Zamperini at the May 2014 announcement of the 2015 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal
Louis Silvie Zamperini
January 26, 1917
Olean, New York, U.S.
|Died||July 2, 2014 (aged 97)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Alma mater||University of Southern California|
(m. 1946; died 2001)
|Service/||U.S. Army Air Forces|
|Years of service||1941-1945|
|Unit||372nd Bombardment Squadron, 307th Bombardment Group|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards||Distinguished Flying Cross|
Purple Heart (2)
Air Medal (4)
Prisoner of War Medal
|Height||5 ft 9 in (175 cm)|
|Sport||Track, Long-distance running|
|Event(s)||1,500 meters, 5,000 meters|
|Achievements and titles|
|Personal||1,500 meters: 3:52.6|
5,000 meters: 14:46.8
Louis Silvie Zamperini (January 26, 1917 - July 2, 2014) was an American World War II veteran, a Christian evangelist and an Olympic distance runner. He took up running in high school and qualified for the US in the 5,000 m race for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1941, he was commissioned into the United States Army Air Forces as a lieutenant. He served as a bombardier in B-24 Liberators in the Pacific. On a search and rescue mission, mechanical difficulties forced Zamperini's plane to crash in the ocean. After drifting at sea for 47 days, he landed on the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands and was captured. He was taken to a prison camp in Japan where he was tortured. Following the war he initially struggled to overcome his ordeal.
Later he became a Christian Evangelist with a strong belief in forgiveness. Since 1952 he devoted himself to at-risk youth which his family continues today. Zamperini is the subject of three biographical films: Unbroken (2014), its sequel Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018), and Captured by Grace (2015).
Zamperini was born on January 26, 1917 in Olean, New York, to Anthony Zamperini and Louise Dossi, both native to Verona in Northern Italy. He had an older brother named Pete and two younger sisters, Virginia and Sylvia. He was raised in a strict Catholic household.
He and his 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 because of his Italian roots. Zamperini was chased and caught by police for a stolen beer and brought home to his parents who dealt with him. His father taught him how to box in self-defense. Soon he claimed to be "beating the tar out of every one of them; but I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it."
To stop him from getting into trouble as a rebel, his older brother Pete got Zamperini involved in the school track team where Pete was already a star. Pete took Louis on several training runs. At the end of his freshman year, he finished 5th in the All City C-division 660 yard (600 m) dash.
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.
After a summer of running in 1932, starting with his first cross-country race, and throughout the last three years of high school, Zamperini was undefeated. He started beating his brother's records. In 1934, Zamperini set an interscholastic record for the mile, clocking in at 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds (4?21.2?) at the preliminary meet to the California state championships.[a] The following week, he won the CIF California State Meet championships with 4?27.8?. That record helped him win a scholarship to the University of Southern California. During his college life in the University of Southern California, he was part of the Delta Eta Chapter of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity.
In 1936, Zamperini 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 free of charge. A group of Torrance merchants raised enough money for the local hero to live on once he got there. The 1,500 metres was stacked that year with eventual silver medalist Glenn Cunningham, Archie San Romani, and Gene Venzke all challenging to get on the team.
Zamperini did not contest the 1,500 meters, but he ran the 5,000 metres. On one of the hottest days of the year during the 1936 North American heat wave in Randalls Island, New York, the race saw co-favorite Norm Bright and several others collapse during the race. It was reported that 40 people died from the heat in Manhattan alone that week. With a sprint finish at the end, Zamperini finished in a dead-heat tie against American record-holder Don Lash and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Having qualified at age 19 years, 178 days, Zamperini remains the youngest American 5,000 meters qualifier.
Neither Zamperini nor Lash were believed to have much chance of winning the 1936 Olympics 5,000 meter race against world record holder Lauri Lehtinen. Zamperini later 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 in his life," 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." 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 (5 kg). While the weight gain was not advantageous for his running, it was necessary for his health, as he had lost 15 pounds (7 kg) while training in the summer heat in New York for the Olympic Trials.
Zamperini finished 8th in the 5,000 meter distance event at that Olympics, in the time of 14m46.8s, behind Finland's Gunnar Höckert's Olympic record time of 14m22.2s (world record holder Lehtinen was second, and Zamperini's teammate, Lash, 13th). However, his final lap of 56 seconds was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Zamperini told the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said, "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish."
