Louis Zamperini: Olympic athlete who went to war and spent 47 days on a life raft then two years in a Japanese prison camp


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The Independent Online

“Rarely has a single man had to endure such an extraordinary array of woes.” So wrote Gary Krist in a review of Unbroken, an account of Louis Zamperini’s extraordinary life. An Olympic runner, he survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific and two years as a Japanese prisoner during the Second World War. Zamperini wrote about his wartime ordeal in two memoirs, but it wasn’t until 2010, when Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken was published that Zamperini’s harrowing story captured the public’s imagination. A film about his life, directed by Angelina Jolie, is due for release at the end of the year.

In the 1930s he was of the best distance runners in the world and was considered a threat to become the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. He ran in the 5,000 metres in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was considered a favourite for the 1940 Tokyo Games, which were cancelled when war broke out.

Instead, Zamperini enlisted in the US Army Air Forces and became a bombardier on B-24 Liberators in the Pacific. On 27 May 1943 he and the rest of his crew were on a search-and-rescue mission 800 miles from Hawaii when the aircraft developed mechanical problems and nose-dived into the sea. He was one of three crew members to survive. Trapped underwater and wrapped in torn coils of wiring, Zamperini found his bearings when his class ring from the University of Southern California caught on a piece of metal. He was able to swim out of the wreckage as it drifted downwards.

He and his crewmates climbed into a rubber life raft with few provisions. As they drifted, they improvised ways to capture rainwater. Zamperini made the pin of his lieutenant’s insignia into a fish hook, with little success. Sharks circled the raft, which sprang leaks as the rubber weakened under the relentless sun. One day a Japanese plane strafed them, forcing them to dive into the water with the sharks.

They survived by catching birds with their bare hands and using the entrails for fish bait. When a tern landed on the raft, “Louie was so famished that he went at it with his teeth, ripping the feathers loose and spitting them out in whuffs,” Hillenbrand wrote in Unbroken. “Almost immediately, he felt a crawling sensation on his chin. The tern had been covered in lice, which were now hopping over his face.”

In place of regular meals, they recalled their favourite foods in elaborate detail. “Louie began describing a dish, and all three men found it satisfying, so Louie kept going,” Hillenbrand wrote, “telling them about each dish in the greatest possible detail. Soon, [his mother’s] kitchen floated there with them: Sauces simmered, spices were pinched and scattered, butter melted on tongues. So began a thrice-daily ritual on the raft, with pumpkin pie and spaghetti being the favourite subjects.”

After 33 days, one of the three died; Zamperini and the other survivor, Russell Allen Phillips, improvised a funeral ceremony and buried him at sea. They stayed afloat for another fortnight, through rainstorms that stirred up 40-foot waves and nearly capsized their raft.

After 47 days they were within sight of an island when a Japanese motorboat pulled alongside. They were taken captive at gunpoint, their hands bound behind their backs. Zamperini, who had weighed over 11 stone, had shrunk to under six. He and Phillips were shipped to separate POW camps (Phillips died in 1998).

By chance, a Japanese officer at one of the camps had studied at the University of Southern California and recognised Zamperini. The Japanese thought a star athlete would have propaganda value, but Zamperini refused to denounce his country. He was subjected to almost daily torture from a sadistic guard he called “the Bird”. Meanwhile he was officially declared dead, and his parents received a letter of condolence from President Roosevelt.

After the Japanese surrendered, Zamperini and 700 other prisoners were released. They knew they were free when a US plane flew over the prison, and the pilot dropped a small package from the cockpit. It contained a pack of cigarettes and a chocolate bar. The prisoners sliced the chocolate bar into 700 slivers, giving each man a faint taste of freedom.

Louis Silvie Zamperini was in 1917, in Olean, New York, and moved with his family to Torrance, California, in 1920. His parents spoke Italian at home and young Louie didn’t learn English until he went to school. He had a troubled childhood and was smoking by the time he was five and drinking at eight. He seemed headed for a life of delinquency until his older brother, a champion miler, encouraged him to start running. Known as the “Torrance Tornado,” he won the 1934 California state championship mile in 4min 21.8sec, a US high school record that stood for 19 years.

In 1936 he won a place in the Olympic 5,000 metres team. He was 19 — still the youngest American male at that distance in the Olympics. In the final he was near the back of the pack but sprinted the final lap in a remarkable 56 seconds to finish in eighth place. Afterwards, he was invited to meet Hitler, who said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”

At USC he won two national mile titles and in 1938 set an NCAA record at 4min 8.3sec, the fifth-fastest mile in history at the time. His collegiate record stood until the 1950s.

 After the war he was reunited with his family in California and in 1946 married Cynthia Applewhite. He struggled with alcohol and was haunted by painful memories until his wife took him to a meeting led by evangelist Billy Graham in 1949. “It was the first night in two years and a half that I didn’t have a nightmare,” he recalled in 2012, “and I haven’t had one since.”

He stopped drinking and smoking and became a devout follower of Graham. He worked in property, coached track athletes in California, founded a camp for troubled youth and became a motivational speaker, often addressing military groups about his imprisonment. He returned to Japan many times as a gesture of friendship and forgiveness, though “the Bird” refused to meet him despite repeated requests. Before the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Zamperini carried the Olympic torch, cheered at every step by a new generation of Japanese.


Louis Silvie Zamperini, athlete, soldier, businessman, athletics coach and motivational speaker: born Olean, New York 26 January 1917; married 1946 Cynthia Applewhite (died 2001; two children); died Los Angeles 2 July 2014.

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