Remembrances
4:09 pm
Thu July 3, 2014

Remembering Louis Zamperini, Olympian And War Hero

Originally published on Thu July 3, 2014 6:26 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Olympic long-distance runner and World War II hero, Louis Zamperini, has died at the age of 97. During the war, Zamperini survived 47 days adrift on a life raft after his bomber crashed in the Pacific. He then endured two years in harsh Japanese prison camps. His struggles and victories are chronicled in the best-selling book, "Unbroken" and in a film to be released later this year. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this remembrance.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Louis Zamperini was born in New York to Italian immigrants but later lived in California. He would become a high school and University of Southern California tack star. But as he explained in the Universal Picture trailer for the movie about his life, Zamperini said he was always getting into trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER FROM FILM, "UNBROKEN")

LOUIS ZAMPERINI: They started talking about what to do with me. And the police chief said, we've been chasing him all over town for years, I suggest running.

CORLEY: He became a track prodigy and would run the 5,000 meter race so fast that at 19, he became the youngest American to qualify for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Zamperini didn't medal, but he told a journalism class as his alma mater that he ran the last lap so fast that after the race, Adolf Hitler asked to meet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAMPERINI: So I went over there and just touched hands. And he felt pretty high and he just said, ah, the boy with the fast finish - because I ran my last lap at a - they called it a blistering 56 seconds, but I gained 14 pounds on the boat going over eating during the Depression. That was my gold-medal.

CORLEY: It was just a few years later that Zamperini enlisted and became a bombardier during World War II. During a rescue mission, his plane went down in the Pacific, as he recounted in this interview with CBS Sunday Morning two years ago.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING")

ZAMPERINI: Our number one engine - the RPMs dropped. This plane was barely flying with four motors and with two gone, it just dropped like a rock. And so we hit the water nose down. I felt like someone hit me in the forehead with a sledgehammer.

CORLEY: He and another crew member drifted on a raft for 47 days and nearly starved while floating in shark-infested waters. Zamperini was then captured by Japanese forces and spent more than two years as a prisoner of war where he was repeatedly tortured. But during an appearance three years ago at Faith Community Church, Zamperini said he had forgiven his captors long ago, and he read a letter he had written to one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAMPERINI: The postwar nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you.

CORLEY: Zamperini would return to Japan. In the 1950s, he met with some imprisoned war criminals. In 1998, he tried unsuccessfully to meet with one of his main captors, and he ran a leg in the Olympic Torch Relay for the Winter Olympics. Next year, Louis Zamparini would have been the grand marshal of the Rose Parade in California, which will feature the theme, inspiring stories.

In a statement, his family said the man who had overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life had faced his greatest challenge - a life-threatening case of pneumonia. They said Zamperini's courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in his last days. Cheryl Corley, NPR news.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.