About 10 years ago, an Irish American named F.X. Toole, who’d worked a long, hard life in boxing halls around the country, not only published a collection of stories, but also found out that Hollywood heavyweight Clint Eastwood was interested making a film based on his work.
The resulting movie was "Million Dollar Baby," based on an Irish American female boxer Toole created named Maggie Fitzgerald. All this as Toole approached the age of 70.
Sadly, Toole died at the age of 72, before the film hit theaters and went on to win a number of awards.
A similar thing has now happened to Louis Zamperini, who died last week at the age of 97.
If you don’t know his name, then you are one of the few people who have yet to read Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling juggernaut "Unbroken." The book tells Zamperini’s story, from his youth as the child of Italian immigrants, to his career as an Olympic runner, to his grueling ordeal during World War II.
Zamperini was one of three men who survived a plane crash in the Pacific. (Eight others died.) After nearly two months drifting in the ocean subsisting on rainwater and fish, Zamperini was taken prisoner by the Japanese, abused and held captive for two years, until the war finally came to an end.
Earlier this year, Angelina Jolie announced she was planning to direct the big-screen version of Zamperini’s life, with actor Jack O’Connell (English-born with Irish roots) in the starring role. Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo," "The Usual Suspects") wrote the screenplay based on Hillenbrand’s book. The film will be out this December.
O’Connell is not the only Irish link to the Zamperini story. Two key figures in Zamperini’s military ordeal were also Irish.
First, there is Francis “Mac” McNamara who, along with Zamperini and Russell Phillips, survived the initial plane crash. McNamara, according to one online source, was born in Co. Mayo before being taken to the U.S. at just one month old by his parents Peter and Harriet (Sweeney) McNamara.
McNamara enlisted in the Air Corps in March of 1942, listing his hometown as Cuyahoga County, Ohio. In late May of 1943, McNamara, Zamperini and the others were flying a mission in search of pilot Clarence Corpenings’s missing B-24 that had gone missing just one day before.
When McNamara’s and Zamperini’s plane went down, the three survivors immediately realized they would have to be very careful with the little food and water they had left. Soon, they were threatened by sharks which attempted to knock them off of their raft. The sun and starvation led to misery and hallucinations.
At one point, they heard the roar of an engine and thought they’d be saved. It was, instead, a Japanese plane, which strafed them with bullets.
After a full month at sea, McNamara’s thoughts turned grim. According to a "60 Minutes" broadcast, McNamara began worrying aloud that he was going to die.
On the 33rd day at sea, he did. Finn Wittrock will portray McNamara in the movie "Unbroken."
Meanwhile, once in captivity, Zamperini came across a fellow prisoner, a Navy officer named Commander John Fitzgerald. At 35, Fitzgerald “had fallen into Japanese hands after he’d scuttled his burning submarine, the Grenadier, which had been bombed,” Hillenbrand writes in "Unbroken."
Fitzgerald was tortured mercilessly, according to Hillenbrand, with his captors “clubbing him, jamming penknives under his fingernails, tearing his fingernails off” and even turning him upside down and “pouring water up his nose until he passed out.”
Fitzgerald (portrayed in the film by Garrett Hedlund) spoke Japanese, so he was a key liaison between prisoners and their captors. Fitzgerald also kept a secret POW diary, which was a key resource for Hillenbrand as she was writing "Unbroken."
At one point, Fitzgerald, Zamperini and other prisoners were told that if the Japanese lost the war, all the prisoners would be executed, which led some of them to half-jokingly root for the Japanese.
Of course, Japan eventually surrendered, which finally led Fitzgerald, Zamperini and hundreds of others to be liberated.
These lives – Irish, Italian, American – will now live on forever, in print and in Hollywood.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)