“I’ve got 110/60, a 60 pulse, 185 cholesterol,” said Louis Zamperini in an interview at 86 years old. “I’m told I have the vitals of a 35-year-old. And with all I’ve been through, they thought I’d be dead by 55! I almost did lose a kidney after being dehydrated on that raft and fighting those sharks. But the kidney bounced back.”
To say Louis Zamperini lived an extraordinary life would be an understatement. The events that unfolded throughout his life are even almost unbelievable. From Olympic runner to prisoner of war, he’s lived through it all, and on December 25th, the story of the remarkable man’s life will appear on the big screen. So before you head to the theater, here are 10 interesting facts about Louis Zamperini that you may not have known.
He Was a Troublemaker Growing up
Born to Italian immigrant parents on January 26, 1917, Zamperini grew up in Torrance, CA with 1 older brother and 2 younger sisters. He didn’t speak any English, which quickly attracted the attention of neighborhood bullies. His father taught him how to box for self-defense and soon “I was beating the tar out of every one of them,” he once said. “But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.” Once he made it clear that he was not a kid to mess with, he started picking fights himself just to see if anyone could beat him. He was a smoker by age 5, a drinker by 8, and as a teenager, he took up a life of hopping trains to Mexico and getting into all sorts of trouble. On one occasion, he deflated a teacher’s car tires after being disciplined, and on another, he chucked tomatoes at a cop. His family members were convinced that prison was in his future.
He Became a Track Star in High School
In an effort to straighten up his life, Zamperini’s older brother, Pete, convinced him to channel his bad-boy energy into track at Torrance High School, where he was already a star. Fortunately, he got his act together and he soon became one of California’s top athletes. He even achieved a national high school record of completing a mile run in only 4 minutes and 21 seconds. He quickly earned himself the nickname “The Tornado From Torrance.”
He Raced in the Olympics
Upon graduation, Zamperini was invited to train for the 1936 Olympic team on the University of Southern California track with a scholarship to the school. At USC, he set a national collegiate mile mark of 4 minutes and 8 seconds, which lasted for 15 years. The track star headed to Berlin for the Olympics. Although he didn’t win, he finished the 5000-meter race in 8th place, with a time of 14 minutes and 45 seconds. He managed to amaze the crowd by running one of the fastest final laps in the history of the event.
He Met Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler happened to be in the crowd and was also impressed by Zamperini’s impressive lap. “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” Hitler said to him as he shook his hand. “It wasn’t until many years later that I looked back and realized I’d shaken hands with the worst tyrant the world has ever known,” he said of the event.
He Enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in 1941
After graduating from USC, Zamperini planned on continuing his athletic career, where he was favored to win events in the 1940 Olympic Games, but World War II intervened. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, where he served as a B-24 Liberator bombardier in the 372nd Bomb Squadron. “My life as a teenage delinquent had conditioned me for the war,” Zamperini said.
His Military Plane Crashed Into the Ocean
On May 27, 1943, Zamperini and 10 other crewmen were sent on a search-and-rescue mission over the Pacific Ocean, when their plane suddenly lost power to 2 of its engines. The plane crashed into the water, killing 8 of his fellow crew. Luckily for Zamperini, a college ring he was wearing hooked onto the plane’s shattered window frame, enabling him to hoist himself out of the sinking aircraft. He survived the wreckage along with pilot Russell Allen Phillips and tail gunner Francis McNamara.
He Was Stranded at Sea for 47 Days
After the crash, Zamperini and the other 2 survivors drifted for 2000 miles on a life raft with rations of only a few bottles of water and 6 chocolate bars. When they ran out, they survived on rainwater, fish, and birds. They fended off sharks with just their paddles. “It really was a test of survival,” said Zamperini. On one occasion, they escaped an attack by a Japanese bomber without injury and spent the next 8 days repairing their bullet-riddled, waterlogged rubber raft. On the 33rd day, McNamara died. “We slipped him overboard, a burial at sea,” Zamperini wrote in his autobiography.
He Was a Prisoner of War
On the 47th day at sea, they finally made landfall in the Marshall Islands and were immediately taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy. They were held for about 6 weeks on the island of Kwajalein before being shipped to the Japanese mainland and confined to 3 different interrogation centers and POW camps. He remained in their custody for 2 years, during which he endured disease, starvation, and almost-daily beating from guards. Zamperini was pummeled with clubs, belts, and fists, and on one occasion, was ordered to hold a heavy wooden beam over his head. He lasted 37 minutes before passing out.
He Suffered From Nightmares and Flashbacks
The Japanese surrendered in September 1945 and Zamperini was set free after being a POW for 2 years. Afterward, he was haunted by the memories of his years of malnourishment and torture. He was unable to resume his career as a runner and he became dependent on alcohol to stifle nightmares and flashbacks. However, Zamperini said that he was resolved of his posttraumatic stress after seeing a sermon by the evangelical preacher Billy Graham in 1949.
He Died at Age 97
Louis Zamperini died peacefully in his home at age 97 of pneumonia on July 2, 2014.
“Having overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life,” the Zamperini family said in a statement, “Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini has never broken down from a challenge. He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of pneumonia. After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives.”
Luckily, Zamperini was able to view the movie about his life before he died, although the release date isn’t until December 25. When Angelina Jolie, who directed the film, titled Unbroken, found out that he was in the hospital, she rushed over and showed him a rough version in his bed. “I had the extraordinary honor of watching this beautiful man, watching his bright blue eyes as he watched his life and remembered his family and remembered his friends who had passed and was preparing emotionally to pass away and be with them again,” Jolie said of the moment. “And so it was a beautiful, beautiful experience.”
- Andrews E. 8 things you may not know about Louis Zamperini. The History Channel website. December 17, 2014. http://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-louis-zamperini.
- Angelina Jolie on her film’s ‘Unbroken’ hero: ‘He was truly a great man.’ NPR website. December 17, 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/12/17/371445206/angelina-jolie-on-her-films-unbroken-hero-he-was-truly-a-great-man.
- Leopold T. Louis Zamperini, triumphant ‘Unbroken’ warrior, dies at 97. CNN website. July 3, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/03/showbiz/movies/obit-zamperini-unbroken.
- Segal E. The great Zamperini. The University of Southern California website. 2003. http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/trojan_family/summer03/F_Zamperini.html.