to D Day. On the day itself, he provided aerial support over Gold and Omaha beaches.

After that, the squadron was relocated to Cornwall, to extend their range across France. Missions such as the fateful one of July 27, 1944, were to support the allied forces in the ascendancy. The Luftwaffe was no longer a presence to be feared in the skies. Instead, the threat came from the German anti-aircraft guns.

Grave 33 in the CWGC section of the Guidel Cemetery

Various witness statements obtained by the French researchers describe Lyon’s Spitfire crashing that evening. One was Joseph le Corroller, on whose land the plane hit. The farmer (who died two years ago) was the first on the scene and recalls Lyon’s body being thrown some eight metres from the fuselage. After taking out an advert in the local papers, three more witnesses stepped forward. One woman recalled a flying boot being found by her brother close to the crash site containing half a dismembered leg.

Yet despite these gory details, as well as parts of the Spitfire being dug up including the guns, propeller hub, and the exhaust from its Rolls Royce Merlin engine (which Lyon now keeps at home), the authorities insisted there was still not enough evidence. The French tried, and failed, in 2004, to appeal to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Despite the snub, they still named a mini roundabout after the fallen airman. Then, Richard Lyon decided to approach the MoD.

In 2009, after being passed between various departments, he received his final refusal from the RAF Air Historical Branch because the required burden of proof – “beyond reasonable doubt” – had not been met. “It is the same as if somebody who committed a crime and is being sent to the electric chair,” he says. “But my uncle didn’t commit a crime; he gave his life for his country.”

He was told the body in plot 33 could have been an airman who had washed up on Brittany’s beaches and was given the names of eight or nine potential casualties. Lyon then compiled a report on each individual case, ranking the probability out of 100, as well as proving from the local town hall records that no bodies had washed up nearby in the two weeks leading up to Lyon’s death.

Then, the following year, he learnt his appeal was being taken up by a senior RAF official as a test case. Such was the strength of his argument that the burden of proof has now changed from “beyond reasonable doubt” to “clear and convincing evidence”. He says he was told an appeals process for relatives of lost soldiers to have their name recognised has also now been put in place, although the MoD insist this was possible before.

Then, last October, Lyon was called to the seventh floor of the MoD building in Whitehall to present his case personally to the top military brass. “I was looking out the window and Downing Street was below. I knew this was our last chance and I wouldn’t get another in my lifetime.”

The evidence he gave worked and the announcement that his uncle’s grave was to finally be recognised came in August. Even if the MoD still refuse to say he is actually in plot 33, only “buried near this spot” in the cemetery, Lyon is hailing the result a huge success. For in the next few months, a dedication ceremony will take place at his graveside and a new headstone put in place.

Underneath his name, the family are allowed a four line dedication. It will read: “Always known unto God. Now resting here. Ex Corde Caritas (the old motto of his school George Watson’s College)”. And finally, “remembered forever”.

It has taken 70 years, but that is now what Ernest Russell Lyon will be.

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Hero who led D-Day landing craft dies aged 95

August 13th, 2014

Mr Purser, who was 95 when he died, defined his life by his time in the Royal Navy, according to his family.

He joined HMS Raleigh in late 1940 for training and later HMS Vanquisher, a 1918 Destroyer, for convoy duty in the North Atlantic from Iceland to the Azores.

He was then commissioned in May 1942 and undertook training to sail landing craft capable of taking infantry ashore – vessels that would play a crucial part in the D-Day landings.

Mr Purser trained by sailing from Scotland for beaching exercises on the mud in Chichester Creeks.

Before the D-Day landings, Mr Purser also took command of Landing Craft that were used in th eSicily landings and also helped to relieve the Channel islands.

He later married Pam, who was a wren in the Royal Navy, but was only allowed to be away from his ship for half an hour.

Following the war, Mr Purser, who became an accountant, continued sailing as part of a club in Topsham, Exeter, where he lived with his family.

The couple had two children, Simon and Stephen. One of their grandsons, Mark, has also seen active duty with the army in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

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The last British Dambuster: ‘Don’t call me a hero’

May 10th, 2014

Mr Johnson was the bomb-aimer on one of the Lancasters which damaged the Sorpe Dam. Other crews in the 617 Squadron destroyed the Möhne and Edersee Dams, leading to catastrophic flooding in the valley.

“It was misty on the way out, but we did find the Sorpe,” Mr Johnson remembers in The Last British Dambuster, a book telling the story of the operation told from his own perspective, which is published this week.

“In the totally clear moonlight, it was an incredibly sight…after nine dummy runs, we were satisfied we were on the right track. I pushed the button and called, ‘Bomb gone!’ From the rear of the plane was heard ‘Thank Christ for that!’ The explosion threw up a fountain of water up to about 1,000 feet.”

Bouncing bombs, specially designed for the task by the English engineer Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, were able to breach nets which protected the German constructions from attack.

But, as Mr Johnson recalls, “In the final event, of the eight aircraft in total designated to attack the Sorpe, only two got through. Three were shot down and three returned unsuccessfully.” It would have taken five more bomb blasts to completely destroy that dam.

Despite 53 of Mr Johnson’s 132 comrades losing their lives in the attempt, the mission’s overall success was seized upon by the British propaganda machine and the feat cemented in the public consciousness with Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters.

