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Veterans praise World War II movie about survival

Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini in "Unbroken." O'Connell lost 26 pounds in the course of the filming; at his lightest, he weighed 119 pounds.

UNIVERSAL PICTURES/AP

By COURTNEY KUEPPERS | Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis. | Published: December 28, 2014

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — "Incredible."

"Profound."

"Amazing."

Those high marks were voiced by local veterans after viewing the new box office hit, "Unbroken."

Two and a half hours after entering the theater, the veterans and their friends, families and caretakers came out in awe of the story they had seen unfold on the big screen.

Some were emotional, some silent, but others were eager to talk about what they’d seen at the special viewing event.

Despite having served in World War II himself, Vane Hays of Eau Claire said he cannot imagine what Louis Zamperini — whose life is documented in the film — went through.

Hays was one among many gathered at Micon Cinemas in Chippewa Falls on Saturday’s snowy morning, and like many others in the room, he wore a baseball cap with a military insignia on it atop his head, identifying him as a Navy veteran.

The gathering of veterans was not due to a national holiday or special anniversary, like many others are. Instead, it was an opportunity for veterans to see the film free of charge.

Bob Billen of Chippewa Falls came up with the idea to give military personnel the opportunity to see it for free.

He teamed up with Mike and Connie Olson, who own Micon Cinemas.

"Unbroken" is an on-screen adaptation of a 2010 nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, which documents the life of Zamperini: an Olympic runner who served in World War II.

In May 1943, a plane carrying U.S. airmen, including Zamperini, crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Only three people survived the crash — Zamperini being one of them. After floating at sea in a raft for more than a month, the survivors — which had fallen to two men — were picked up by Japanese sailors.

For the next two years, the men were held as prisoners of war and endured vicious torture. Zamperini survived and was released in 1945 following the end of the war.

The event convened at 9 a.m. Saturday with a reception and then a screening of the film at 10 a.m.

For non-military attendees, a ticket was $10, which included movie admission, reception snacks, small popcorn and a $5 donation to Freedom Honor Flight in La Crosse.

The La Crosse site is one of five hubs in Wisconsin which flies World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans to Washington D.C. to visit national monuments.

Sharing stories

Planning for Saturday’s featured flick event only began three weeks ago, Connie Olson said. She and Mike were pleased to be involved, she said,

"We are so happy to have so many people here," she said. "(Bob) just really wanted to say thanks to the veterans, then we thought let’s try and raise some money, too."

Two years ago, Richard Lea of Chippewa Falls went on the one-day excursion to Washington. "It was quite the deal," he said.

Lea, a Korean War Navy veteran, read the book before seeing the movie Saturday and he was happy the movie was "a lot like the book."

"He was like a lot of those guys. They just wouldn’t give up," he said of Zamperini. "They didn’t need to embellish this story."

Through his career as a nurse, Scott Bromeisl of Chippewa Falls has had the chance to hear some World War II veterans tell their stories.

However, without the right setting, they can be a tough nut to crack, he said.

Bromeisl, an Operation Desert Storm Army veteran, and his wife Shari went to Saturday’s event to show their support for other veterans.

"This is a chance for veterans to get together and share," he said. "A veteran shouldn’t have to be on his death bed to tell his story."

Both Scott and Shari had grandfathers who served in World War II and regret not asking more about their stories, Shari Bromeisl said.

"I never realized how important it was to ask, why didn’t I ask?" She said, recalling dressing up in her grandfather’s uniform.

"That generation is so proud and they did what they had to do."

That’s how Korean War Army veteran Denny Reiter sees it too. He just did what he had to do, he said.

However, now Reiter is thankful for events like the one on Saturday which say thank you to him and his fellow service members.

Reiter said the film was "incredible," noting he was in awe of the lead character’s spirit, which "carried him through."

"I feel kind of warm and fuzzy that someone would pay for my ticket to say thank you to me," he said with a smile.

Reiter, who resides at the veterans home in Chippewa Falls, said he enjoys talking to others who have served.

The nearly 300 people filled three of Micon Cinemas’ theaters for the event.

Larry Kent and his wife only see one or two movies a year, but "Unbroken" was a for sure this year.

Kent, of Fall Creek, said he prefers books to movies but this time wanted to see Zamperini’s story on the big screen before cracking open the book.

The Army veteran said he has heard a lot about Zamperini’s courageous story and eagerly attended the event.

"It was real great," Kent said after the show. "It kept my interest all the way through. I’ll have to buy the book now."

The veterans cleared out quickly after the show, but an "Unbroken" poster they were asked to sign documents the day they came together to see Zamperini’s story and talk about their own.

courtney.kueppers@ecpc.com

©2014 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
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