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When he was liberated at the end of the war, he was a changed man and wrestled with rage, depression and alcoholism that almost cost him his marriage.
"Pain never bothered me," he told the AP in 2003. "Destroying my dignity stuck with me."
Several years after his return, Zamperini attended a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles and embraced Christianity — a faith that would sustain him for the rest of his life.
Years later, Zamperini wrote a letter of forgiveness to one of his most horrific tormentors, a guard the other prisoners nicknamed "The Bird."
In 1998, he went back to Japan to run a leg of the torch relay at the Nagano Olympics and ran past the former camps where he had been imprisoned.
"Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness," Hillenbrand, his biographer, said Thursday.
In May, Zamperini was named grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, which on next New Year's Day will feature the theme "Inspiring Stories."
In accepting the honor, Zamperini, wearing a USC cap, recalled that Hillenbrand, in researching the book, asked to interview his friends from college and the Army.
"And now after the book was finished all of my college buddies are dead, all of my war buddies are dead. It's sad to realize that you've lost all your friends," he said. "But I think I made up for it. I made a new friend — Angelina Jolie. And the gal really loves me, she hugs me and kisses me, so I can't complain."
Andrea Fox, spokeswoman for the tournament, said officials haven't worked out what they'll do now to honor Zamperini, but they will consult with the family. They will not name a different grand marshal, she said.
He was a guest of Jolie last year when she was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
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.
Flaccus reported from Orange County, California. Associated Press writers Rod Hicks in Philadelphia and Anthony McCartney, John Antczak and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.