The second of four children, Louis Zamperini was born January 26, 1917 in Olean, New York to working-class Italian immigrants. When his family re-located to Torrance, California, Louis’ difficulty speaking English attracted local bullies. His father taught him boxing for self-defense, and Louis’ newfound talent for throwing punches turned into a desire for “getting even.” His habit of picking fights escalated into other forms of juvenile delinquency, including petty robbery, running rackets, selling stolen scrap metal, and even assaulting police officers. Louis’ older brother, Pete, suggested he direct his energies into less disruptive and harmful activities, and try out for the school track team.
While still in high school, Louis set a world record for running the mile and won the California State Championships. He would go on to play for the University of Southern California, and, at the age of 19, became the youngest American to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. Louis competed in Berlin at the 1936 games, finishing in first place in his event. His performance was so impressive that Adolf Hitler asked to meet Louis, whom the Fuhrer called “the boy with the fast finish.” By this point, Louis had earned the nickname “Torrance Tornado” in honor of his California town. Wanting a souvenir of his time in Germany, Louis reportedly climbed the 15-foot wall encompassing the Reich Chancellory to steal the Nazi swastika flag off its pole. Louis was ultimately caught, but his celebrity enabled him to keep the flag.
Louis decided to retire from running, and in 1941, at the height of WWII, he enlisted with the U.S. Air Corps. as a bombardier in the South Pacific. While on a reconnaissance mission in May 1943, his B-24 plane suffered engine failure and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from Hawaii. The military declared him killed in action and President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally sent Louis’ parents a formal letter of condolence. Along with two other survivors of the crash, one of whom later died at sea from starvation, Louis drifted on an inflatable life raft for 47 days, surviving on fish and rainwater while hungry sharks and starvation set in. Louis claimed he never prayed so strongly in his life. After 47 days adrift at sea, a Japanese patrol boat picked them up near the Marshall Islands.
Louis was first sent to “Execution Island”—so named because every prisoner sent there was put to death. For over two years, Louis was interned at a prison reform camp in Tokyo, where he was experimented on by a Japanese doctor and injected with various substances. One Japanese soldier in particular—Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird”—tortured and humiliated Louis relentlessly in an attempt to break his spirit and make an example of him for propaganda purposes.
In November 1944, Louis sent a message of greeting to his parents through Radio Tokyo, confirming he was, in fact, alive. When he was asked to deliver a second broadcast that criticized the United States, Louis refused. As a result, he was sent to a “punishment camp” run by Watanabe, who continued to torture him until the war ended in 1945, when Watanabe disappeared.
In 1946, Louis was invited to spend two weeks in Miami, where he and a friend crashed a party at which he met debutante Cynthia Applewhite. Just two weeks later, Louis proposed marriage to her. They shared the next 55 years together until she passed away from cancer in 2001. They had two children—Cynthia (Cissy) and Luke.
Louis faced difficulty adjusting to post-war life. Haunted by memories of the POW camp, including nightmares where he was strangling Watanabe, Louis turned to alcohol. It wasn’t until his wife threatened to divorce him that Louis decided to improve his lifestyle. On multiple occasions, his wife pleaded with him to see Billy Graham, the famous evangelist preacher. A cynical and reluctant Louis reportedly stormed out of the tent after attending his first meeting in 1949. However, following his second visit, Louis was inspired to become a born-again Christian. He dedicated the rest of his life to public speaking engagements, including a return to Japan as a missionary where he confronted and forgave his former captors, many of whom were now convicted war criminals. One of his former Japanese guards ran away when he saw Louis. After discovering that Watanabe was alive, Louis attempted to arrange a meeting, but Watanabe refused. He died in 2003, a free man.
The airport located in Louis’ hometown of Torrance was re-named Zamperini Field in his honor, as was his high school stadium.
In 1956, Louis published his memoirs, Devil At My Heels. His incredible life inspired Laura Hillenbrand’s biography, Unbroken, written from the author’s bed while she was suffering from a chronic illness that plagued her for 30 years. Hillenbrand corresponded with Louis over the phone, but they never met in person until 2012, which she maintains improved her writing. The book was adapted into a film of the same name by director Angelina Jolie and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen. British actor Jack O’Connell played Louis in the biopic.
Louis lived in Hollywood until his death at age 97 on July 2, 2014, from pneumonia. ~Daniel Horowitz