Remembering Three Men of God
Posted on 14 August 2023, 8:23
If I begin with 1953, when I served as sports editor of my high school newspaper, this year marks 70 years of contributing to newspapers, magazines, journals, and other media. While recently sorting through about 2,000 old articles I had filed away in drawers and boxes, I began to wonder which one of all the people I had interviewed had the most interesting and intriguing story. Who was the most inspirational? Who overcame the most adversity? Out of about 400 interviews, I narrowed it down to three people – Lou Zamperini, (top right) Fay Steele, and Payton Jordan. It didn’t really dawn on me until after I had selected those three that they were all deeply religious men.
It would be almost impossible for anyone to top Zamperini’s story when it comes to intrigue and overcoming adversity. It is a story of endurance, stamina, fortitude, perseverance, heart, strength and guts. It included running in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, being summoned by the personification of evil itself, having what was likely a near-death experience when his plane crashed in the ocean, spending 47 days on a life raft, fighting off sharks, being shot at by enemy planes, starving for food, living in a small cage with only fish heads and rice to eat, being threatened with decapitation, and then being imprisoned and brutalized for more than two years by his captors, all the while his loved ones back home presuming he was dead, then, upon liberation at the end of the war, having to deal with mental issues and alcoholism. In fact, Zamperini’s story was told in the 2015 movie, Unbroken.
I met with Zamperini, then 85, at the Hollywood, California YMCA in 2001 to interview him for a national running magazine. He didn’t finish among the top three in the 5000-meter event in the ’36 Olympic Games, but his strong finish, passing many other runners on the final lap, so impressed German Chancellor Adolf Hitler that the Fuhrer had him come to his box. “Ah! The boy with the fast finish,” Zamperini recalled Hitler’s reaction when he shook his hand.
Zamperini blamed his eighth-place finish on eating too much and gaining 10-12 pounds on the 10-day voyage to Europe from America. It was his first time on a ship and the food, especially the sweet rolls, were too good to pass up. However, he said he was not disappointed with his performance, as winning wasn’t that big of a deal back then. It was about participating and doing one’s best. “That’s the way it should be,” he said. “When I went to the Olympics, making the team was the most important thing. It was an opportunity to travel and meet athletes from other countries. It was the camaraderie that was important. If you happened to win a gold medal, that was great, but it was a secondary goal and you didn’t lose sleep over it if you didn’t win. Now, it’s all about money, and athletes are driven by greed, not by soul. I think the television is mostly to blame. It’s sad in a way.”
After telling of his Olympic race experience, Zamperini opened a desk drawer in his YMCA office and pulled out a red flag with a Nazi swastika on it. He explained that he and two other athletes were walking around town when they saw Hitler and his entourage pull up in a vehicle in front of the Reich chancellery. Zamperini saw the flag hanging from a pole in front of the chancellery and decided he wanted it as a souvenir. He took note of the guards goosestepping back and forth in front of the building and figured he had about 30 seconds when they had their backs to each other to run over and rip the flag from the pole. However, the flag was higher than he had anticipated and it took three jumps before he got hold of it. “I fell on my butt, got up, and ran,” he recalled, “But then I heard a crack, like a gunshot.” With the guard’s rifle leveled at him and the guard yelling “Halten Sie,” Zamperini put on the brakes. “I did the smartest thing I ever did in my life. I halted.”
Some high-ranking officers came out and questioned Zamperini, who diplomatically explained that he simply wanted the flag to remind him of the “wonderful time” he had had in their country. One officer went back inside, apparently talked with Hitler, and was told to give the flag to him and let him go.
Before the Olympic Games, Zamperini had made a name for himself as a miler at Torrance High School in Los Angles, breaking the national high school record of 4:23.6, which had stood for 18 years, with a 4:21.2 in 1934. That record would last until 1953.
Zamperini’s real story of endurance did not begin until May 27, 1943, when the Army Air Corps plane he occupied as a bombardier officer, crashed at sea, south of the Hawaiian Islands, while on a rescue mission. He then spent 47 days on a life raft and more than two years as a prisoner of war. His weight would drop about 100 pounds, down to 66 pounds, not much more than a skeleton.
During his 47 days on the raft with two crewmates, Zamperini survived on a few raw fish, several uncooked birds, a couple of shark’s livers and rain water. He recalled catching his first bird, an albatross that landed on his head as he was slumped over. “I got him by the neck and killed him, but we couldn’t eat it,” he said. But a week or so later, he caught another bird and tore into it “like a wild man,” eating everything, including the eyeballs.
