American Portraits

One Minute of Pain: Louis Zamperini, Iron Discipline, and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn about the life of Louis Zamperini and how his purpose helped him through excruciating ordeals.

Founding Principles

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


On May 19, 1934, high-school junior Louis Zamperini lined up against the best milers in Southern California under the sweltering sun at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He was anxious about making a good showing against the state record holder. Right before the race, he became scared and started to walk off the track until his coach and his brother, Pete, encouraged him to make the attempt….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you strive to be successful by being purposeful?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life of Louis Zamperini and how his purpose helped him through excruciating ordeals.


  • Students will analyze the purposeful actions and resilience of Louis Zamperini.
  • Students will understand how being purposeful can help them achieve success.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of purpose to their own lives.


Louis Zamperini was born in New York in 1917, but moved with his family to the Los Angeles area as a young boy. His parents were hard-working Italian-Americans who sought to make a good life for their children. Louis received poor grades at school and was perpetually in trouble with the law because he frequently committed petty crimes.

The Great Depression hit America in the early 1930s and made life for the Zamperini family far more difficult. Louis’ brother, Pete, never gave up on his sibling and encouraged him several times to reform his life. Finally, Pete persuaded Louis to try running for the track team. Louis agreed, and the decision saved his life. Running forged his character in new ways and gave Louis a fresh purpose to succeed and never to quit. As Japan, Germany, and Italy seized land across the globe in the 1930s and 1940s, Louis Zamperini entered adulthood facing a dangerous world. He and millions of young Americans would need a strong purpose in order to face the challenges ahead.


  • Perpetually
  • Persuaded
  • World’s Interscholastic Mile
  • Juvenile
  • Bombardier
  • B-24
  • Propeller
  • Hallucinations
  • Zero
  • Emaciated
  • Succumbed
  • Kwajalein Island
  • Interrogations
  • Rations
  • Ofuna
  • Sadistic
  • Malnourished
  • Malicious
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • POW

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • How did Louis Zamperini promote freedom?
  • Who was Louis Zamperini? Why was his experience significant?
  • What was Louis’s purpose as a runner? As a bombardier? As a plane crash survivor? As a POW?
  • What did Louis do to remain purposeful throughout each of his ordeals?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House, 2010.
  • Spector, Ronald. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Free Press, 1985.
  • Van der Vat, Dan. The Pacific Campaign: The U.S.-Japanese Naval War, 1941-1945. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
  • “Unbroken.” Universal Pictures, 2014.
  • Zamperini, Louis, with David Rensin. Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II. New York: Harper, 2003.

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