Louis Silvie Zamperini (January 26, 1917 – July 2, 2014) was an American World War II veteran, an evangelical Christian, 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, finishing 8th, but not without setting a new lap record. 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, Zamperini's plane experienced mechanical difficulties and crashed into the ocean. After drifting at sea on a lifeboat for 47 days, with 2 other crewmates, he landed on the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands and was captured. He was taken to two different prison camps in Japan where he was tortured and beaten by Japanese military personnel and specifically by a man named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, A.K.A. The Bird due to him being a famous Olympic runner. When Louis was a prisoner of war, the Japanese tried to convince him to speak Axis power propaganda in return for a warm place to live and food. However, as he declined, he was forced back into the prisoner of war camp. He was later taken to a new prison camp at a coal factory, and after much struggle, he was finally released. Following the war he initially struggled to overcome his ordeal, and struggled with post traumatic stress. There have been many movies in which Zamperini has featured, as listed below.
Zamperini at the May 2014 announcement of the 2015 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal
Louis Silvie Zamperini
January 26, 1917
|Died||July 2, 2014 (aged 97)|
|Alma mater||University of Southern California|
(m. 1946; died 2001)
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|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 10 in (178 cm)|
|Weight||132 lb (60 kg)|
|Sport||Athletics/Track, Mid-distance running|
|Event(s)||1500 meters, Mile, 5000 meters|
|College team||USC Trojans|
|Achievements and titles|
|Olympic finals||1936 Berlin |
5000 m, 8th
Later Zamperini became a Christian evangelist with a strong belief in forgiveness. From 1952 onwards, he devoted himself to at-risk youth, a mission that 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).
Louis 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 struggled with bullies and supposedly almost died twice, once due to a house fire, and another from having fallen into an oil rig and almost drowning. In later childhood, his brother Pete was highly supportive of him and encouraged him to start his running career.
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 fifth 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 (4ᵐ21.2ˢ) at the preliminary meeting to the California state championships.[a] The following week, he won the CIF California State Meet championships with 4ᵐ27.8ˢ. That record helped him win a scholarship to the University of Southern California. During his college life at USC, 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 14 minutes 46.8 seconds, behind Finland's Gunnar Höckert's Olympic record time of 14 minutes 22.2 seconds (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 4 minutes 8.3 seconds, despite severe cuts to his shins from competitors attempting to spike him during the race; this record lasted for fifteen years, earning him the nickname "Torrance Tornado."
World War II serviceEdit
Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in September 1941 and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. He was posted to the Pacific island of Funafuti as a bombardier on the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber Super Man.
In April 1943, Super Man participated in a bombing mission against the Japanese-held island of Nauru, with Zamperini serving as bombardier. Following the successful raid his craft was attacked by three Japanese Zeros and the bomber was severely damaged. Five of the crew were wounded, one of whom died. The May 4 New York Times credited Zamperini with administering first aid to the five wounded members of his Liberator bomber crew and saving the lives of two on the return flight from the April 21 Nauru raid. "Ground crewmen counted 500 bullet and shell fragment holes in the fuselage and tail structure of the big four-engine bomber after it had skidded to a stop with a flat tire."
Lost during search missionEdit
With Super Man no longer airworthy, the healthy crew members were transferred to Hawaii for 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, pilot Russell Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara; with little food and no water, they subsisted on 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 a number of 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.
Prisoner of warEdit
On their 47th day adrift, with little food or water, Zamperini and Phillips reached 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 Ōfuna, for captives who were not registered as prisoners of war (POWs). Zamperini was later transferred to Tokyo's Ōmori POW camp, and was eventually transferred to the Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan, where he remained 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 wrote 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; Zamperini never received any response, and Watanabe died in 2003. In March 2005, Zamperini returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he had competed there.
Zamperini's death had mistakenly been announced 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. It was not until the end of World War II in late 1945 that Zamperini was discovered to be still alive and freed from his captors.
Biographies and memoirsEdit
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 book Unbroken was twice adapted into film. First, Unbroken by the Coen brothers, was directed by Angelina Jolie, and starred Jack O'Connell as Zamperini. It covered the time up to Zamperini's return from the war. Later, a sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, covers Zamperini's recovery from his abuse as a POW, and was directed by Harold Cronk, and was released in September 2018, with Samuel Hunt portraying Zamperini.