When their raft was fired upon by Japanese planes, the three men were forced to jump in the water and “play dead.” There they came under attack by sharks. “I’d straight arm them and hit them on the snoot and they’d take off,” Zamperini recalled, adding that one of the three men, the tail gunner, died shortly thereafter, on the 33rd day.
On the 47th day, they were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat and taken to the island of Maloelop and then to Kwajalein, where they were placed in small cages and given leftover fish heads and rice. Back in the United States, it was reported that Zamperini was missing and presumed dead. Zamperini and the other survivor were put on a ship and taken to Japan, where they spent two winters in a prison, being liberated at the end of the war.
At that point, Zamperini had given up on God. During all that time on the life raft and as a prisoner of war, he called upon God many times and didn’t seem to get a response. He wondered what kind of God would permit such hardships. After being freed and reunited with his loved ones, he turned to alcohol to relieve the post-traumatic stress. He eventually attended a Billy Graham crusade and became a born-again Christian. More than that, he became an evangelist and devoted the rest of his life to operating a boy’s camp designed to teach physical, mental, moral and spiritual fitness to young people.
Man of Steele
No movie was made about Fay Steele, but one could have. He grew up an uncoddled youth in Tennessee, walking several miles to and from school, something today’s seemingly spoiled youth might see as “uncomfortable,” maybe even inhumane. One night in February 1924, when he was just seven, Steele was awakened in the middle of the night by his older brother, Olaf, telling him that their two-story farmhouse was on fire. Olaf held the window open for young Fay and then directed him to the edge of the roof, instructing him to jump. “I jumped and as I did I glanced back into the room behind my brother,” Steele recalled with emotion in his voice. “It was now engulfed in flame. In the room, I thought I saw, a man standing just behind my brother watching our progress. My first thought was that it was my father, but this man seemed to have a beard. I wondered if it could be Jesus. Later I decided it could have been an angel and still later decided it must have been a guardian angel sent by the Lord to protect me.” Olaf, their father, and a relative all perished in the fire, something that haunted Steele until his dying day, though mitigated by the vision of the figure behind Olaf and his faith in God.
Steele joined the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) out of high school and was initially stationed in Panama, where he decided to test his mettle by running the 52 miles across the isthmus, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. “I just enjoy challenges; it’s my nature,” he told me on one of my visits with him in Washington, D.C. “I was brought up with a strong work ethic, and it’s always been my belief that you should make the most of whatever God-given talents you have.” He completed the trek across the isthmus and a race covering the distance was later dedicated to him. Steele returned to participate in the race several times during his 70s, and in 1986 set an American 70-74 age-class record of 8 hours, 47 minutes, 28 seconds for a measured 50 miles.
After his assignment in Panama, Steele flew 78 combat missions during World War II, many on the “Classy Lassie.” He was awarded the bronze star for his dash across the field under heavy gunfire. His citation reads: “Serving as a combat cameraman in the great airborne operation near Wessel, Germany, Sergeant Steele landed by glider with the airborne troops. Met by heavy enemy fire, both airborne troops and glider pilots were pinned down, several casualties having been sustained among them. Sergeant Steele, volunteering to obtain whole blood from a medical glider a hundred-and-fifty yards away, ran through a hail of enemy fire and delivered the life-giving substance….”
After the war, Steele remained in the Air Force and saw duty at embassies around the world. While posted in Sumatra, he was ordered to track down and kill a Bengal tiger, and later to take on a killer elephant that was terrorizing a village.
I visited Steele twice at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., where he kept busy by running four miles a day, assisting the Protestant chaplain with various church duties, and reading the Bible. He died at age 100 in 2016.
Payton Jordan appeared on the June 19, 1939 cover of LIFE magazine as America’s track team captain in preparation for the 1940 Olympic Games, which, of course, never happened due to World War II. He ended up serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy. I was just a toddler then, but I saw Jordan compete in masters track (40 and over) a number of times. He continually set sprint records in age classes into his 80s. He had a successful coaching career at Occidental and Stanford Universities and was coach of the U.S. track and field team at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
I was impressed by the way Jordan handled victory. There was no need to punch the sky or do some kind of dance to celebrate. He represented character rarely found in sports these days, taking victory in stride with nothing more than a smile and a nod. “Live each stage of our lives to the fullest with grace, humility, and thankfulness for God’s gifts, strength, and comfort!” he expressed his philosophy to me in a 2006 letter as both he and his wife, Marge, were battling health problems.
