LOS ANGELES — Seventy years ago, the world was convinced that Louis Zamperini was dead. There had been no word of the track star and former Olympian since his World War II bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The military told his parents he was dead, and an annual collegiate track competition named one of its races in his memory.
But Zamperini was alive, and very much so. After surviving 47 days in a life raft in shark-infested waters and enduring two years as a Japanese prisoner of war, Zamperini was liberated in time to attend the second running of the invitational mile that had been named in his memory. It was a story fitting for a man who lived a life on the edge of endurance, an ordinary man who did extraordinary things — all while sustained by a hope and strength that at times seemed superhuman.
Zamperini, a war hero, Olympian and the subject of a celebrated book and upcoming movie on his harrowing story of survival against all odds, died after a long battle with pneumonia, his family said Thursday in a statement. He was 97.
Lauren Hillenbrand, the author of the best-selling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” said over countless hours of interviews Zamperini became a surrogate grandfather and beloved friend.
“In a life of almost unimaginable drama, he experienced supreme triumphs, but also brutal hardship, incomprehensible suffering, and the cruelty of his fellow man. But Louie greeted every challenge of his long journey with singular resilience, determination and ingenuity, with a ferocious will to survive and prevail, and with hope that knew no master,” said Hillenbrand, whose book is being made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and is scheduled for a December release by Universal.
Born on Jan. 26, 1917, Zamperini’s larger-than-life story began with a blue-collar upbringing in Olean, a city in western New York. When he was 2, the family moved to Southern California, where he spent a rebellious childhood before channeling his energy and tenacity into sports. He started with boxing, to defend himself from bullies, but quickly became a world-class runner after joining his high school track team.
In 1934, Zamperini — nicknamed the “Torrance Tornado” for his hometown of Torrance, Calif. — broke the 18-year-old interscholastic record for the mile in 4:21.2, a mark that would stand for 20 years.
A track star at the University of Southern California, Zamperini competed in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished eighth but caught attention by running the final lap in 56 seconds — and grabbed headlines by stealing a Nazi flag.
But it was Zamperini’s incredible World War II story that captured the imagination of millions back home.
He was a bombardier on a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean during a reconnaissance mission. He and one of the other surviving crew members drifted for 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters, drinking rain water and eating fish and birds they caught with their bare hands, before being captured by Japanese forces. A third man died before they reached land.
Zamperini would spend more than two years as a prisoner of war being shuttled among Japanese prison camps, where he survived beatings, starvation, debilitating illnesses and psychological torture designed to break him down and make an example of the famous Olympian-turned-war hero.
A group in Olean, Zamperini’s birthplace, is raising funds to place a granite marker in Zamperini’s honor in War Veterans Park in August.
Zamperini Field, a city-owned public airport in Torrance, is also named in his honor. A stadium at Torrance High School and the entrance plaza at USC’s track and field stadium both bear his name.
His wife, Cynthia Applewhite, whom he married in 1946, died in 2001. His survivors include daughter Cynthia, son Luke and grandchildren.