Many people thought Louis Zamperini would not live long beyond his formative years, and on many occasions they were almost right. As a child of immigrants, Zamperini was often in trouble with the authorities, until a police officer suggested that Louis use his fleet feet for sport instead of mischief.
Olympian at Hitler's Berlin Olympic Games
By the end of high school, Louis had become a world class runner, setting a world high school record in the mile. He qualified to run on the 1936 Olympic team by tying the world record holder in the 5000 meter run. At the Games in Berlin, he was America's top finisher in the event, covering the final lap in an astounding 56 seconds.
Following the Olympic Games, Louis competed on many record-breaking teams at the University of Southern California (USC). Many claim Zamperini would have broken the four-minute mile had he not elected to retire from the sport and join the U.S. Air Corps as a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II.
Crashed at Sea and Drifted for 47 Days
On a routine reconnaissance run, Louis' aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He and another crew member survived in a life raft for 47 days, drifting 2000 miles, into Japanese-controlled waters. His rescuers were also his torturers, as the Japanese put Louis into a series of prison camps. One particular guard wanted to make an example of the eternally optimistic Olympic runner, and for two years this guard tried to break Louis' spirit with verbal and physical cruelty.
Louis outlasted the guard, and when the war ended, Louis returned to Torrance, California to a hero's welcome. He partied with celebrities and married a debutante, but his life was spinning out of control due to a lack of direction. It was a chance meeting with young evangelist, Billy Graham, that changed Louis' life for good. He decided to become a missionary to Japan, preaching the gospel of forgiveness to the very guards who had tormented him during the war. His book, "Devil at My Heels" was an astounding record of Louis' life. Upon his return to the States, Louis created the Victory Boys Camp for wayward youth, where he taught other juvenile delinquents the skills to succeed in life. Meanwhile, Louis and his wife, Cynthia, raised two children of their own.
Honored and His Story Told
In 1998, the Olympic Winter Games were held in Nagano, Japan, just outside the town where Louis had been held captive. The people of Nagano asked Louis to carry the Olympic flame as part of the torch relay. The host broadcaster (CBS) created a 45-minute feature about Louis' life, which aired during the telecast of the Olympic closing ceremony.
This story and the accompanying interview reignited interest in Louis' life, eventually leading Laura Hillenbrand (the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Seabiscuit") to document Louis' life in her latest book, "Unbroken" (Simon & Schuster, 2010).