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."

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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.

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