Tuesday, December 2, 2014






Louis Zamperini

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini at announcement of 2015 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal.JPG
Zamperini at the May 2014 announcement of the 2015Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal
Birth nameLouis Silvie Zamperini
BornJanuary 26, 1917
Olean, New YorkUnited States
DiedJuly 2, 2014 (aged 97)
Los AngelesCaliforniaUnited States
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branchUS Army Air Corps Hap Arnold Wings.svg United States Army Air Forces
Years of service1941–1945
RankUS military captain's rank.gif Captain [1]
Unit372nd Bombardment Squadron,307th Bombardment Group[1] 7th Air Force
AwardsPurple Heart
Distinguished Flying Cross
Prisoner of War Medal
Spouse(s)Cynthia Applewhite
(m. 1946–2001; her death)
Personal information
Nationality United States
Height5 feet 9 inches (175 cm)[2]
Event(s)5000 metres/1500 metres
College teamUniversity of Southern California
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. In 2010, Laura Hillenbrand wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, which was adapted into film in 2014, Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, adapted by the Coen brothers, and with Jack O'Connell playing Zamperini.

Early life[edit]

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." He added, "but I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it."[4]

High school[edit]

To counteract Louis' knack for getting into trouble, his older brother Pete got him involved in the school track team where Pete was already a star. Pete took Louis on training runs literally flogging him with a switch when he slacked off. At the end of his freshman year, he finished 5th in the All City C-division (small kids) 660-yard (600 m) run.
It was the recognition, Nobody in school, except for a few of my buddies, knew my name before I started running. Then, as I started winning races, other kids called me by name. Pete told me I had to quit drinking and smoking if I wanted to do well, and that I had to run, run, run. I decided that summer to go all out. Overnight I became fanatical. I wouldn’t even have a milkshake.[5]
After a summer of running in 1932, starting with his first cross-country race throughout the last three years of high school, he was undefeated.[5] In 1934, Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile, clocking in at 4:21.2 minutes at the preliminary meet to the California state championships.[6][7][8][9] The following week, he won the CIF California State Meet championships with a 4:27.8 minutes.[10] That record helped him win a scholarship to the University of Southern California.
In 1936, he decided to try out for the Olympics. In those days, athletes had to pay their way to the Olympic Trials, but since his father worked for the railroad, Louis could get a train ticket for free. A group of Torrance merchants raised enough money for the local hero to live on once he got there. The 1500 metres was stacked that year with eventual silver medalist Glenn CunninghamArchie San Romani and Gene Venzke all challenging to get on the team. Zamperini chose to run the 5000 metres. On one of the hottest days of the year in Randalls Island, New York, the race saw co-favorite Norm Bright and several others collapse during the race. It was reported 40 people died from the heat in Manhattan alone that week.[11] With a sprint finish at the end, Zamperini finished in a dead-heat tie against American record-holder Don Lash[5] and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. At 19, he was the youngest American qualifier ever in that event.[12]

Olympic career[edit]

Neither he nor Lash were believed to have much chance of winning the 1936 Olympics 5000-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.”[13] 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 5000-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.[14] As Zamperini tells the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish".[15] 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 minutes 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".[16]

Military career and prisoner of war[edit]

Nauru Island under attack by Liberator bombers of the Seventh Air Force, April 1943.