After Marge made her transition a month or so later, he wrote to me and others, describing Marge as his “rock” for 67 years. “Now the love we shared surrounds me with comfort and cherished memories wrap me in their warmth,” he continued. “With faith in God, I am at peace.” Interestingly, that seems to have been the motto of all three men mentioned here.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.
Next blog post: August 28
Thanks to all for the additional comments and links. The folly of sports is that they are just play-war, just a game. I have to shake my head every time I see guys or gals in military uniforms waiting in line to get an autograph from a play-warrior, when it should be the other way around.It’s like movie actors who pretend to be real people making 100 times as much as the people they portray. When I was in the military, John Wayne was supposed to be the “ultimate warrior” and our role model, but, as I recall, Wayne never served in the military.
I’m sort of in the middle on draft-dodging. I wonder if a person who is opposed to killing people on the battlefield shouldn’t also be opposed to hurting them in the boxing ring, but I can see it, like everything else, as a matter of degree. Where do you draw the line?
I can appreciate Ali’s boxing ability and he’d be in my top five if I were to rate them, but I just never liked him because of his buffoonery. I read somewhere, he copied it all from professional wrestling, which is nothing more than a clown act.
It’s a mindset that I simply don’t understand. Maybe it is a good mindset, but it’s not for me. Nothing turns me off more than an end-zone dance in football, which can be traced back to Ali. It’s all part of the world’s insanity. Payton Jordan, Sandy Koufax, Joe Louis, John Landy, Floyd Patterson all won with grace, dignity, humility and style. There was absolutely no flamboyance. That’s what I miss about sport. On to another subject. Then again, I enjoy watching you-tubes of Two-Ton Tony Galento fighting Joe Louis.
On to another subject.
Michael Tymn, Sat 26 Aug, 21:58
Bruce Williams: Thanks for the interesting links.
Michael: It"s doubtful that Tyson could have laid a glove on the Ali of the Cleveland Williams fight, much less the Ali of those lost years of his prime. The young Cassius Clay, a biographer discovered, used to play a game with his neighborhood friends. They would go to the park and throw stones at Cassius, becoming amused and delighted when, as always, they couldn’t hit him.
Newton Finn, Sat 26 Aug, 15:19
Bruce Williams, Sat 26 Aug, 12:21
I went looking for your career start with boxing. Didn’t find any footage but you might enjoy this old newsreel from 1939 about Jack Dempsey.
I did look for you in the crowd in the earlier years.
My older brother was 6 foot ( two-three inches taller than myself) and I found out when I fought him that he had a glass jaw. He went down fast- lights out. My mother then told me that I had to protect him. A year or two later he gets in to a serious fight, says I can’t fight you but my brother will. I step up and start fighting the taller opponent. I was a decent fighter but kept going for a knockout to see if the opponent also had a glass jaw. In this video Willard goes down to a smaller boxer.
Great article, Michael.
Just in time for the World track and field championships taking place in Hungary, I hope you are watching.
Unfortunately, so many of today’s top track and field athletes ( and other top athletes in other sports) are just narcissists, hungry for fame and money. There are classy ones that I have met when I was younger, like various Olympic medalists from about 30 years ago but it seems that most today are just arrogant and all about themselves and leading a life of leisure and materialism (mind you, the African track and field athletes come from poverty and seem to be very different from their American competitors so my hats off to them for remaining humble even in victory).
Sorry for going off tangent but I know you love track and field and was wondering your thoughts on today’s athletes compared to athletes of other eras. I particularly dislike American short distance runners ( e.g. Lyles who just won the men’s 100 and 200 m gold) as they seem to be most narcissistic of all. The decathletes seem to be some of the most down to earth, having a great sense of good sportsmanship and camaraderie.
Mike, Sat 26 Aug, 11:12
I was just watching the 200-meter finals in the track & field World Championships. They showed a clip before the race in which former sprint great Usain Bolt told Noah Lyles, the current “fastest man alive” and winner of the race, to keep being “flamboyant”—that the sport needs it. I guess I’m just “old school,” because that is the biggest turn-off to me. It’s too late for me to embrace flamboyance, buffoonery, showboating, clowning, whatever it is called. I root against the flamboyant athletes.