In 2015, the Billy Graham organization released a 30-minute documentary film, Captured by Grace. The film focused on Zamperini's faith, to which he credited his "unbroken" status.
In popular cultureEdit
Zamperini features as a character in the 2012 novel Flight from Berlin by David John, published by Harper Collins.
Legacy and awardsEdit
- USAAF Decorations
|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|
- A race at Madison Square Garden was named the Louis Zamperini Invitational Mile.
- On 7 December 1946, Torrance Airport was named Zamperini Field after him.
- Zamperini was a torchbearer for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.
- Torrance High School’s home football, soccer, and track stadium was named Zamperini Stadium, and the entrance plaza at USC’s track & field stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza in 2004.
- On 10 May 2008, Zamperini was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations.
- In October 2008, Zamperini was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, Illinois.
- On 24 April 2011, Zamperini received an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters from Azusa Pacific University.
- On 20 May 2011, Zamperini delivered Bryant University’s 2011 baccalaureate address and received Bryant’s inaugural Distinguished Character Award.
- On 21 May 2011, Bryant University presented Zamperini with an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.
- On 22 May 2011, Zamperini threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Red Sox-Cubs game at Fenway Park in Boston.
- In late July 2011, Zamperini received the Kappa Sigma Golden Heart Award during the Kappa Sigma 68th Biennial Grand Conclave held at the Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
- In May 2011, Zamperini was guest of honor at Magellan Christian Academy’s graduation ceremony with over 700 attendees at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. Lorrie Blitch, owner of Magellan Christian Academy, was so moved after reading about his life, he was asked him to speak at their private Christian school graduation ceremony. Zamperini’s presentation was so inspirational that he received a 10 minute standing ovation.
- He was chosen to serve as Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade, held before the college football playoff game in his home state of California. After Zamperini’s death on 2 July 2014, the Tournament announced that it is "committed to honoring him as the Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade". At the parade, Zamperini's family followed USC mascot Traveler as a riderless horse.
- In the fall of 2015, Zamperini was named as the class exemplar for the United States Air Force Academy Class of 2018 for his character and courage in service to his country in the United States Army Air Force.
- In 2017, a 2 mile stretch of the 405 Freeway between Redondo Beach Boulevard and Western Avenue (border to border the portion within the city of Torrance) was named the Louis Zamperini Memorial Highway.
- While this track record suggests that others had run faster, Zamperini still set an outstanding time.
- "B24 memorial honoring the personnel who crewed and supported the B-24". Veterans Museum & Memorial Center Air Garden. Veteranmuseum.org. Archived from the original on 16 April 2013. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- Berkow, Ira (July 3, 2014). "Louis Zamperini, Olympian and Unbroken war survivor, dies at 97". Obituary. The New York Times.
- Gjerde, Arild; Heijmans Jeroen; Mallon, Bill; Evans, Hilary. "Lou Zamperini Bio, Stats, and Results". Sports Reference. Olympics. Archived from the original on April 18, 2020. Retrieved May 15, 2014.
- Evans, Hilary; et al. "Lou Zamperini Bio". Sports-Reference.com. Archived from the original on April 18, 2020. Retrieved December 28, 2014.
- Segal, Elizabeth (Summer 2003). "The great Zamperini". USC News. Archived from the original on 5 November 2006. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- Hillenbrand, Laura (December 20, 2010). "The great Zamperini". Runners’ World.
- Berkow, Ira (February 15, 2003). "Not yet ready for his last mile". The New York Times. Retrieved September 3, 2012.
- Lawson, Hank (December 25, 2012). "California State Meet Results - 1915 to present". prepcaltrack.com. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved December 26, 2012.
- McKnight, Michael. "Faster than the fastest". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved December 28, 2014.
- Hymans, Richard (2008). "The History of the United States Olympic Trials – Track & Field" (PDF). usatf.org. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Hilton (2011) p. 65
- Price, Rita (7 November 2006). "A veteran's story" (PDF). Franklin County Veterans Journal. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- Hillenbrand (2010) p. 35
- "Louis Zamperini". ABC Special Broadcast. Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- "Zamperini". City of Torrance, California. Archived from the original on 23 October 2014. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- "Miler Zamperini as Bombardier, Had 'Toughest Race' on Nauru Raid — Lieutenant, Credited With Saving Lives of Two Wounded Crewmen, Tells of Action in Shell-Riddled Liberator New York Times, May 4, 1943, page 6".
