War Hero, Olympian Louis Zamperini Dies at 97

"Unbroken," a movie based on Zamperini's life, is scheduled to be released Christmas Day. The film was directed by Angelina Jolie.

Louis Zamperini, a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track and field team who survived repeated torture for two years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, died Wednesday from pneumonia at the age of 97, his family announced.

"After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives. His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days," his family said in a statement released by Universal Pictures, which will release a movie on Zamperini's life, "Unbroken."

The movie, an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's book directed by Angelina Jolie, is scheduled to be released Christmas Day. Jolie called Zamperini's death "a loss impossible to describe."

"We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him," Jolie said.

In May, Zamperini was selected to be grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade -- themed "Inspiring Stories" -- on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California. The former University of Southern California track star wore a Trojans cap as he talked about the book and film based on his inspirational story and his new friend, Jolie.

"After the book was finished, all of my college buddies were dead, all of my war buddies were dead -- it's sad to realize you've lost all of your friends," said Zamperini. "But I think I made up for it. I made a new friend -- Angelina Jolie. The gal really loves me. She hugs me and kisses me, so I can't complain."

Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants in Olean, New York, Zamperini moved to the Southern California community of Torrance in 1919 and became a world-class distance runner by the time he graduated from Torrance High School. He set an interscholastic record of 4:21 in the mile at a state championship preliminary meet.

His ability and drive to compete on the track won him a scholarship to USC, where he was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. At 19, he became part of a long tradition of USC track Olympians when he made the U.S. team. He was the country's top finisher -- eighth place -- in the 5,000-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

His ran his final lap in a blistering 56 seconds, prompting Germany's Adolf Hitler to request a personal meeting with him. In an interview with NBC News, Zamperini said Hitler commented on his strong finish.

"That was it," Zamperini said. "I couldn't really shake hands, he was up pretty high. So I just reached up and touched his hand."

Zamperini retired from competition to serve his country during World War II, becoming a bombardier and in the South Pacific. While on a reconnaissance mission, Zamperini's aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean in Japanse-controlled waters. He and a surviving crewmate spent 47 days adrift on an inflatable raft before being captured by Japanese soldiers when they reached the Marshall Islands.


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He was a POW for more than two years, during which time he was frequently beaten and tortured by his captors in prison camps.

"It was heartbreaking," he said during a recent interview with Tom Brokaw. "But I never had a thought in my mind ever about giving up."

Zamperini returned to Southern California to a hero's welcome and later returned to Japan to carry the Olympic torch at the Nagano Games.

Suffering from post traumatic disorder, Zamperini found solace in 1949 when he became a born-again Christian after attending a Los Angeles crusade led by evangelist Billy Graham. He eventually became an inspirational speaker preaching the power of forgiveness.

He practiced what he preached in 1950, when he went to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo -- where Japanese war criminals were being held -- and met with some of his torturers to offer them forgiveness, hugging them in the process.

At age 81, Zamperini -- a five-time Olympic torch-bearer -- ran a leg in the torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano. During his visit, he attempted to meet with his most brutal tormentor during the war, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but Watanabe --who escaped prosecution as a war criminal -- refused to see him.

In 2005, Zamperini returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there in 1936.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti releasted a statement Thursday on Zamparini's death.

"I am saddened to learn of the passing of one of our finest Angelenos, Louis Zamperini, a World War II hero, Olympian and inspiration for our nation. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family, particularly his son Luke, chief inspector for Training and Emergency Management at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety."

The Tournament of Roses also released a statement Thursday in which officials said Zamparini will be honored as Grand Marshal at the 2015 parade.

"Louis Zamperini was and will continue to be the embodiment of the 2015 Tournament of Roses theme 'Inspiring Stories,'" Tournament of Roses President Richard L. Chinen said in a statement. "As we mourn the passing of a member of the Tournament of Roses family, one who was moved to be asked to serve as Grand Marshal, we are honored to shine the light on one who truly lived a life of unconditional love, courageous perseverance and patient endurance. He shared with us that his faith in God was his inspiration to be content in plenty and in want. At this time, we pray that Louis' family and friends may find strength knowing that that the story of Louis' journey will inspire the world."

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