He’s one of my all-time great American heroes and he died peacefully last night at the age of 97. He is Louis Zamperini.
Zamperini was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track and field team who survived repeated, horrid, torture for two years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. I interviewed Louis several years ago on KSFO. He is the subject of the book, Unbroken. A movie of the same name is due out Christmastime. The book is a must read. I hope the movie does the book justice.
Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants in Odeon, New York, Zamperini moved to the Southern California community of Torrance in 1919 and became a world-class distance runner by the time he graduated from Torrance High School.
His ability and drive to compete on the track won him a scholarship to USC, where, at 19, he became part of a long tradition of USC track Olympians when he made the U.S. team. He was the country’s top finisher — eighth place — in the 5,000-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His ran his final lap in a blistering 56 seconds, prompting Germany’s Adolf Hitler to request a personal meeting with him.
Zamperini retired from competition to serve his country during World War II, becoming a bombardier and in the South Pacific. While on a reconnaissance mission, Zamperini’s aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean in Japanse-controlled waters. He and a surviving crew mates spent 47 days adrift on an inflatable raft (a record). Severely blistered by the scorching heat, the men survived by drinking rain water and killing a seagull, the bones of which allowed Zamperini to fashion a crude fishing hook enabling them to catch fish. Upon making shore in the Marshall Islands Zamperini was captured by Japanese soldiers.
He was a POW for more than two years, during which time he was frequently beaten and tortured by his captors in prison camps, often as payback for being a American Olympian.
Louis shared with me his story of coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord in 1949. Years later he traveled to Japan to meet with his captors and forgive them for the beatings he suffered.
Quite the athlete even in later years, he was often seen skateboarding while in his early 90s.
Louis Zamparini, a great American, now with his Creator.