Louis Silvie "Louie" Zamperini (January 26, 1917 – July 2, 2014) was an American World War II prisoner of war survivor, inspirational speaker, and Olympic distance runner. A film about his experiences, Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie and adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book by the Coen brothers (with earlier drafts by Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson), is due for release in 2014.
Zamperini was born January 26, 1917, in Olean, New York to Italian immigrants Anthony Zamperini and Louise Dossi. He had an older brother named Pete and two younger sisters, Virginia and Sylvia. The family moved to Torrance, California in 1919, where Louis attended Torrance High School. Zamperini and his family spoke no English when they moved to California, making him a target for bullies. His father taught him how to box in self-defense. Soon he claimed to be "beating the tar out of every one of them..... but [he] was so good at it that [he] started relishing the idea of getting even. [He] was sort of addicted to it."
To counteract Louis' knack for getting into trouble, his older brother Pete got him involved in the school track team. In 1934 Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile, clocking in at 04:21.2 at the preliminary meet to the state championships. The following week he won the championships with a 04:27.8 That record helped him win a scholarship to the University of Southern California and eventually a place on the 1936 United States Olympic team in the 5,000 metres. At 19 he was the youngest American qualifier ever in that event. While attending USC, Zamperini was a member of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity and lived in the fraternity house along with his brother.
In the Olympic trials at Randall's Island, Zamperini finished in a dead heat tie against American-record holder Don Lash and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, although neither he nor Lash were believed to have much chance of winning the 5,000-meter race against world record holder Lauri Lehtinen. Zamperini has related several anecdotes from his Olympic experience, including gorging himself on the boat trip to Europe: "I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich", he said. "And all the food was free. I had not just one sweet roll, but about seven every morning, with bacon and eggs. My eyes were like saucers.” By the end of the trip, Zamperini, in common with most athletes on the ship, had gained a good deal of weight: in Zamperini's case, 12 pounds. While the weight gain was not advantageous for his running, it was necessary for his health, as he had lost 15 pounds while training in the summer heat in New York for the Olympic Trials.
Zamperini finished eighth in the 5,000 meter distance event at that Olympics, but his final lap of 56 seconds was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Zamperini tells the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish". According to a profile on Bill Stern's Sports Newsreel radio program, Zamperini climbed a flag pole during the 1936 Olympic games and stole the personal flag of Hitler. Two years later, in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record of 4:08 despite severe cuts to his shins from competitors attempting to spike him during the race; this record held for fifteen years, earning him the nickname "Torrance Tornado".
Military career and prisoner of war
Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1941 and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Pacific island of Funafuti as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber. In April 1943 the plane was badly damaged in combat and the crew were assigned to conduct a search for a lost aircraft and crew. They were given another B-24, The Green Hornet, notorious among the pilots as a defective "lemon plane". While on the search, mechanical difficulties caused the plane to crash into the ocean 850 miles west of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard.
The three survivors (Zamperini and his crewmates, pilot Russel Allen "Phil" Phillips and Francis "Mac" McNamara), with little food and no water, subsisted on captured rainwater and small fish eaten raw. They caught two albatrosses, which they ate and used to catch fish, all while fending off constant shark attacks and nearly being capsized by a storm. They were strafed multiple times by a Japanese bomber, puncturing their life raft, but no one was hit. McNamara died after thirty-three days at sea.
On their 47th day adrift, Zamperini and Phillips reached land in the Marshall Islands and were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy. They were held in captivity and severely beaten and mistreated until the end of the war in August 1945. Zamperini was held in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Ōfuna for captives who were not registered as prisoners of war (POW). He was tormented by prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed "The Bird"), who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. Held at the same camp was then-Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington, and in his book, Baa Baa Black Sheep, he discusses Zamperini and the Italian recipes he would write to keep the prisoners' minds off the food and conditions. Zamperini had at first been declared missing at sea, and then, a year and a day after his disappearance, killed in action. When he eventually returned home he received a hero's welcome.
In 1946 he married Cynthia Applewhite, to whom he remained married until her death in 2001. After the war and suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, Zamperini became a born-again Christian after attending a crusade led by evangelist Billy Graham in 1949 in Los Angeles. Graham later helped Zamperini launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker. His wife Cynthia was instrumental in getting him to go to Billy Graham's meetings and not leaving before he was converted. One of his favorite themes is "forgiveness", and he has visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he has forgiven them. Many of the war criminals who committed the worst atrocities were held in the Sugamo prison in Tokyo. In October 1950 Zamperini went to Japan, gave his testimony, and preached to them through an interpreter (a missionary named Fred Jarvis). The colonel in charge of the prison encouraged any of the prisoners who recognized Zamperini to come forward and meet him again. Zamperini threw his arms around each of them. Once again he explained the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. The prisoners were somewhat surprised by Zamperini's genuine affection for those who had once ill-treated him. Most of the prisoners accepted copies of the New Testament which had been given by the Gideons.
For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. While there, he attempted to meet with his chief and most brutal tormentor during the war, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who had evaded prosecution as a war criminal, but the latter refused to see him. In March 2005 he returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there.
Torrance High School's home football, soccer, and track stadium is called Zamperini Stadium, and the entrance plaza at USC's track & field stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza in 2004. In his 90s, Zamperini continued to attend USC football games and he befriended star quarterback Matt Barkley in 2009. In October 2008, Zamperini was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, Illinois. On April 24, 2011, Zamperini received an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters from Azusa Pacific University. The following month, on May 20, 2011, Zamperini delivered Bryant University's 2011 baccalaureate address and received Bryant's inaugural Distinguished Character Award. The following day, May 21, Bryant presented Zamperini with an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters. The next day he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Red Sox-Cubs game at Fenway Park in Boston.
In late July 2011, Zamperini received the Kappa Sigma Golden Heart Award during the Kappa Sigma 68th Biennial Grand Conclave held at the Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Zamperini appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on June 7, 2012, speaking about his life in general, the 1936 Olympics, and his World War II exploits. He was scheduled to be the grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California.
Before his death in 2014, Zamperini resided in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, California. The Torrance airport was renamed Zamperini Field in the 1960s.
Zamperini died from pneumonia on July 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, aged 97.
Zamperini wrote two memoirs about his experiences, both of them bearing the same title, Devil at My Heels. The first (written with Helen Itria) was published by Dutton in 1956. The second, subtitled "A World War II Hero's Epic Saga of Torment, Survival, and Forgiveness (written with David Rensin)", bore a familiar title but was top to bottom wholly new, and with much additional information. It was published in 2003 by Wm Morrow. Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, has written a biography of Zamperini. The book, entitled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, was published by Random House in 2010 and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It was named the top nonfiction book of 2010 by Time.
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