Running: Louie Zamperini, War Hero and Olympian, 97

Louie Zamperini (photo / public domain)
Los Angeles - Louie Zamperini, Olympic runner and World War II hero, died this week at the age of 97. He succumbed to a battle with pneumonia fought over the last month of his life.

"Unbroken," the 2010 bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, brought Zamperini's name and nearly unfathomable story of physical and mental perseverance to a modern audience. A movie of the same name is scheduled to be released later this year.

The Torrance, California native ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, best remembered in the States for the performance of Jesse Owens in discrediting Hitler's racial and national propaganda agendas. Zamperini competed in the 5k at the Olympics despite only several weeks of training at that distance. Although not medaling, his blistering last lap of 56 seconds caught the personal attention of Hitler and Zamperini reluctantly complied with the dictator's request for a congratulatory word with him.

At the same games, the talented but wild teen was nearly arrested for ripping down a Nazi flag on a drunken lark. He fooled his would be captors into thinking he was taking it down for a souvenir.

The 1940 Olympics were cancelled due to World War II, and Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Corps well prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor that marked the U.S. entry into combat in late 1941. There is speculation that had the War not so dramatically altered the course of his life, Zamperini might have been the first runner to break the four-minute mile. It's more than wishful contemplation; his mile mark of 4:08.3 while at USC in 1938-1939 held for fifteen years as the college standard (he had an even faster time, 4:07.6, indoors), and the 4:00 mile wasn't eclipsed until 1954.

In the Air Corps, Louie became a bombardier on the infamously difficult to navigate B-24 Liberator. Its nickname was the "Flying Brick." Ultimately the shortcomings of the B-24, and one especially flawed plane in particular, caught up with Zamperini and in May, 1943 his plane crashed into the Pacific while on a search mission for a downed pilot.

Only Zamperini and two fellow crew members survived the crash, and began a 47-day journey on a life raft, lacking ample food, water, and protection from the elements above and below them. Sharks were a constant threat and as the raft deflated and listed close to the water line, the predators became only more emboldened in their attempts to attack the men. Only two of the three survived the trip, Louie and pilot Russell "Phil" Phillips.

They finally approached land on a Pacific Island after drifting 2,000 miles, only to be captured by a Japanese patrol boat.

Their treatment in prison camp was brutal, and Zamperini was singled out for excruciating punishment from a sadistic prison guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed "the Bird." The prisoners who survived the conditions increasingly grew concerned that, as the tide began to turn in the Allies' favor, they would be killed if the Japanese lost. Their fears were well-founded, the camp was located on what became known as Execution Island. Miraculously they were spared.

Understandably Zamperini struggled after the horrors he experienced during the war. Sleep came only with difficulty, he drank often and heavily, and he frequently fantasized about revenge upon the Bird. It was during the dire years of the late 1940's that he found his direction through visits to Billy Graham's 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. It proved a pivotal turn from disaster, and Zamperini in the ensuing years became an inspirational speaker and founded a camp for troubled youths, among many accomplishments. He also wed the former Cynthia Applewhite and they were married for more than 50 years, until her death in 2001. They had two children, Luke and Cynthia.

Ultimately, Zamperini forgave his wartime tormentors, some in person during a 1950 Tokyo visit to a prison where they were serving sentences for war crimes. He was even willing to forgive the Bird. Watanable refused to meet with Zamperini when he had the opportunity, in 1998 when Louie returned to Japan to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games.

Hillenbrand, who struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and spent 1,000's of hours in compiling his story despite being largely confined to bed, said upon his passing, "Farewell to the grandest most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew. Thank you, Louie, for all you gave to me, to our country, and to the world..."

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