'Unbroken' War Hero Louis Zamperini Dies At 97

by Lauren Barbato

Olympic runner and war hero Louis Zamperini died on Wednesday, at the age of 97. The celebrated Olympian, who was a member of the 1936 U.S. track and field team, is known more for his heroic efforts off the track: During World War II, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces — a predecessor to the current-day Air Force — and was held as a prisoner of war for more than two years. His story has captured the attention of Hollywood, and a film about Zamperini's life, Unbroken, will hit theaters later this year.

"After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives," Zamperini's family said in a statement released by Universal Pictures. "His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days."

Born Jan. 26, 1917 in Olean, New York, Zamperini spent most of his childhood in the Southern California community of Torrance. The son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini spoke little English when he moved to Southern California, making him a prime target for bullies. His father taught him how to box as a way to defend himself from the schoolyard taunts.

"I was beating the tar out of every one of them," Zamperini told USC's Trojan Family Magazine. "But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it."

After spending much of his adolescence getting into fights and hopping trains, his older brother, Pete, helped Zamperini channel some of his wild energy into track and field. He joined the Torrance High School track team and was soon beating out his competition left and right. Zamperini's high school track success led him to the University of Southern California, where he received a scholarship.

Here's a look at some of his most inspiring accomplishments...

1. Setting Records

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Zamperini's first major feat came in 1934, when he set the world interscholastic record for the mile at a preliminary meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the state championships — 04:21.2. That record lasted for 20 years. He later won the state championships with a time of 04:27.8.

2. 1936 Summer Olympics

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Zamperini qualified for the 5,000 meters event 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin at age 19 — the youngest American runner ever to qualify. Although Zamperini failed to medal in the Olympic event — he came in eighth — he did catch the attention of a certain someone.

Adolf Hitler was reportedly impressed by Zamperini's swift finish and asked for a personal meeting. The two men famously shook hands after the meet. In hindsight, it wasn't quite an admirable accomplishment for Zamperini. "It wasn’t until many years later that I looked back and realized I’d shaken hands with the worst tyrant the world has ever known," he told Trojan Family Magazine.

3. Surviving World War II

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After retiring from track and field, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941, only a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Zamperini became a bombardier and was assigned to the South Pacific.

In April 1943, Zamperini was in a plane crash that killed eight of the 11 men onboard. The plane went down in the Pacific Ocean, so Zamperini and his fellow soldiers tried to stay alive on an emergency raft in shark-infested waters. They had little food or water — six chocolate bars and a few bottles of water, to be exact — and eventually had to catch fish and even kill albatrosses to survive.

In the meantime, the U.S. military listed Zamperini as dead: "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, 1943."

4. Prisoner Of War

After 47 days floating away at sea, Zamperini's life raft landed on the Marshall Islands. Zamperini was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war for more than two years. According to Zamperini, he was beaten and starved by the Japanese soldiers. “At Yokohama, I helped unload 10,000-ton ships, shoveling out coal and refuse from the latrine," he told USC News. "The guards always had their favorite punishment for you, like doing push-ups over the latrine, then pushing your head in it."

Zamperini was freed in 1945 at the end of World War II.

5. His Book And Film

Zamperini's story of strength and courage received widespread attention when his biography, Unbroken, was released in 2010. The book has been adapted into a film, directed by Angelina Jolie, and will be released in theaters in late 2014.

Images: Wikimedia Commons,