Wilson Middle School students on Thursday paid tribute to the men and women of the armed forces by giving a raucous welcome to several 20th Century war heroes, including a World War II veteran who met Adolf Hitler as an athlete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The Veteran's Day assembly has become a highlight on the school's annual calendar, said teacher and organizer Peter Regli. Wilson students are introduced to some of the nation's greatest war heroes, both via documentaries and in person. And the celebration, along with the opportunity to meet military veterans, adds a tangible dimension to the coursework, Regli said.
"They should see that [the veterans are] the reason we even have a country, and they should be thankful to those people who gave us our country and kept our country going," Regli said.
In addition to Olympic runner turned veteran Louis Zamperini, this year's guests included Glendale native and First Class Petty Officer Bryan Ross, who served on the USS Iowa during the Korea War and fighter pilot Bob Gilliland, who set several aviation records for speed and altitude while flying the SR-71 Blackbird.
Students roared with applause as the veterans were introduced, straining to catch a glimpse of them over the crowd.
"They fought for our freedom and they sacrificed their lives for us, so it is important to give them recognition," said Wilson Middle School Student Body President Raffi Bagdasaryan, 13.
Zamperini has become a familiar face at Wilson. Students watch a film about his extraordinary life, and he has visited the school several times. Zamperini first rose to fame as a standout athlete, setting in 1934 the world record for the mile with a time of 4 minutes 21.2 second. The record remained untouched until 1959.
In 1936, he ran the 5,000-meter race at the Olympics in Berlin. Zamperini finished eighth, but his speedy, 56-second final lap caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who asked to meet him.
The exchange was brief, Zamperini said. Hitler shook his hand and said, "The boy with the fast finish."
Zemperini enlisted in the Air Force in 1941, and was deployed to the Pacific as a B-24 bombardier. On May 27, 1943, his aircraft went down due to mechanical failure and he spent 47 days adrift in the ocean. He was eventually picked up by the Japanese navy and was held as a prisoner of war outside of Nagano, Japan until the end of the war.
He travels constantly to share the story of his life, Zamperini said, but loves returning to Wilson for the Veteran's Day assembly each year. It is touching, he said, to listen to the students sing the traditional military songs.
"When I am traveling and speaking I always try and mention Glendale students because these kids are the most inspiring, excited, patriotic kids at any school," Zamperini said.