Obituary: Louis Zamperini, whose incredible life of war and survival is worthy of Hollywood, dies at 97

  • Article by: IRA BERKOW , New York Times
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 11:11 PM

On Oct. 3, 1945, Capt. Louis Zamperini, right, posed with fellow POW Capt. Fred Garrett upon their arrival at Hamilton Field, Calif.

Photo: Associated Press,

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Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97.

A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.

Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the war gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini.

Zamperini was in his early 20s and a track star at the University of Southern California when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after the United States entered the war in 1941. He was a bombardier in a B-24 that was flying a rescue mission on May 27, 1943, when his plane, named the Green Hornet, malfunctioned and fell into the sea.

Sharing a life raft, Zamperini, who was a lieutenant, and two other crash survivors — the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Russell Phillips, and the tail gunner, Sgt. Francis McNamara — fought off hunger, thirst, heat, storms and sharks while trying to avoid being shot by Japanese planes. They subsisted on rainwater and the few fish they could catch. Zamperini, at 5-foot-9, went from 125 pounds to 75 pounds.

An unknown plight

In June 1943, Anthony and Louise Zamperini, at home in Torrance, Calif., received the following message: “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.” The letter continued, “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.”

Unknown to the military, Zamperini and the others were adrift at sea, though McNamara died after 33 days. Zamperini and Phillips were eventually captured by the Japanese. Then came more suffering as the men were shuttled from prison to prison. For a time, Zamperini was in the brutal hands of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who was later classified as a war criminal but evaded prosecution.

“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 humor helped a lot, even in the gravest times.”

At the war’s end in 1945, he 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,” author Hillenbrand wrote.

Son of Italian immigrants

Louis Silvie Zamperini was born on Jan. 26, 1917, in Olean, N.Y., a son of Italian immigrants. His family moved to Torrance in 1920.

Zamperini was a fighter before he was a runner, according to a biography released by USC. His father taught him how to box so he could defend himself against bullies who taunted because he could not speak English. Pete Zamperini, an older brother, encouraged him to try out for the track team at ­Torrance High School.

There 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. His schoolboy exploits earned him a scholarship to USC.

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 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a teenager.

In Berlin, he competed in the 5,000-meter race, finishing eighth (Lash finished 13th), though Zamperini had a good finishing kick. During those 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.”

  • related content

  • Angelina Jolie, with Louis Zamperini recently, has directed the Universal movie, “Unbroken,” about his incredible and inspiring life.

  • As a Southern California runner, Louis Zamperini, shown in 1939, set a collegiate record in the mile. .

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