Michael Tymn, Sat 26 Aug, 06:24
In my last comment, I should have mentioned my encounter with the great Jack Dempsey, aka “The Manassa Mauler.” I can’t remember it as it happened in 1939 and the only verification is a long-lost 8mm movie film taken by my father, which does not have audio. The story goes something like this: Standing in front of his Manhattan restaurant, Dempsey held up his hand and asked me to slug it. I did and he said it was the hardest he’d ever been hit, or something to that effect. Thus, I stand in line to take on Ali in an imaginary bout
Michael Tymn, Sat 26 Aug, 04:40
A friend on mine is connected with fighthype.com (https://www.youtube.com/@fighthype/about)
Muhammad Ali virtual tour might be of interest
There was a famous phrase used by mistake in 1979 by one of our TV presenters https://www.9news.com.au/videos/national/bert-newtons-controversial-logies-moment-with-boxer-muhammad-ali/ckvvmv3bl009e0hn6qzbuucxo
Bruce Williams, Fri 25 Aug, 14:36
Newton, thanks for your comment. To each his own. I much preferred the class acts of Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, and Rocky Marciano. If Ali hadn’t introduced showboating to sport, someone else would have. It all started with television and it was just a matter of time. Athletic ability is not the subject here, but I do think Mike Tyson, in his prime, would have flattened Ali in three rounds.
Michael Tymn, Thu 24 Aug, 19:33
Yes, Ali was a showboat, but what a show! Footwork like a dancer, blindingly fast hands, a great chin, and the heart of a lion. Arguably the greatest boxer of all time. And even more importantly, a principled man of God, to tie into Michael’s topic, who at great risk and great cost refused to fight (and perhaps have to kill) in an unjust war. What that courageous stance cost not only him but all of us was that no one had the chance to see Ali at his prime. He had just emerged as a great fighter when he was stripped of the title, and when he finally was allowed to come back both his feet and hands had slowed down. Had he fought during these peak years, there would be no argument possible about the greatest boxer of ALL TIME! It was only the audaciousness of Ali that got me through the first year of law school after I suddenly lost what was then the love of my life. A large photo of him hung on my office wall until retirement.
Newton Finn, Thu 24 Aug, 17:58
For some reason I was interested in the transition of language. The use of swear words has changed. “Some historians have looked into the topic, such as Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. In her chapter on medieval England, Mohr explains that people back then did not have much of an issue with describing bodily functions in ways that we might find less appropriate.
Mohr explains “swearing was so important was that people believed if you would swear by God’s bones, or by Christ’s fingernails, you were actually affecting their bodies up in Heaven. Mohr notes:
to us it doesn’t make any sense… but in makes sense as a sort of Catholic Eucharist, where a priest said some words and makes God’s physical body which he then breaks and eats, and shares among the congregation. And in swearing anybody could say these magic words that could tear Christ’s body part. So this was a kind of terrifying language that people were tremendously worried about, and so if you wanted to you insult someone or express joy or you stubbed your toe and wanted to relieve the pain, those were the words that you were going to use because they had this tremendous power.”
Damn you to hell was the full insult so getting away with “I don’t give a damn” was scandalous. I am impressed that Amos thought “I don’t give a darn” might work. I remember getting reprimanded for invoking Christ’s name in my youth for extreme pain.
Bruce Williams, Thu 24 Aug, 01:44
May God walk with you (a blessing to overcome the use of bad words)
In what alternate reality would Rett Butler as played by Clark Gable ever have said, “Scarlet, I don’t give a darn!”
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 23 Aug, 16:30
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 23 Aug, 13:25
I worked with a lady who used to say “H E double toothpicks” and my father would say “Sh*it!—-and two’s eight.” hoping you thought he said, “six and two is eight.” And as you know, in the movie “Gone With the Wind”, it was scandalous in the 1940s when Clark Gable said , “Scarlet, I don’t give a damn!” Times have changes, Michael. It is time for us to move on. AOD
“Hell” and “Damn” were cuss (or curse) words when I grew up. After returning from WWII, an uncle used those words quite a lot and it raised many family eyebrows. If you were a Catholic, you should have reported such use to the priest during confession.
Another thing resulting from TV is showboating on the athletic field. It all started with professional wrestling and then Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring. Before them, winners tipped their caps or just waved to crowd. There were no clown acts or chest-pounding. Yet, Ali is now held in high praise by sports writers for his contributions to sports.
Michael Tymn, Tue 22 Aug, 22:00
I would agree with your description of a “gentle” man. They were all gentle souls. My father knew an old soldier Arthur Stace from WW1 who is famous in Sydney Australia. (My father worked in the city and saw many characters). Arthur wrote Eternity on the streets of Sydney in chalk. His story is here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Stace.
