Louis Zamperini: Unbroken Hero and Olympic Athlete

Louis Zamperini
Portrait of Louis Zamperini (1917 - 2014) as he poses at home (taken in 1985) with a photo of himself during World War II.

Bob Riha Jr / Contributor / Getty Images

Louis Zamperini, subject of the bestselling book and hit movie, Unbroken, survived years of torture in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, but faced an even greater threat when he got home. Zamperini credited a Billy Graham crusade with eliminating the hate that threatened to destroy him. In turn, Zamperini used his fame to spread the gospel and do good for the rest of his long life.

Fast Facts: Louis Zamperini

  • Full Name: Louis Silvie Zamperini
  • Occupation: Olympic athlete, Army veteran, Christian evangelist
  • Born: January 26, 1917
  • Died: July 2, 2014
  • Education: University of Southern California
  • Published Works: Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II
  • Key Accomplishments: Track record holder, Olympic athlete, decorated WW II POW, Christian evangelist and philanthropist
  • Spouse Name: Cynthia Applewhite
  • Famous Quote: “I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self destructive. If you hate somebody, you're not hurting the person you hate, you're hurting yourself. It's a healing, actually, it's a real healing...forgiveness.”

Early Life

Born in Olean, New York on January 26, 1917, Louis Zamperini was raised in Torrance, California. His parents, Anthony and Louise, were Italian immigrants who did not speak English. Louis' Italian heritage made him the victim of bullies in school, and for years he acted out with petty delinquent crimes.

Louis' older brother Pete convinced him to go out for track in high school, and Louis discovered a talent for long-distance running. He set a national high school record of 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds for the mile, which would go unbroken for 20 years.

Gifted Olympic Athlete

Winning the California State Meet championship in 1934 earned Louis a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the same games where Jesse Owens won four gold medals. Zamperini ran well but came in eighth in the 5,000 meter race.

Back at USC, Zamperini set the college record for the mile in 1938, 4 minutes, 8.3 seconds, a mark which stood for 15 years. He graduated in 1940 and would have competed in the Olympics again, but the outbreak of World War II caused the games to be canceled.

Louis Zamperini Perched on B-18 Bomber
Louis Zamperini Perched on B-18 Bomber. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Plane Crash and Torture

The next chapter in Zamperini's life nearly ended it. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was assigned to a B-24 Liberator bomber nicknamed "Super Man." During a bombing raid on the Pacific atoll of Nauru, Zamperini's plane was attacked by a squadron of Japanese Zeros. The crew managed to get the bomber back to its home base, where mechanics counted 594 bullet holes in the craft.

Zamperini, pilot Russell Allen Phillips, and tail gunner Francis McNamara were among the crew on a different B-24, the Green Hornet, which took off on a rescue mission May 27, 1943, searching for a downed pilot. Both port engines on the Green Hornet failed, and it crashed into the ocean. Of the 11 crew members, only Zamperini, Phillips, and McNamara survived.

Their only emergency food was one chocolate bar, which McNamara panicked and ate. For 47 days they drifted, surviving on sea birds that landed on their rafts, an occasional fish, and whatever rain water they collected. McNamara died of starvation. The other two men lost half their body weight by the time they were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat near the Marshall Islands.

Zamperini was shuttled among a series of POW camps until he landed at Omori, in Tokyo Bay. It was there that a sadistic guard, Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed "The Bird," chose Zamperini for special torture. The Bird beat Zamperini mercilessly every day, often using a leather belt with a heavy brass buckle. Only Zamperini's Olympic fame and propaganda value kept the guard from killing him.

But Japan was losing the war and the Allies were closing in. Watanabe grew more cruel every day, and Zamperini wondered whether he would be able to hold out until liberation. Suddenly The Bird was transferred out.

With U.S. bombing intensifying, in March 1945 Zamperini and other prisoners were sent to Camp 4B at Naoetsu, a village on the west coast of Japan. Zamperini was horrified to discover Watanabe was in the same camp.

World War II ended when America dropped atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. By the time the Naoetsu POW camp was liberated, The Bird had disappeared.

Turning Point Conversion

Zamperini married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946. About that same time, a newspaper story reported that Mutsuhiro Watanabe had committed suicide in a lovers' agreement. Zamperini tried to go on with his life, taking a low-paying job at Warner Brothers Studios, training actors how to ride horses.

However, the years of torture weighed heavily on Zamperini. He suffered from constant nightmares, depression, and alcoholism. His marriage was crumbling.

Cynthia was ready to file for divorce, but on October 22, 1949, she convinced Louis to go to a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. However, Graham's message, "The Only Sermon Jesus Ever Wrote," upset Louis so much he stormed out. Somehow, Cynthia talked him into going again the next night.

Louis Zamperini answered the call of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ. Later, he poured all his alcohol down the drain, and with it went the nightmares he had of his war years, he recalled.

In 1952, Zamperini founded Victory Boys' Camp in the mountains north of Los Angeles for at-risk youth. Although the camp closed in 2014, its work continues today as Louis Zamperini Youth Ministries, providing support and guidance to hundreds of foster homes, youth camps, churches, schools, youth correctional facilities, and the National Guard Youth Challenge program.

Message of Forgiveness 

Louis Zamperini returned to Japan to forgive his former captors. He interrupted a 1952 speaking tour in Tokyo to visit Sugamo Prison, which housed 850 Japanese war criminals.

Zamperini told them, "The greatest story of forgiveness the world’s ever known was the Cross. It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

Many of the prisoners accepted Zamperini's invitation to become Christians. However, Louis' worst tormentor, The Bird, had escaped justice. He stayed in hiding until 1958, when a general amnesty was granted to Japanese war criminals.

Louis Zamperini presents in 2011
Louis Zamperini presents in 2011. Noel Vasquez / Stringer / Getty Images

Zamperini returned to Japan again in 1998 to participate in the Olympic ceremonies. He tried to meet with Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but The Bird refused. Louis wrote an open letter to Watanabe in which he forgave The Bird and asked him to become a Christian.

Death and Legacy

Louis Zamperini died of pneumonia at his home in Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 97. His life was celebrated in the bestselling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. The story was made into a popular movie titled Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie.

Louis and his wife Cynthia had two children, Cissy and Luke, who continue their father's legacy by telling his heroic story and serving the youth foundation.

Sources

  • "After 'Unbroken': Billy Graham and Louis Zamperini," by Kristy Etheridge, December 22, 2014; billy graham.org, https://billygraham.org/story/louis-zamperini-billy-graham-and-a-life-changing-decision-the-rest-of-the-unbroken-story/
  • "Louis Zamperini: Writer, Track and Field Athlete," biography.com; https://www.biography.com/people/louis-zamperini
  •  "Louis Zamperini — Obituary," The Telegraph, 11:24AM BST 03 Jul 2014, telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10942801/Louis-Zamperini-obituary.html
  • "The Rest of the Story: The Life of Louis Zamperini After ‘Unbroken,’" reasonabletheology.org, https://reasonabletheology.org/the-rest-of-the-story-louis-zamperini-after-unbroken/