The subject of the 2010 book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Louis Zamperini was an Olympic runner who survived 47 days adrift at sea and months in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. After returning from these traumatic experiences, he struggled for a time before becoming a successful commercial real estate businessman and public speaker. Unbroken was the basis for a film, directed by Angelina Jolie and released about six months after Zamperini's death.
The son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini moved from New York to Torrance, California, when he was three years old. Unable to speak English until he went to school, he was trained as a boxer by his father to fight back when challenged by bullies. He was a troubled child, smoking by the age of five and drinking by the age of eight. At Torrance High School, Zamperini joined the track team, encouraged to do so by his older brother. Zamperini excelled at running, setting a national high school record in the mile during a 1934 competition in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Because of his high school track record, Zamperini was given a scholarship to attend the University of Southern California (USC). He continued to excel at running in college and was considered one of the best distance runners in the world, having won two national championships in the mile. In 1936, the 19-year-old runner qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the 5,000-meter race. At the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, he finished eighth. After the Olympics, Zamperini continued to run for USC. In 1938, he set a collegiate record in the mile and was considered a strong contender for the 1940 Olympics. These games were to be held in Tokyo but were cancelled because of World War II.
Zamperini graduated from USC in 1940 and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps after the United States entered World War II in 1941. Zamperini was trained as a pilot and became a bombardier. On May 27, 1943, while flying a search-and-rescue mission, his B-24 Liberator, the Green Hornet, suffered a mechanical problem and crashed into the sea. Zamperini and two other crew members survived the crash.
Drifting at sea on a rubber lifeboat, the three struggled to survive. They drank only rainwater, caught a few fish and birds, and talked about their favorite foods to keep their minds active. While the men endured hunger and thirst, sharks, storms, and being shot at by Japanese planes, Zamperini's family was informed that he was presumed dead in the airplane crash. Though one of the three died after 33 days, Zamperini and Second Lieutenant Russell Phillips lived long enough to be captured by a Japanese patrol boat after 47 days. It is believed they set a record for survival at sea without provisions. When Zamperini was found, he weighed about 75 pounds, having lost 50 pounds during the ordeal.
Rescued and arrested by the Japanese, Zamperini and Phillips were put in different prisoner of war (POW) camps and regularly moved between camps. Given Zamperini's status as an athlete, the Japanese wanted to use him as a propaganda tool, but he refused to denounce the United States. In one camp Zamperini was brutalized by Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a guard. The notorious Watanabe was eventually classified as a war criminal because of his brutal treatment of prisoners. In the POW camps, Zamperini endured beatings, other forms of punishment, and, worst of all to him, attempts to destroy his dignity. He survived by drawing on the inner strength and self-discipline that he had developed as an athlete.
When World War II ended in August 1945, Zamperini was freed from the Naoetsu POW camp near Tokyo. Returning to the United States, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was plagued by nightmares, and became an alcoholic. In the process, his marriage to his wife, Cynthia, nearly ended. Hearing a sermon by Billy Graham in 1949 helped him recover, and he eventually found a career in commercial real estate. He also was a public speaker, coached track, established a camp for troubled youth, and once even returned to Japan as a missionary.
Zamperini focused on physical health for the whole of his life. He ran, skateboarded, skied, and climbed mountains. During the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, he participated in the Olympic torch relay. In addition, he published two autobiographies about his life, both with the title Devil at My Heels. The first was written with Helen Itris and published in 1956; the second was written with David Rensin and published in 2003.
In 2010, Zamperini's biography was written by respected author Laura Hillenbrand. Widening the life story beyond his autobiographies, Hillenbrand included information from his family and friends and from other airmen, POWs, and their captors. Her Unbroken reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list. The success of her biography brought Zamperini's story to a wide audience and led to the biographical film based on the book, also titled Unbroken.
Suffering from pneumonia, Zamperini died in Los Angeles on July 2, 2014. He was 97. He is survived by his son, Luke; his daughter, Cynthia; and several grandchildren.
Born Louis Silvie Zamperini, January 26, 1917, in Olean, NY; died of pneumonia, July 2, 2014, in Los Angeles, CA. Athlete and military officer.
CNN Wire, July 3, 2014;
Military History, November 2014;
New York Times, July 4, 2014;
Washington Post, July 3, 2014.