Louis Zamperini

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Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini at announcement of 2015 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal.JPG
Zamperini at the May 2014 announcement of the 2015 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal
Birth name Louis Silvie Zamperini
Born (1917-01-26)January 26, 1917
Olean, New York
Died July 2, 2014(2014-07-02) (aged 97)
Los Angeles, California
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch US Army Air Corps Hap Arnold Wings.svg United States Army Air Forces
Years of service 1941–1945
Rank US military captain's rank.gif Captain [1]
Unit 372nd Bombardment Squadron, 307th Bombardment Group[1] 7th Air Force

World War II

Awards Purple Heart
Distinguished Flying Cross
Prisoner of War Medal
Spouse(s) Cynthia Applewhite
(m. 1946–2001; her death)
Personal information
Nationality  United States
Height 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm)[2]
Weight 132[3]
Sport Athletics
Event(s) 5000 metres/1500 metres
College team University 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. He is the subject of the 2014 film Unbroken.

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, 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] He started beating his brother's records. 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 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 Cunningham, Archie 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 that 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.

Collegiate career[edit]

After the Olympics, Zamperini enrolled as a student at the University of Southern California. 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]

Japanese-occupied 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 Funafuti as 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". On May 27, 1943, 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 Russell 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 camp at 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 renamed Zamperini 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 evangelist Billy 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 newfound 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 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, 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
Blank.JPG Blank.JPG BombardierBadge 2.jpg
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Presidential Unit Citation
Bombardier Badge
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters Prisoner of War Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three service stars World War II Victory Medal 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] and made into a film, Release Date: Dec 25, 2014. Unbroken, a film adaptation of Hillenbrand's book.[48] directed by Angelina Jolie.

In popular culture[edit]

Zamperini features as a character in the 2012 novel Flight from Berlin by David John, published by HarperCollins.[49]

In 2010, Laura Hillenbrand wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, which was adapted into the film Unbroken in 2014. It is directed by Angelina Jolie, adapted by the Coen brothers, and stars Jack O'Connell as Zamperini.