- Kurz, Herbert. "The Green Hornet". George Kurz. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
- Hillenbrand, Laura (2010). "Louie's journey". laurahillenbrandbooks.com. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Simon, Bob (1998). "Louis Zamperini – Adrift in the Pacific". 60 Minutes. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Gustkey, Earl (February 19, 1998). "Former track star, POW, doesn't get closure at 81 in his return to Japan". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 27, 2011.
- Rosen, James (24 December 2010). "Olympian runner, hero of WW II is honored anew". Fox News.
- Hillenbrand, Laura (16 November 2010). Unbroken. New York, NY: Random House.
- Hillenbrand (2010) p. 171
- "Unbroken's Louis Zamperini: The rest of the story". CBN. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
- Chawkins, Steve; Thursby, Keith (3 July 2014). "Louis Zamperini dies at 97; Olympic track star and WWII hero". Obituary. Los Angeles Times.
- Heath W. Carter, Laura Porter, Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, USA, 2017, p. 240
- Hillenbrand (2010) p. 397
- "Louis Zamperini returns to Berlin after 69 years". Press release. U.S. Department of State. 10 March 2005. Archived from the original on 13 March 2007.
- Fellenzer, Jeff (29 October 2009). "There is no goal that USC's Matt Barkley won't pursue". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 1 November 2009.
- "Tonight Show with Jay Leno". IMDb. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Bloom, Tracy (3 July 2014). "Louis Zamperini, war hero chosen as 2015 Rose Parade Grand Marshal, dies at 97". Obituary. KTLA.com. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Emery, Debbie (3 July 2014). "WW II hero, Unbroken subject Louis Zamperini dies at 97". Hollywood Reporter.
- Zamperini, Louis; Itria, Helen (1956). Devil at My Heels: The story of Louis Zamperini. E.P. Dutton and Company. ASIN B0018KCZFE.
- Zamperini, Louis; Rensin, David (2003). Devil at My Heels: A World War II hero’s epic saga of torment, survival, and forgiveness. William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-06211-885-1.
- Hillenbrand, Laura (September 3, 2012). "Laura Hillenbrand". Author biography. Seabiscuitonline.com. Archived from the original on December 5, 2009.
- Cowles, Gregory (November 18, 2011). "Inside the List". The New York Times.
- "The Top 10 Everything of 2010". Time. Retrieved September 3, 2012.
- Rottenberg, Josh (October 31, 2014). "Japanese rock singer Miyavi makes debut in Unbroken". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
- "Flight from Berlin". Book review. EarlyWord.com. December 7, 2014.
- History of Zamperini Field/Torrance Airport (video). YouTube. Retrieved December 28, 2014.
- Lloyd, Jonathan (May 9, 2014). "War hero, former Olympian Louis Zamperini named Rose Parade Grand Marshal". NBCUniversal.
- Dryman, Derald (December 24, 2014). "Brother Zamperini's incredible story focus of Unbroken movie". The Caduceus of Kappa Sigma.
- "Olympic runner and WW2 prisoner Louis Zamperini dies". Obituary. BBC News. July 3, 2014.
- "The Tournament of Roses Expresses our heartfelt sympathy to the family of Louis Zamperini". Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. July 3, 2014.
- Hillenbrand, Laura (2010). Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption. New York, NY: Random House. ISBN 978-0-81297-449-2.
- Hilton, Christopher (2011). Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Troud, Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-75247-538-7.
- Lobb, Charles (2006). Torrance Airport. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-4662-9.
- Zamperini, Louis; Itria, Helen (1956). Devil at My Heels: The story of Louis Zamperini. E.P. Dutton and Company. ASIN B0018KCZFE.
- Zamperini, Louis; Rensin, David (2003). Devil at My Heels: A World War II hero’s epic saga of torment, survival, and forgiveness. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06211-885-1.
- Zamperini, Louis; Rensin, David (2014). Don’t Give Up, Don't Give In: Lessons from an extraordinary life. New York, NY: Dey Street Books. ISBN 978-0-06236-833-1.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Louis Zamperini.|
- Official website
- "A stop-by-stop timeline of Louis Zamperini's journey".
- "Zamperini" (PDF). Oral History. Interview.
- "Louis Zamperini". Find a Grave. Retrieved August 10, 2016.