Before he became a record-breaking runner, Olympian, World War II hero, motivational speaker and the subject of a big-screen biopic directed by Angelina Jolie, Louis Zamperini ’40 was just a young troublemaker at a crossroads.
The son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini struggled to fit in and got into fights with neighborhood bullies. To help channel the energies of the wayward boy, his older brother Pete encouraged him to take up running, and Zamperini soon found his calling on the track at his high school in Torrance, California. In 1934, he set a world interscholastic record and won the California state title in the mile, helping to earn a scholarship to USC.
Zamperini would go on to finish eighth in the 5000 meters in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His speed impressed Adolf Hitler, who asked to meet the young runner. “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,” Zamperini would later recall. Zamperini returned to USC, where he set a national collegiate mile record that stood for 15 years.
When World War II began, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was flying on a routine mission when he and his crew crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He and two survivors spent 47 grueling days drifting on a life raft, only to be captured by the Japanese military. He and one remaining survivor were held captive and tortured for two and a half years until the war ended in 1945.
Initially reported as killed in action, Zamperini was able to prove his identity by showing his USC Silver Life Pass. He eventually returned to California with three Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Prisoner of War Medal.
The years following were tumultuous, as Zamperini battled post-traumatic stress, depression and alcoholism. He eventually turned his life around and became a public speaker, frequently discussing the topics of motivation and reconciliation.
Zamperini died July 2, 2014 in Los Angeles at the age of 97, but his life will continue to inspire others. His story was chronicled in the popular book Unbroken, and the film adaption will premiere on December 25, 2014.