Zamperini was the “Torrance Tornado,” the tough kid turned track star who set a national high school record for running the mile. In 1936, he was known as “The Zamp,” the 18-year-old USC standout who ran at the Berlin Olympics, where his roommate was Jesse Owens. In 1943, he was Lt. Zamperini, a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator, who, along with 10 other crew members, fell off the map on a May 27 mission over the Pacific.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his parents a formal condolence note in 1944, he had no idea that Zamperini was still alive and living a nightmare in a Japanese prison camp. For 47 days, Zamperini had drifted on a life raft, fighting off sharks and starvation with two other crew members, one of whom died. Picked up by a Japanese patrol boat, the two survivors were beaten, tortured and humiliated for more than two years.
After the war, Zamperini was told by an Army superior that his raft trip qualified him for $7.60 a day in reimbursement. But someone higher up in the command nixed it: “Request denied,” the letter said. “Travel unauthorized.”
Zamperini, who became an inspirational speaker and evangelical Christian youth worker after returning from the war emotionally battered, died Wednesday — 70 years after the mistaken government announcement. He was 97.
His death from pneumonia was confirmed by a spokesman for Universal Pictures, which is scheduled to release a film based on Zamperini’s life in December.
An athlete who stayed trim his entire life, Zamperini gave up skateboarding at 81. Ten years later, he gave up skiing. At 97, he was fit enough to be picked as grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade. He often credited his years of rigorous training and competition with helping him to survive the ordeal of war.
“The only way I can put it that makes sense is that every athlete wants to win,” he said on CBS’ “The Early Show” in 2001.
It was unclear Thursday morning who would replace him in the Rose Parade.
Zamperini’s remarkable life story is the subject of “Unbroken,” the film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book of the same name.
The tale had been simmering on Hollywood’s back burner for decades. In 1957, Universal Pictures bought the rights to Zamperini’s memoir, “Devil at My Heels.” Producers even pegged actor Tony Curtis for the leading role but then “Spartacus” came along and the project was dropped. Zamperini’s saga languished.
“The story was as vast as the ocean waters in which Zamperini had floated for nearly two months,” then-Times film reporter John Horn wrote in 2014. Producers and writers “simply had too much material, and no one could figure out precisely which parts of his story to tell and which to leave behind.”
Intrigued by Hillenbrand’s 2010 book, actress Angelina Jolie pushed the film into production. She directed it as well.
As it turned out, her home in the Hollywood hills was just a stroll away from the one Zamperini owned for more than 50 years.
“I imagine that for the last 10-something years, he’s been sitting there having a coffee in the morning and wondering, ‘Who’s going to make this movie?'” Jolie said in a 2014 interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “And I’ve been sitting in my room thinking, ‘What am I supposed to be doing with my life?'”
Zamperini’s life was the stuff movies are made of.
In the 1930s, he was an emerging track star, a two-time NCAA champion in the mile at USC and a likely candidate to break the four-minute mile. At the Berlin Olympics, he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter run and afterward shook hands with Adolf Hitler, who called him the “boy with the fast finish.”
He was a sure thing for the 1940 Olympics, but they never materialized. Planned for Tokyo, the Games were canceled when war broke out.
As a flier in the Pacific, Zamperini was part of a crew trying to find a downed plane when his aircraft developed engine trouble and plunged into the Pacific hundreds of miles south of Hawaii.
“The plane exploded,” he told the CBS program “48 Hours” in 1999. “I felt like someone hit me on the forehead with a sledgehammer. My head comes out of the water. It looks just like the world just stood still for a moment.”
Only three of the 11 men onboard survived the crash and another died before Zamperini and 2nd Lt. Russell Phillips were captured by a Japanese patrol ship in the Marshall Islands.
“We were in constant, horrible fear,” Zamperini told The Times in 2002. “Sometimes [a shark] would put its head right up on the raft and look at us. We’d whack them on the nose with the paddles.”
Zamperini and Phillips survived on rain water and whatever fish they could catch. They endured strafing by Japanese planes. And they kept their wits with mental exercises that included Zamperini narrating the preparation of an elaborate meal, listing each ingredient. “When the imaginary meal was prepared, the men would devour every crumb, describing every mouthful,” Hillenbrand recounted in “Unbroken.”
“They conjured up the scene in such vivid detail that somehow their stomachs were fooled by it, if only briefly.”
By the time of their capture, Zamperini had drifted 2,000 miles and weighed less than 100 pounds.