Former USC track star, Olympic runner, WWII hero Louis Zamperini dies
LOS ANGELES -- Louis Zamperini, a University of Southern California track star, Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday. He was 97.
Zamperini's death was confirmed by Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. A family statement released early Thursday said Zamperini had been suffering from pneumonia.
Zamperini is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which is being made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and is scheduled for a December release by Universal.
"After a 40-day-long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives," the family statement said. "His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days."
"It is a loss impossible to describe," Jolie said in a statement. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly."
Zamperini competed in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished eighth but caught attention by running the final lap in 56 seconds.
In World War II, he was a bombardier on a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean during a reconnaissance mission. He and one of the other surviving crew members drifted for 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters before being captured by Japanese forces. He spent more than two years as a prisoner of war, surviving torture.
In May, Zamperini was named grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, which next New Year's Day will feature the theme "Inspiring Stories."
In accepting the honor, Zamperini, wearing a USC cap, recalled that Hillenbrand, in researching the book, asked to interview his friends from college and the Army.
"And now after the book was finished all of my college buddies are dead, all of my war buddies are dead. It's sad to realize that you've lost all your friends," he said. "But I think I made up for it. I made a new friend -- Angelina Jolie. And the gal really loves me, she hugs me and kisses me, so I can't complain."
He was a guest of Jolie last year when she was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Zamperini was born Jan. 26, 1917, in the western New York city of Olean. A group in Olean is raising funds to place a granite marker in Zamperini's honor in War Veterans Park in August.
He was just 2 years old when his parents moved the family to Southern California, where he lived for the rest of his life. Zamperini Field, a city-owned public airport in Torrance, is named in his honor. A stadium at Torrance High School and the entrance plaza at USC's track and field stadium both bear his name. The Louis Zamperini Plaza (it was dedicated in 2004) features a water fountain with photos highlighting Zamperini's career and five obelisks acknowledging USC's track and field Olympians and NCAA champions.
"Louis Zamperini was one of the greatest Trojans of all time, as well as a true American hero," USC athletic director Pat Haden said. "He was the embodiment of the USC motto, 'Fight On.' All of us in the Trojan family have a deep appreciation for what he did for USC and for our country, and we mourn the passing of this American legend, this national treasure."
A three-year letterman (1938-39-40) who co-captained the 1940 Trojan squad and was a member of three NCAA championship teams, Zamperini was the NCAA champion in the mile run in 1938 and '39. The collegiate mile record (4 minutes, 8.3 seconds) that he set lasted for 15 years. He had set the national prep mile record (4:21.2) in 1934, a mark that stood for 20 years.
"[This] is a sad day at USC, knowing that the wonderful life of Louis Zamperini has ended after 97 remarkable years," former longtime USC track and field head coach Ron Allice said. "I can think of no more famous Trojan than Louie, with his combination of athletic exploits and war heroics. He was one of USC's greatest ambassadors and he never went anywhere without wearing his USC hat. Even in his later years, he stayed very connected with USC, giving inspirational talks to Trojan teams and in USC classrooms. The fact that he still is the only Trojan to win the NCAA outdoor mile championship, which he did twice some 75 years ago, speaks volumes of his athletic ability. I know I will miss him, as will so many others. He was a great man."
Said four-time USC Olympic gold medalist swimmer John Naber, a close associate of Zamperini: "Louis was very proud of being a Trojan. He happily wore his USC hat in public and private, and was quick to hug any fellow Trojan. During his remarkable athletic career as an Olympic runner, by his endurance on the life raft, and with his resilience at the torturous hands of 'The Bird' during World War II, Louis' life exemplified USC's 'Fight On' spirit. Amazingly, his impact on other people continued as he grew older. His example inspired thousands to be better people, myself included."
Zamperini, who also co-wrote two autobiographies, both titled Devil at My Heels, in 1956 and 2003, was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. He received the prestigious NCAA Inspiration Award in 2011.
Zamperini established his Victory Boys Camp to inspire local youth to emulate his life.
Southern California Athletics contributed to this report.