Louis Zamperini, the subject of the upcoming film “Unbroken,” wasn’t just a weekend warrior skier. He came to Mammoth Mountain with a bigger purpose: to help underprivileged boys stay out of trouble.
Zamperini established the Victory Boys Camp around 1953, according to an oral history document by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, and skiing was one of the many activities he introduced to those boys.
“We took about 35 kids a week into the Sierras for a real wilderness experience, which included fishing, camping in the wilds, rappelling over cliffs, mountaineering, skiing, anything adventurous. I think we probably established the first Outward Bound-type program, back in 1953,” Zamperini says in the document.
Dave McCoy, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s founder, along with former resort employees, and several of Zamperini’s friends remember Zamperini first coming to the ski area with his boys camp in the 1960s. But prior to their arrival, Zamperini made his way to McCoy’s door to ask for help.
“He humbly showed up and explained what he was doing and asked for tickets and rentals,” McCoy says. “He brought those kids up and made sure they had everything. They probably had a better time than the people [coming to Mammoth] on vacation.”
The relationship meant so much to Louis that he acknowledged and thanked McCoy in his book, “Devil at my Heels.”
“My enduring appreciation also to Dave McCoy, president of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. For the same fifty years he has graciously provided ski equipment and access to the mountain to myself and the many kids I’ve brought to the slopes in search of a good time and a better life,” the acknowledgement reads.
So why did Zamperini bring his Victory Boys Camp to Mammoth? McCoy says it’s an easy question to answer: “Because Mammoth offers the most fun ever. Mammoth is No. 1 in fun.”
While he didn’t start bringing boys there until the ’60s, Zamperini’s connection to Mammoth Mountain began in the ’50s, when he showed up in an electrical wholesale store in Burbank, California.
“He was looking for electrical equipment to remodel a building that he planned to use as a meeting place for the boys camp,” says Bob Clow, an employee of the electrical store, who also worked as a Mammoth ski patroller since 1949.
Clow, one of Mammoth’s original ski patrollers, says he told Zamperini all about the ski area during that shopping experience, and Zamperini sounded intrigued.
“So I told him, ‘I should have you call Dave [McCoy]’,” Clow says. He eventually did, and the storied relationship began.
In exchange for McCoy’s kindness, Zamperini regularly brought Wrigley’s Doublemint gum, Tootsie Roll Pops and other candies to Mammoth when he came to pick up his lift tickets. And if McCoy wasn’t there, Zamperini sometimes asked Tony Romo, who was Mammoth’s business operations director, to give McCoy the treats.
“I’d say, Louis, you know Dave’s not going to eat this,” Romo says. “And he would say he was just so grateful to Dave, and to just share it with the girls in the office instead.”
People who met Zamperini at Mammoth recall a humble, gracious man who always got what he wanted—not because he was pushy or demanding, but just through “simple talk,” as McCoy described.
“He was always so excited [about life],” Romo says.
Zamperini, who died in July 2014 at 97, skied into his 80s, says McCoy, who stayed in touch with him over the years. “He was a fair skier,” McCoy says. “He loved to teach, and he loved the enthusiasm of those boys.”