In 1944, Boys’ Life wrote about the time Zamperini ripped down a swastika flag

When Boys’ Life first wrote about Louis Zamperini, nobody knew whether the American military and sports hero was alive or dead.

In its January 1944 issue, Boys’ Life told of the time in 1936 when Zamperini climbed up a flagpole inside German territory and ripped down a swastika flag as a souvenir.

The fascinating tale of courage and bravado ended with these chilling sentences about Zamperini:

He was in the raid over Nauru Island, where his plane was hit and one of its crew members was killed and he saved the life of another, who would have bled to death but for him. And on May 5 of this year [1943] he was reported missing, and no word has been heard of him since.

We all know the story didn’t end there for Zamperini, who died last week at age 97.

After the plane crash, Zamperini and another crewmate survived 47 days on a life raft at sea. They withstood storms and fended off shark attacks while living on rainwater and raw fish.

Eventually Zamperini was captured by the Japanese Navy and was beaten regularly until his release at the end of the war. Presumed dead, Zamperini later received a hero’s welcome and the Purple Heart.

His tale is documented in the bestselling book Unbroken; the movie based on the book is due out this Christmas.

Stealing the swastika flag

Before he was a prisoner of war, Louis Zamperini did something “every American boy would give anything in this world to do some day”: He ripped a swastika flag from its pole inside Nazi Germany.

The story, documented in full by Boys’ Life, shares how in addition to bringing home some medals from the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Zamperini wanted another souvenir.

“Lou had vowed he would bring back … the swastika banner over the headquarters of Adolf Hitler,” the article said.

And so, when the backs of the Storm Troopers guarding the building were turned, he got in, made his way to the roof, shinnied up the flag staff, tore the flag loose and was about to slide down when the Troopers saw him. Some of them fired at him. Others rushed to capture him as he reached the roof. They dragged him before Gen. Werner von Fritsch, Commander of the Wehrmacht.

The commander told him his prank was punishable by death but let him leave. “Don’t be such a fool again,” the commander said.

Zamperini: A Scout, but not an Eagle Scout

In this 2010 interview with Runners’ World, Zamperini said he was an Eagle Scout, “which is probably the reason I could be busted up like I have been and still be healthy.”

While Eagle Scouts everywhere would love to claim Zamperini among our ranks, BSA records show Zamperini was not an Eagle Scout. He was a Boy Scout, though.

Boys’ Life story from 1944

Click each image to enlarge.



H/T: Thanks to Scouter Dean Wilken for finding this story in the Boys’ Life archives.


  1. I had the great honor of meeting Mr. Zamperini when he attended the dedication of the airport in Torrance, California named after him. Words cannot express how much this man impressed everyone there. A tremendous athelete, soldier, patriot and family man while still humble and outgoing in nature. Mr. Zamperini lived through many levels of hell and still came up swinging. He was an inspiration to everyone and the embodiment of “America’s Greatest Generation.”

  2. Louis was a great and interesting man. I never met but we did share a letter or two. In Unbroken he does not mention scouting, something I would think odd if he were an Eagle Scout.

  3. We may never know if he was an Eagle Scout or not, if the records were lost, but even if he wasn’t he lived out the Scouting ideals like no other. That includes forgiving what most would consider the unforgivable. Do your self a favor and read his book Unbroken.

  4. I became an Eagle Scout in 1976. When my son became an Eagle Scout in 2012 I wanted us to both join the NESA together and I applied. My application was turned down because there was no record of my rank recorded in the National BSA HQ. I contacted National and provided them a newspaper clipping of the three of us who earned the Eagle Rank at the same Court of Honor. Two of us were not in the BSA record while one was. The news clip was enough evidence for National to enter the two of us into the registry; our original records were lost somewhere down the line. If this man said he earned the Eagle Rank then I’d accept his word for it. This would have been back in the early 30’s during the depression and I’d imagine if records were lost in 1976 they very well might have been lost in the 30’s. This is why I questioned BSA on designating a scout as being the millionth Eagle Scout. I’m certain it is in error and another scout would most certainly be correctly deserving of this designation.

  5. In my opinion, I believe Mr. Zamperini did not make Eagle Scout. A Scouting publication such as Boys Life back in 1944 was a very popular read for many Boy Scouts so I am sure Frank Graham who wrote the article would have written about it if it truly was the case.

    Even if Frank didn’t ask Mr. Zamperini if he was an Eagle Scout or not, you would think the 1944 editor of Boys Life would ask the question in order to publish and inspire the young Scout readers back then to follow their heroes in making Eagle too if it was true.

    On a side note: It’s better to be a part of the Scouting movement and learn as much as you can while having fun than not to ever be a part of it at all. I encourage all Boy Scout age boys to do your best in your Troop and be proud of any rank you achieve whether its 1st Class or Eagle!

  6. Zamperini did mention scouting in “Unbroken.” It did not make it to the movie but it is mentioned in the book several times including him winning a competition for building a friction fire at a statewide California jamboree

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