Many people have heard of Zamperini, but not always for the same reasons. His life story is an incredible tale of determination, achievement and perseverance, one almost unimaginable to believe. As a distance runner he set the world interscholastic record for the mile. He qualified for the 1936 Olympics at the age of 19. He survived 47 days on the open ocean during World War II after his bomber crashed. He then survived two years of brutal captivity as a prisoner-of-war in Japan.
It’s no surprise that his story turned into a No. 1 best-selling book, “Unbroken,” released in 2010. It was adapted into a film in 2014, directed by Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, and is due to be released on Christmas Day 2014.
Zamperini had a rather modest upbringing in Torrance, California. As an incorrigible and unruly teenager who attended Torrance High, Zamperini only became a distance runner at the behest of his older brother. Channeling his rebellion and finding an unknown talent, he set a world interscholastic record in the mile in 1934, one that would last 19 years.
His early achievements earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and in 1936 he decided to train for the Olympics. He chose to train for the 5000 meters, a distance he had never run, and finished eighth at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. But it was his final lap at an astounding 56 seconds that caught the attention of Adolph Hitler. As Zamperini would later tell it, he shook hands and took a photo with Hitler.
Two years later, in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate record in the mile. Nearing the 4-minute mile, at 4:08, the record would stand for 15 years.
When the war came, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and was a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. During a search-and-rescue mission on a defective B-24 searching for a lost plane and crew, Zamperini and the rest of the crew crashed into the Pacific 850 miles West of Oahu, killing eight of the 11 men on board. Astoundingly, Zamperini and two other survivors aimlessly floated across the open ocean for thousands of miles over 47 days until they were captured by the Japanese.
Already surviving an amazing ordeal, Zamperini and a crewmate were captured by the Japanese Navy. He willed his way through years of horrific beatings and torture at several Japanese POW camps and was believed to be killed in action before finally returning home to a hero’s welcome.
Zamperini endured post-war problems back home, but eventually married and became a popular Christian inspirational speaker. He later lived in Hollywood, California, and passed away from pneumonia on July 2, 2014, at the age of 97.