A star runner, war hero, and survivor of 47 days at sea in a rubber raft and two years of torture in Japanese prison camps, Louis Zamperini, who has died aged 97, experienced the sort of life that was the stuff of Hollywood movies. And 71 years after he was declared killed in action in the Pacific, four years after Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of him became a bestseller, Hollywood got the message. Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken, with Jack O’Connell playing Zamperini and a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, will be released in December.
Zamperini was born in Olean, New York, to Italian immigrants who moved to Torrance, California, when he was three. He still had not learned English, and was bullied. His father, a labourer, taught him boxing, and Zamperini so enjoyed defeating his bullies that he became a young terror, in and out of trouble. Not until his older brother Pete talked him into joining the track team at Torrance high school were his energies directed into more constructive channels.
In 1934 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Zamperini ran mile in 4min 21.2 sec, setting a national high school record that stood for 20 years. He won a scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC), and in 1936 moved up to 5,000m for the US Olympic trials, finishing in a dead heat with the world record holder Don Lash. In Berlin, where his room-mate Jesse Owens was the biggest hero of the games, he finished 8th in the Olympic final, but he stunned the crowd with a 56-second final lap.
Afterwards, standing with a group of runners in front of Adolf Hitler, but unable to take a photo, he handed his camera to a thin man standing nearby, and Joseph Goebbels snapped a shot for him. Hitler then shook his hand, saying “You’re the boy with the fast finish.” Once the dignitaries were gone, Zamperini sparked a small incident when he shinned up a flagpole to take away the Fuhrer’s personal standard.
At USC his finishing kick saw him called “The Torrance Tornado”, and in 1938 his 4min 8.3sec mile set a US college record that lasted 15 years. He was considered a leading candidate to break the four-minute mile, and a favourite for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which were cancelled when the second world war broke out.
Zamperini enlisted in the army in September 1941, and after the US entered the war the following December flew B-24s from the island of Funafuti. In May 1943, his crew was assigned to search for a lost bomber, and given a spare plane thought to be mechanically jinxed. When its engine exploded, they crashed into the ocean; eight of the 11-man crew died.
Zamperini and two others survived in a life raft. They lived on rainwater, albatross and the occasional fish, and were beset by storms, sharks and strafing from passing Japanese planes. After 47 days, two of the three, Zamperini and co-pilot Russell Phillips reached the Marshall Islands and were captured. Zamperini weighed 75lbs. As he recalled: “I thought to myself, six weeks ago I was a world-class athlete. And then, for the first time in my life, I was scared.”
In his first prison camp, Zamperini’s renown earned him the enmity of the notorious Japanese army sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known to prisoners as The Bird. He was tortured repeatedly. “I could take the beatings and physical punishment,” he later said. “But it was the attempt to destroy your dignity, to make you a nonentity, that was the hardest thing to bear.”
Zamperini had been reported missing in action, and in June 1943 his parents received the telegram from the president declaring him killed. But later Zamperini was transferred away from Watanabe, to help make a radio broadcast home. When he refused to make a second, condemning the US, he was transferred to another camp where Watanabe was now commandant. After the war ended, Watanabe was listed 23rd among the top 40 war criminals sought by the Americans, but escaped and went into hiding.
Zamperini returned to Los Angeles and married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946. However, he suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, and began drinking heavily. In 1949, Cynthia took him to a rally staged by the evangelist Billy Graham, and then to a second, where Louis was overcome and born-again as a Christian. He became an inspirational speaker and youth worker, while working in commercial real estate, and in 1950 accompanied missionaries to Japan, where he contacted those who had tortured him and greeted them with forgiveness. He stayed active physically, saying “the war took 10 years off my life. I decided to get the 10 years back.”
In 1984 he carried an Olympic torch into the same Coliseum where he had set records as a youth, and for the 1998 winter Games in Nagano he again joined the torch relay, carrying the Olympic flame past one of the prison camps where he had been tortured. By then, Watanabe had resurfaced as a successful businessman, and Zamperini wrote him a letter of forgiveness, offering to meet. Watanabe refused, but gave an interview to the American TV show 60 Minutes, saying he had treated Zamperini only as “an enemy of Japan”.
Zamperini published two memoirs, different books with the same title, Devil at My Heels. The first, in 1956, written with Helen Itris, was optioned by Universal as a vehicle for Tony Curtis, but he went on to make Spartacus instead. The second, done with David Rensin, appeared in 2003. But it was not until Hillenbrand, who had previously written Seabiscuit, the story of the great racehorse, published Unbroken, that Zamperini’s story gained traction. When Jolie was drawn to the story, she discovered that he lived just down the street from her.
Torrance’s airport and high school stadium are both named after Zamperini, as is the plaza outside the stadium at USC. When asked to describe his own indomitable spirit, he said “the only way I can put it that makes sense is that every athlete wants to win.”
Cynthia died in 2001, and he is survived by a daughter, Cynthia, and a son, Luke.