Stories of survival like that of Unbroken‘s real-life inspiration, Louis Zamperini, are as old as time itself. In a world rife with negativity and cynicism, messages about individual transcendence and the resilience of human beings never cease to inspire, reminding us all that even in our worst moments, things could always be worse. It’s no wonder that these kinds of stories make for great and moving films, tugging at viewers’ heartstrings and shining a light on the harrowing tribulations of others. By walking in these characters’ proverbial shoes, we’re humbled into a state of sympathy and gratitude, oftentimes struggling to wrap our heads around the level of suffering others have endured.
The subject of author Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography and two feature films, one of which was directed by Angelina Jolie, Louis Zamperini lived quite the life and experienced more than most people before his 30th birthday. A world-class athlete, soldier, POW, and survivor of World War II, his story runs the gamut of ups and downs. After passing away at age 97, just months before Jolie’s film adaptation of Unbroken hit theaters, Zamperini’s personal triumphs continue to reflect the strength of the human spirit, serving as a beacon of light in the darkest of times.
Louis Zamperini’s Early Years and the 1936 Olympic Games
Born on January 26, 1917, Louis Zamperini was the son of Italian immigrants Anthony and Louise, who relocated from New York to Torrance, California in 1920. The object of bullying as a result of his inability to speak English at a young age, Louis developed skills as a boxer with the help of his father and eventually transitioned to long-distance running with the encouragement of his older brother. A natural on the track, he made a name for himself when he ran a mile in four minutes and 21.2 seconds, setting a national record for high school runners that would hold for 20 years. In 1936, after earning a scholarship to USC, Louis’ athletic prowess saw him compete for qualification in the upcoming Berlin Olympics. Running in a 5,000-meter race, Louis and then-record holder Don Lash finished dead even, sending the teenage Zamperini to Germany – a story that in and of itself had the makings of a great sports movie.
Competing once again in a 5,000-meter race, Louis finished eighth out of thirteen runners and clocked in at 56 seconds. While not a stellar performance on the track, one can safely assume the young runner’s overall experience on one of the world’s grandest stages was an eye-opening and surreal experience, not least of which because he found himself in proximity to some of history’s most infamous figures. Standing close to their box during the games, Zamperini was in the company of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and he would later tell The New York Times, “I was pretty naïve about world politics, and I thought he (Hitler) looked funny, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film, especially the way he stamped his feet and slapped his thighs.” Louis would even meet the notorious dictator, shake his hand and hear, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”
When Did Louis Zamperini Enlist in the Air Force?
After competing further at the collegiate level, and setting another mile record that would stand for 15 years, Louis graduated from USC in 1940. Shortly after the outbreak of World War Two the following year, he joined the Army Air Corps. Flying missions aboard a B-24 bomber over the Pacific, he served as a bombardier and, while flying a rescue mission on May 27, 1943, his life was forever changed. Crewed by 11 men, the bomber suffered sudden mechanical failure and crashed into the ocean, killing all aboard except Louis and two others, Second Lt. Russell Phillips and Sgt. Francis McNamara. Adrift at sea, the trio of survivors reckoned with all manners of hardship. Aside from great suffering through hunger, thirst, and baking under an unforgiving sun, the men had to evade hostile Japanese aircraft and even fight off preying sharks.
How Did Louis Zamperini Become a Prisoner of War?
After 33 days, Sgt. McNamara succumbed to the brutal circumstances and died, and after drifting 2,000 miles over a total of 47 grueling days, Zamperini and Phillips made landfall on an island and were soon captured by the Japanese military. What followed for the two men was a multi-year ordeal that would take a tremendous physical and mental toll. Separated from one another and moved from one prison camp to another, Zamperini and Phillips were subjected to torture via hunger and forced labor. Zamperini, however, was particularly singled out by a sadistic Japanese officer, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed “The Bird”). With a reputation for brutality, Watanabe focused his ire on Zamperini, zeroing in on his quasi-celebrity status as an Olympian. According to The Daily Mail, fellow prisoner Tom Henling Wade recalled, the officer “treated us with terrible brutality and most of the time with no respect at all. He was a psychopath.” Wade also detailed a specific incident that saw Watanabe force Zamperini to hold a wooden beam over his head for an extended period. “He made him pick up a beam of wood 6ft long by 4 inches square and hold it at arm’s length above his head,” Wade remembers. “Zamperini could hardly move, could hardly unlock his fingers. I looked at the clock and it had been 37 minutes. I defy anyone to do it for that long.”
Despite facing formidable odds, Zamperini would credit his training as an athlete as a crucial factor in maintaining strength, hope, and perseverance amidst a grim existence. He told The New York Times, “You have to learn self-discipline if you are going to succeed as an athlete. For another thing, you have to have confidence in yourself and believe that no matter what you’re faced with, you can deal with it — that you just can’t give up. And then there’s the aspect of staying in shape.” His incredible strength and will to live would ultimately pay off in the summer of 1945, when the war ended and the 28-year-old, after two years of unimaginably harsh imprisonment, was released and returned home. Having been pronounced dead in 1943, his homecoming in Long Beach, California was one of pure bliss. He recalled, “When I saw them and ran up to my parents, my family, I just felt like I had come back alive. You know, I had been dead and I came back alive.”
How Did Louis Zamperini Find Faith After the War?
Like many young men who fought in World War Two, Louis Zamperini struggled upon his return home. In coping with the trauma he’d endured, he succumbed to alcoholism and a self-destructive lifestyle that nearly ended his marriage. But through pain and suffering comes an opportunity for change, and that’s what happened when he discovered evangelist preacher Billy Graham in 1949. Touched by Graham’s sermons, Zamperini gravitated towards the Christian faith and found new meaning and purpose in his life. Walking a religious path, he returned to Japan in the 1950s to meet with and forgive some of his captors. He even made efforts to meet with and forgive the vicious Mutsuhiro Watanabe, though the reunion would never take place as the Bird had no interest in facing his former enemy.
For the next several decades, Zamperini served as a beacon of light through lecturing, missionary work, and the co-writing of two memoirs, all while remaining physically active through various athletic activities. In 1998, he returned to Asia once again to carry the Olympic torch in Nagano, Japan, not far from where he’d been imprisoned. On July 2, 2014, he passed away from complications with pneumonia at age 97. But though he’s gone, he won’t soon be forgotten, and his legacy of strength, resilience, and advocating for the power of faith continues to inspire and resonate with countless people around the globe.