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has expressed an interest in remaking the film, employing Mr Johnson as an advisor, though the project is currently on hold.

Following the 70th anniversary of the raids last year, and realising the interest the younger generation still had in the mission, Mr Johnson decided to act on his three children’s suggestions that he write an autobiography, telling of his role in the raid.

“I think there are a few reasons why it’s so well remembered,” says Mr Johnson, who also has eight grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. “It proved to Hitler and the German high command that what they thought was impregnable the RAF could get to and destroy.

As a new recruit, aged 19

“It delayed production in the Ruhr quite considerably, though perhaps not as much as we would have liked, and it meant men who were being used to build a defence wall along the Atlantic coast had to be brought back to repair the damage.

“But probably the most important reason is the morale affect it had on the people of this country. It seemed like a turning point in the war; whether it was or not is debatable, but it seemed to give that impression.”

The book also recounts his life before and after the war, including the story of how he came to be involved in the 617 Squadron at the age of 21.

On joining the Air Force he was originally sent to America to train as a pilot but failed to complete the course because of problems with his solo landings. On his return to England he trained as a spare gunner, but soon switched to become a bomb aimer, “since it made a difference between starting at 7am and starting at midday”.

It was in this position that he was asked to join a special squadron to be sent on what was then a top-secret mission. He married his teenage sweetheart Gwyn just weeks before the Dambusters raid, and the pair were together for over 60 years, until Gwyn’s death from cancer eight years ago.

Now Mr Johnson lives in Bristol with his family and is “too lazy to do anything” apart from speak at the memorial events he is invited to.

“I won’t volunteer but if people are interested I’ll always tell them what happened,” he says. “I get a lot of recognition, but it shouldn’t be just for me, because I’m still around. It should be for the whole squadron.” Across the world, only three men who were involved in the mission are still alive: a former pilot in New Zealand and a gunner in Canada.

And Mr Johnson – who worked as a primary school teacher following his retirement from the Air Force in 1962 – is sure that if the need arose today, young people would be able to match the achievements of the Dambusters.

“I think by and large younger people are a good group; the thugs amongst them are few and far between. People say to me, ‘If the same thing happened now as in 1939, what do you think the reaction would be from young people?’

“It sometimes surprises them but I always say: ‘The majority would do what we did. They would want to defend themselves, their country and the lives they wanted to live.’”

The Last British Dambuster by George ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Ebury Press, RRP £17.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £15.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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Dambusters deserve proper medals not a brass clasp, says wartime bomber hero

April 20th, 2014

There is even a specially commissioned Bomber Command Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, opened by the Queen, to commemorate the 55,573 Allied air men who died during WW2.

Arctic convoy veterans have recently been awarded the Arctic Star medal after a 70 year fight in recognition of what Churchill called the worst journey in the world. Nearly 3,000 perished in the freezing waters supplying the troops on the front.

“A medal was produced for the Arctic survivors. If a medal is good enough for them it’s good enough for us,” said Mr Johnson from Bristol.

“We deserve a medal not a clasp. The 55,000 doesn’t include the injured or those taken prisoner and the sacrifices they made.

“If that’s the last thing I do it will be to get a medal for us.”

Mr Johnson, who flew 50 missions during his 22 years service was the bomb aimer on the night of May 17, 1943, as part of Operation Chastise to cripple the Nazi war effort.

He dropped the bomb on Sorpe dam and was awarded a raft of medals including the Distinguished Flying Medal for his part in the daring 617 Squadron raid.

He is still considering whether to wear his clasp he describes as an “insult.”

“I have got, much to my disgust, one of the clasps but still not made up my mind whether to wear it,” he said.

“All those people died and we get that. To get that little copper job instead of a medal, no, I’m sorry I am not sure I’ll bother to wear it.

“Although I am Conservative through and through I am not quite happy with our present Prime Minister. He should have done more for this medal business. It is the politicians who make the final decision.

“There was all the hassle with politicians to get the Memorial then they had front row seats. It’s hypocrisy.”

Next week, Mr Johnson will be at the London unveiling of his portrait by artist Richard Stone dedicated to the whole squadron and will make a speech about their huge sacrifice.

“I didn’t want to do it but my family told me to!” he added.

“It is amazing to think there is still all this interest in the Dambusters. I have insisted on a dedication to the whole squadron. It will go on the portrait as it is for everyone who took part, not just me.”

In May he will again renew the call for a medal with the release of his life story The Last British Dambuster released to mark the 71st anniversary of the raid on May 16, 1943. He worked on the book published by Ebury Press with a ghost writer.

“I am pleased people still want to know what we did,” said Mr Johnson.

“I go to schools and talk to children about the raid, they are fascinated. It is a part of our history and they really listen to my stories that are real, not like something off the television.

“I can still remember it all quite clearly after all these years. That raid was a turning point in the war.”

Mr Johnson is also an adviser to Hobbit director Peter Jackson who is working on a remake of the classic black and white Dambuster movie that starred Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave.

The widower has gone deaf because of his valiant service in the RAF from the noise of the planes. For his sacrifice he gets a £140 a month war pension in recognition of his service.

“I call it Lancaster Ear, I’m deaf in both ears and have got hearing aids,” he said.

“The noise from all those aircraft didn’t help. They didn’t give us any warnings just blow your nose as you come in so your ears don’t pop.”

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