Louis Zamperini, war hero, Olympian and subject of best-seller, dies at 97


Louis Zamperini won the mile at the Pacific Coast Conference Track and Field. (Paul Wagner / AP / File)

Louis Zamperini, who lived an inspirational life of remarkable patriotism, perseverance and resolve that spanned the Olympics, World War II and triumph over personal difficulties, has died of pneumonia at the age of 97.

“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,” his family said in a statement. “His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”

Zamperini was both an Olympic and war hero, his story told in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-sellier “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” A film based on the book and directed by Angelina Jolie will be released in December.

Zamperini was a star athlete as a young man growing up in Torrance, Calif., and at the University of Southern California. Known for his finishing kick, he set the national high school record in the mile, setting a 4-minute, 21.2-second mark that stood for 20 years, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1934. In the 5,000-meter Olympic trials two years later, he qualified by finishing in a dead heat with the world-record holder, Don Lash. In the Berlin Olympics in 1936, his life began intersecting with significant historical events. He finished eighth in the 5,000 and, as a mere 19-year-old, asked for a photo of Adolf Hitler. From the New York Times’ obituary:

“I was pretty naïve about world politics,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Zamperini said, referring to Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda.

Shortly after, Mr. 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.

With the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo canceled, war intervened on his athletic career and his experiences in the Pacific, as described in Hillenbrand’s book, were harrowing. He enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor and was a bombardier on a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber that crashed into the ocean. He and another survivor drifted on a raft in shark-infested waters for 47 days, only to captured by the Japanese. He was tortured as a prison of war for more than two years. Although he sank into alcoholism after the war, he turned his life around with a religious reawakening at a Billy Graham revival. When he met his war-time tormenters decades later, he hugged them. It was especially poignant when he ran a leg of the Olympic torch relay for the Nagano Games and he remained tied to the Olympic movement, visiting the Berlin Olympic stadium in 2005 for the first time since competing there decades before.

Hillenbrand has the best words about his passing, writing on Facebook:

“Farewell to the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew. Thank you, Louie, for all you gave to me, to our country, and to the world. I will never forget our last, laughing talk, your singsong ‘I love you! I love you!’ and the words you whispered to me when you last hugged me goodbye, words that left me in happy tears, words that I will remember forever. I will love you and miss you to the end of my days. Godspeed, sweet Louie.”

Earlier this year, he and Jolie spoke with Tom Brokaw about his life:

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After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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