Zamperini examines a hole in his B-24D Liberator Super Man made by a 20mm shell over Nauru
Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1941[17] and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Pacific island of Funafutias a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator bomber Super Man. In April 1943, during a bombing mission against the Japanese held island of Nauru, the plane was badly damaged in combat. With Super Man no longer flight-worthy, and a number of the crew injured, the healthy crew-members were transferred to Hawaii to await reassignment. Zamperini, along with some other former Super Man 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 south[18] of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard.[19]
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 pieces as bait to catch fish, all while fending off constant shark attacks and nearly being capsized by a storm.[20][21] They were strafed multiple times by a Japanese bomber, which punctured their life raft, but no one was hit. McNamara died after 33 days at sea.[19]
On their 47th day adrift, Zamperini and Phillips reached land in the Marshall Islands and were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy.[22] They were held in captivity, severely beaten, and mistreated until the end of the war in August 1945. Initially held at Kwajalein Atoll, after 42 days they were transferred to the Japanese prisoner-of-war campat Ōfuna, for captives who were not registered as prisoners of war (POW). Zamperini was later transferred to Tokyo's Ōmori POW camp, and was eventually transferred to the Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan, where he stayed until the war ended. 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 Zamperini would write to keep the prisoners' minds off the food and conditions.[19] Zamperini had at first been declared missing at sea, and then, a year and a day after his disappearance, KIA. When he eventually returned home he received a hero's welcome.[19]

Post-war life[edit]

In 1946, he married Cynthia Applewhite, to whom he remained married until her death in 2001. Also, in 1946, Torrance Airport, in his California hometown, was renamedZamperini Field[23] in his honor (on December 7, 1946, the 5th anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor).[24][25][26]
Zamperini told CBN during a televised interview that after the war he began drinking heavily, trying to forget his POW abuse.[27] Constant nightmares also haunted him, including nightly dreams of strangling his captors. As his life and marriage began to fall apart, his wife Cynthia became a born again Christian after attending a crusade led by evangelistBilly Graham in Los Angeles.[23] [28] In 1949, Zamperini reluctantly agreed to attend a crusade in hopes of saving his marriage following continual prodding by his wife and her new-found Christian friends. Zamperini told CBN he became a born-again Christian after attending the crusade and hearing Graham share the Gospel, which reminded him of his continual prayers on the life raft and in the prisoner of war camp when he made repeated promises to seek and serve God. He said as soon as he made his decision for Christ he forgave his captors and never had another nightmare again.[29] Later Graham helped Zamperini launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker.
One of Zamperini's 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 the Gospel of Jesus Christ 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, and Zamperini told CBN some gave their lives to Christ.[30]

Louis Zamperini Plaza on the campus of University of Southern California
Four days[31] before his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in NaganoJapan, not far from the POW camp where he had been held. 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 Watanabe refused to see him.[32] In March 2005, Zamperini returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there.[33]

Zamperini Stadium at Torrance High School
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. He received numerous additional honors and awards. (See honors and awards.) In his 90s, Zamperini continued to attend USC football games, and he befriended star quarterback Matt Barkley in 2009.[34]
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.[35]
Up until his death, Zamperini resided in Hollywood, California.[24]


His death had mistakenly been announced previously, when the US government classified him as KIA during World War II, after his B-24 Liberator aircraft went down in 1943, and no survivors were located by the military.[36] President Franklin D. Roosevelt even sent Zamperini's parents a formal condolence note in 1944.[23]
Zamperini's actual death came 70 years later, from pneumonia, on July 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, at home, aged 97.[23][37][38]

Honors and awards[edit]

  • USAAF Decorations
Distinguished Flying Cross

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Presidential Unit Citation (Army) with two oak leaf clusters
Prisoner of War Medal

Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three service stars
World War II Victory Medal

Bronze star
Philippine Liberation Medal with one service star


Zamperini wrote two memoirs about his experiences, both bearing the same title: Devil at My Heels. The first (written with Helen Itria), subtitled "The Story of Louis Zamperini", was published by Dutton in 1956.[42] 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 William Morrow.[43]
Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), has written a biography of Zamperini.[44] The book, entitled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) and published by Random House, was a #1 New York Times bestseller.[45][46] It was named the top nonfiction book of 2010 by TIME.[47]

In popular culture[edit]

Zamperini features as a character in the 2012 novel Flight from Berlin by David John, published by HarperCollins. Angelina Jolie has directed the film adaptation of Unbroken, to be released in 2014 where Zamperini will be played by British actor Jack O'Connell.

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