Louis Zamperini, Olympian and war survivor, dies at 97

Incredible life story was told in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller ‘Unbroken’

Louis Zamperini, pictured here in 2011, has dies at the age of 97 in Los Angeles. The former Olympian and prisoner of war was the subject of the best-selling book Unbroken.   Photograph: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Louis Zamperini, pictured here in 2011, has dies at the age of 97 in Los Angeles. The former Olympian and prisoner of war was the subject of the best-selling book Unbroken. Photograph: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

 

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose remarkable story of survival as a prisoner of war in the second World War gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a best-selling biography by Laura Hillenbrand, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97.

A statement released by his family said he had been suffering from pneumonia. Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” recounted in vivid detail how Zamperini –a track star at the University of Southern California and an airman during the war – crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before his capture by the Japanese. It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Universal Pictures purchased rights to the book. The film, directed by Angelina Jolie and starring Jack O’Connell as Zamperini and co-starring Domhnall Gleeson, is to be released in December.

Shortly after America entered the war in 1941, Zamperini, then in his early 20s, enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He was a bombardier in a B-24 that was flying a rescue mission on May 27th, 1944, when his plane, nicknamed the Green Hornet, malfunctioned and fell into the sea.

Zamperini, the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Russell Phillips, and the tail gunner, Sgt. Francis McNamara, shared a raft, and fought off hunger, thirst, heat and storms while trying to avoid being shot by Japanese planes or eaten by sharks. They subsisted on rainwater and the few fish they could catch. Zamperini, who was 5-foot-9, went from 125 pounds to 75 pounds. After 33 days, McNamara died.

In June of 1944, Anthony and Louise Zamperini, at home in Torrance, California, received the following message regarding their son: “In grateful memory of First Lieutenant Louis S. Zamperini, A.S. No. 0-663341, who died in the service of his country in the Central Pacific Area, May 28, 1944. He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.” It was signed, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States.”

But the two remaining survivors on the raft were eventually captured by the Japanese. They then suffered added harrowing experiences as they were shuttled from one prison to another. “I could take the beatings and the physical punishment,’’ Zamperini said, “but it was the attempt to destroy your dignity, to make you a nonentity that was the hardest thing to bear.”

Zamperini said his athletic training helped him withstand the torment. “For one thing, you have to learn self-discipline if you are going to succeed as an athlete,’’ he said. “For another thing, you have to have confidence in yourself and believe that no matter what you’re faced with, you can deal with it – that you just can’t give up. And then there’s the aspect of staying in shape. And humour helped a lot, even in the gravest times.’’

In 1945, at the war’s end, Zamperini was liberated along with hundreds of other prisoners of war at the Naoetsu camp, northwest of Tokyo. “Though he was still sick, wasted and weak, he glowed with euphoria such as he had never experienced,” Hillenbrand wrote.

Louis Silvie Zamperini was born on January 26th, 1917, in Olean, New York. His family moved to Torrance in 1920, where he set the national high school record in the mile at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1934; his record time of 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds would last for 20 years.

Two years later, in the 5,000-meter Olympic trials at Randalls Island in New York, he finished in a dead heat with Don Lash, the world-record holder, which qualified him for the Olympics. As a teenager, he went to the Berlin Olympics and competed in the 5,000 metres, finishing eighth (Lash finished 13th), though Zamperini had a good finishing kick. During the 1936 Games, he stood with other athletes near Hitler’s box and wanted a photograph of the Nazi leader.

“I was pretty naive about world politics,” Zamperini said in an interview with The New York Times, “and I thought he looked funny, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film, especially the way he stamped his feet and slapped his thighs.” Because he was not close enough, he asked one of Hitler’s entourage to take Hitler’s picture for him. “It was the skinny guy,” Zamperini said, referring to Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda. Shortly after, Zamperini met Hitler, who shook his hand and said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”

Two years later, in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record of 4:08.3, which stood for 15 years. When Zamperini returned to America after the war, he fell into alcoholism and nearly divorced his wife (he and Cynthia remained married for 54 years until her death in 2001). He straightened out his life, he said, after hearing a sermon preached by Billy Graham. For much of the rest of his life, Zamperini worked in commercial real estate. He remained physically active even into his 80s and 90s, skiing, running, mountain climbing as well as skateboarding. He also became prominent on the lecture circuit.

His survivors include a son, Luke; a daughter, Cynthia Garris, and a grandchild. Zamperini wrote two memoirs, both titled “Devil at My Heels,” the first published in 1956 and written with Helen Itria, with a foreword by Billy Graham, and the second in 2003 with David Rensin, with a foreword by Republican senator John McCain.

Past efforts to make Zamperini’s story into a movie failed. In the 1950s, Tony Curtis wanted to play the role. In the late ’90s, Nicolas Cage expressed interest in the part. Despite Zamperini’s two autobiographies, Hillenbrand thought more could be done with the story. In an email for this obituary, she wrote:

“Louie’s story was well told, but as an autobiography it was limited to Louie’s point of view. No one had approached Louie’s story as a biography, incorporating numerous points of view. “I began interviewing Louie’s fellow airmen, POWs, Japanese camp officials and homefront friends and family, and went through their diaries, memoirs and letters. What I found was a fascinating untold story.’’

(New York Times Service)

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