  1. ^ a b Veterans Museum & Memorial Center – Air Garden, B24 Memorial Honoring The Personnel Who Crewed And Supported the B-24. Veteranmuseum.org. Retrieved on September 3, 2012.
  2. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/arts/louis-zamperini-olympian-war-survivor-unbroken-dies.html?_r=0
  3. ^ Gjerde, Arild; Jeroen Heijmans; Bill Mallon; Hilary Evans (May 2014). "Lou Zamperini Bio, Stats, and Results". Olympics. Sports Reference.com. Retrieved May 15, 2014. 
  4. ^ "The Great Zamperini". USC News. 2003. Retrieved September 3, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c //www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/meaning-endurance?page=single
  6. ^ Berkow, Ira (February 15, 2003). "Not Yet Ready for His Last Mile". New York Times. Retrieved September 3, 2012. 
  7. ^ [Cs.uml.edu "Note: while this suggests that others had run faster, it is still an outstanding time". CS.UML.edu. Retrieved September 3, 2012. 
  8. ^ Track & Field News: Edwards Announces Retirement. Trackandfieldnews.com. Retrieved on September 3, 2012.
  9. ^ Track & Field News • View topic – High School Mile Record Holders since 1930. Trackandfieldnews.com. Retrieved on September 3, 2012.
  10. ^ "California State Meet Results - 1915 to present". Hank Lawson. Retrieved December 25, 2012. 
  11. ^ http://www.si.com/longform/peacock/index.html
  12. ^ Hymans, Richard (2008). The History of the United State Olympic Trials – Track & Field. usatf.org
  13. ^ Hilton, Christopher (2011). Hitler's Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The History Press. ISBN 978-0752475387. Retrieved July 3, 2014. 
  14. ^ Franklin County Veterans Journal. (PDF) . Retrieved on September 3, 2012.
  15. ^ Laura Hillenbrand (2010). Unbroken. Random House. pp. 35.
  16. ^ "Louis Zamperini. ABC special. [1]. (Video). Retrieved on 2013-02- 26.
  17. ^ "Zamperini". City of Torrance. Retrieved September 3, 2012. 
  18. ^ http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/interactive-map/
  19. ^ a b c d "Clip from documentary on Louis Zamperini". 60 Minutes. 
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ "Olympian Runner, Hero of WWII is Honored Anew". Fox News. December 24, 2010. 
  22. ^ Hillenbrand, Laura (2010). Unbroken. Random House. p. 171. 
  23. ^ a b c d e f g Chawkins, Steve; Thursby, Keith (July 3, 2014). "Louis Zamperini dies at 97; Olympic track star and WWII hero". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 4, 2014. 
  24. ^ a b c History of Zamperini Field/Torrance Airport. YouTube. 
  25. ^ a b c Lloyd, Jonathan (May 9, 2014). "War Hero, Former Olympian Louis Zamperini Named Rose Parade Grand Marshal". NBCUniversal. Retrieved May 9, 2014. 
  26. ^ Lobb, Charles. Torrance Airport, pp. 7, 115-26, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7385-4662-9.
  27. ^ "Louis Zamperini: Coming Full Circle". 
  28. ^ "Louis Zamperini: Coming Full Circle". 
  29. ^ "Louis Zamperini: Coming Full Circle". 
  30. ^ "Louis Zamperini: Coming Full Circle". 
  31. ^ Hillenbrand, Laura (2010). Unbroken. Random House. p. 397. 
  32. ^ Hillenbrand, Laura (2010). Unbroken. Random House. p. 397. 
  33. ^ US Dept of State (March 10, 2005). "Press release". 
  34. ^ a b c d e f g Fellenzer, Jeff (October 29, 2009). "There is no goal that USC's Matt Barkley won't pursue". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 29, 2009. 
  35. ^ "Tonight Show with Jay Leno". IMDb. 
  36. ^ "Olympic runner and WW2 prisoner Louis Zamperini dies". BBC. July 3, 2014. 
  37. ^ Louis Zamperini, War Hero Chosen as 2015 Rose Parade Grand Marshal, Dies at 97. KTLA.com. Retrieved on July 3, 2014.
  38. ^ WWII Hero, 'Unbroken' Subject Louis Zamperini Dies at 97
  39. ^ "Fall 2011". The Caduceus of Kappa Sigma. January 26, 2012. p. 34. Retrieved June 7, 2012. 
  40. ^ "Olympic runner and WW2 prisoner Louis Zamperini dies". BBC. July 3, 2014. 
  41. ^ "The Tournament of Roses Expresses Our Heartfelt Sympathy to The Family of Louis Zamperini". Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. July 3, 2014. 
  42. ^ Devil At My Heels: The Story of Louis Zamperini. E.P. Dutton & Co. 1956. ASIN B0018KCZFE. 
  43. ^ Zamperini, Louis & Rensin, David (2003). Devil At My Heels: A World War II Hero's Epic Saga of Torment, Survival, and Forgiveness (1 ed.). William Morrow. ISBN 978-0060188603. 
  44. ^ "Bio of Laura Hillenbrand". Seabiscuitonline.com. Retrieved September 3, 2012. 
  45. ^ Pitts, Edward Lee (December 18, 2010). "We had adversities". WORLD. pp. 46–7. 
  46. ^ Gregory Cowles (November 18, 2011). "Inside the List". The New York Times. 
  47. ^ "The Top 10 Everything of 2010". TIME. Retrieved September 3, 2012. 
  48. ^ Josh Rottenberg (2014-10-31). "Japanese rock singer Miyavi makes debut in 'Unbroken'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2014-12-03. 
  49. ^ "Flight From Berlin". EarlyWord.com. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Laura Hillenbrand Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010)
  • Louis Zamperini with David Rensin Devil at My Heels: A World War II Hero's Epic Saga of Torment, Survival, and Forgiveness (2003)
  • Louis Zamperini with David Rensin Don't Give Up, Don't Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life (2014)

External links[edit]