After the Olympics, Zamperini enrolled as a student at the University of Southern California. At USC, he was a member of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity (Delta-Eta Chapter). In 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile (~1609 metres) record of 4m08.3s, 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."
Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in September 1941 and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Pacific island of Funafuti as a bombardier on the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber Super Man.
In April 1943, during a bombing mission against the Japanese-held island of Nauru, the bomber 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 crewmates, was assigned to conduct a search for a lost aircraft and crew. They were given another B-24, Green Hornet, notorious among the pilots as a defective "lemon." (Aircraft records show several B-24s with the name: "Green Hornet" and "The Green Hornet"; in this case the name was verified from Zamperini's diary before the mission.)
The three survivors were Zamperini and his crewmates, pilot Russell Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara; with little food and no water, they subsisted on captured rainwater, small fish eaten raw, and birds that landed on their raft. McNamara ate all the chocolate they had in a panic, but he later redeemed himself by using an oar to defend the survivors from a shark attack. They attempted to gain the attention of a search plane but failed. With the few tools they were able to salvage from the crash, the men were able to manage on two small rafts that got released. They caught two albatrosses, one of 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. They were strafed multiple times by a Japanese bomber, which punctured their life raft, but no one was hit. After 33 days at sea, McNamara died; Zamperini and Phillips wrapped up his body and pushed it overboard.
On their 47th day adrift, Zamperini and Phillips reached land in the Marshall Islands and were immediately taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy. 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 camp at ?funa, for captives who were not registered as prisoners of war (POW). Zamperini was later transferred to Tokyo's ?mori 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 "The Bird" Watanabe, who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur's list of the forty most wanted war criminals in Japan.
Zamperini was held at the same camp as then-Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington, and in his book, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Boyington describes the Italian recipes Zamperini would write to keep the prisoners' minds off the food and conditions.
Zamperini and Cynthia Applewhite were married in 1946, until her death in 2001; they had two children, Cissy and Luke.
In a televised interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2003, Zamperini related that after the war, he had nightmares about strangling his former captors and began drinking heavily, trying to forget his experiences as a POW. His wife Cynthia attended one of the evangelistic crusades led by Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and became a born-again Christian. In 1949, at the encouragement of his wife and her Christian friends, Zamperini reluctantly agreed to attend a crusade. Graham's preaching reminded him of his prayers during his time on the life raft and imprisonment, and Zamperini committed his life to Christ. Following this, he forgave his captors, and his nightmares ceased.
Later Graham helped Zamperini launch a new career as a Christian evangelist. One of his recurring themes was forgiveness, and he visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he had forgiven them. This included an October 1950 visit to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, where many war criminals were imprisoned, and expressed forgiveness to them. Zamperini told CBN that some became Christians in response.
Four days before his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, 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, also known as "the Bird", who had evaded prosecution as a war criminal, but Watanabe refused to see him. However, Zamperini sent him a letter, stating that while he suffered great mistreatment from him, he forgave him. It is unknown if Watanabe even read the letter, and Zamperini received no response. In March 2005, Zamperini returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he had competed there.
His death had mistakenly been announced previously, when the US government classified him as killed in action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even sent Zamperini's parents a formal condolence note in 1944.
Author Laura Hillenbrand wrote a biography of Zamperini 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. It was named the top nonfiction book of 2010 by Time Magazine.
The first film covered the time up to Zamperini's return from the war; a sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, covers Zamperini's recovery from his abuse as a POW. It was directed by Harold Cronk, released in September 2018, with Samuel Hunt portraying Zamperini.
In 2015 the Billy Graham organization released a 30-minute documentary, Captured by Grace. The film details Zamperini's faith, to which he credited his "unbroken" status.
Zamperini features as a character in the 2012 novel Flight from Berlin by David John, published by Harper Collins.
|Presidential Unit Citation|
|Distinguished Flying Cross||Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster|
|Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters||Prisoner of War Medal||American Defense Service Medal|
|Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three service stars||World War II Victory Medal||Philippine Liberation Medal with one service star|