He was known as the Eternity Man. A reformed alcoholic.
“Stace was further inspired by the preaching of evangelist John G. Ridley MC, on “The Echoes of Eternity” from Isaiah 57:15:
For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth Eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
In an interview, Stace said, “Eternity went ringing through my brain and suddenly I began crying and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write Eternity.” Even though he was illiterate and could hardly write his own name legibly, “the word ‘Eternity’ came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it, and I still can’t.”
Sometimes God chooses the lowly to be his instrument. The Church in question used to have a noticeboard. They would put up a question or two. One was Tired of sin? Someone added below Tired of sin, if not ring .....
Bruce Williams, Mon 21 Aug, 05:08
I still can’t get used to the foul language in movies, in print, and in television shows. But then I am from a time when the Anglo-Saxon four-letter words were not used in polite company and definitely not in a public setting. Now it seems that those four-letter words are spoken by the leaders of the country—-Representatives, Senators and even the President. And worst of all, teenage girls and young women!
I know that words are only symbols of something, so whether it is the four-letter word or the first and last letter with asterisks in between, it is just substituting one symbol for another and a crude way of communicating intelligent thought to another person. Perhaps it is an effort to be ‘macho’ or a signal that one flaunts the rules of a civil society and doesn’t give a ‘darn’ but in my opinion is a sign of the degradation of a culture, its language and the society in total. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 20 Aug, 18:39
Bruce, thanks for the comment. To answer your question, all three men were “old school” and what once were called “gentlemen.” I doubt that any of them ever used a cuss word. Now, it seems like our conversations are filled with cuss words. As I have suggested before, it all started with television, which has become increasingly crude and foul in recent decades. Television became popular during the 1950s, but it didn’t really start getting obscene until the 1990s. I saw a movie, or part of one, the other night in which a big-time actor was constantly using the “f” word and calling everyone a M…erF…er. It was billed as a comedy. It was disgusting. Any kid could have watched it on his or her bedroom television and assumed it was acceptable language.
Michael Tymn, Sun 20 Aug, 02:02
Zamperini “After being freed and reunited with his loved ones, he turned to alcohol to relieve the post-traumatic stress. He eventually attended a Billy Graham crusade and became a born-again Christian.” Men of God are often born of pain.
I had a Methodist Minister for my first marriage. He was a shearer (they are tough) named Keith who became an alcoholic, found God at a Methodist Rally and studied to become a Minister (Methodists don’t drink alcohol). I found that he was both authentic and understanding. He retired to the country but when he was needed he quickly returned for the burial of my first wife. One of the Moderators (best friend’s mum) contacted him. When the Minister is in tears that’s a sign of the pain.
He knew my pain and anger against God, like Zamperini. I kept telling Keith that the tapestry was torn (Amos helped with a quote in the past -thanks again). My faithful spirit helpers had not helped. We are now again on good terms.
The qualities that you found in your Men of God (and Women as well) are special qualities. I also found these qualities in a Franciscan priest called Issie. You can start to spot these qualities. Your inner vision can see these invisible qualities.
Did you see these qualities during the interviews?
Bruce Williams, Sat 19 Aug, 07:28
A wonderful salute to some extraordinary men. My father always said the the imperial Japanese war criminals by and large did not suffer the same fate as the nazi criminals. Lou Zamperini’s captor, Matsuhiro Watanabe, known as the Bird, somehow evaded capture and was never prosecuted despite his inhuman brutality to Louis and many other Allied POWs. The Bird was in Douglas MacArthur’s top 40 war criminal list. Matsuhiro Watanabe died unrepentant at age 85 in 2003.
David F Eastman, Thu 17 Aug, 16:25
Wonderful recognition of men who put others around them ahead of themselves. It is in stark contrast to how many behave today. Thanks for sharing these recollections with us.
J Penn, Thu 17 Aug, 14:25
At school I attended scripture classes run by Rev Champion. He had served with distinction in WW2 and had lost an arm. His sleeve was pinned across his chest and he wore a Presbyterian collar. He tried to explain God and taught about other religions, their history and their beliefs. Some classes were tough on him as a line of conversation would bring back memories.
He never spoke of his war experiences. I liked your article as it reminded me of him. I think when you see hell you appreciate God. Many soldiers were on the Hell ships (my friend’s father was on one).
Bruce Williams, Tue 15 Aug, 01:18
A very poignant and well written article.
Nice recognition, Michael. I am sure it was a privilege to know these men. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 14 Aug, 21:33
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