RIP Louis Zamperini; Olympian and Subject of Unbroken Dies at 97

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 3 2014 6:57 PM

Louis Zamperini, Olympian, War Hero, and Subject of Unbroken, Dies at 97 

133854085-louis-zamperini-presents-an-award-at-the-2011-golden
Zamperini in 2011.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Louis Zamperini, the former Olympian and World War II veteran whose life story is as impressive as any man or woman's could possibly be, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 97. According to a statement released by his family, Zamperini had been battling a life-threatening case of pneumonia in the weeks prior to his death.

"After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives," the statement read. "His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days."

Advertisement

That courage and fighting spirit was the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 New York Times bestseller, Unbroken, a page-turning, hard-to-fathom biography which detailed the spectacular highs and incomprehensible lows of Zamperini's life-long journey.

Born to Italian immigrants in Olean, NY and raised in Torrance, CA, Zamperini endured an exceedingly difficult childhood—which featured both bullying and troublemaking all of his own—before eventually finding his calling after joining the track team in high school. Zamperini's success on the track was almost instantaneous, and he would go on to set the national high school record in the mile in 1934—his record time of 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds would remain unbeaten for 20 years—before heading to the University of Southern California on an athletic scholarship, and then, remarkably, to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at just 19-years-old. After finishing 8th in his debut as an Olympian, Zamperini would eventually set the national collegiate record in the mile in 1938.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Zamperini then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving as a bombardier in a B-24 bomber stationed in the South Pacific. In 1943, his plane malfunctioned mid-flight and crashed into the Pacific. Zamperini—along with two other crew members—survived the crash, and would spend 47 days lost at sea in a life raft (one crew member, Francis McNamara, died on day 33), before washing up on a Japanese-held island. Zamperini was immediately taken prisoner, and would ultimately spend two years in a Japanese POW camp, where he was subjected to abhorrent conditions and unspeakable methods of torture.

According to Hillenbrand though, despite all of this—and, seemingly, in defiance of human nature itself—Zamperini harbored no ill-will, and passed away with a full heart.

"Louie greeted every challenge of his long journey with singular resilience, determination and ingenuity, with a ferocious will to survive and prevail, and with hope that knew no master," she wrote, in a eulogy prepared following word of his passing. "His life would not be a sad story because he would not allow it to be. His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow. Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness."

 

A.J. McCarthy is a Slate video blogger.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?