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OBIT: Louis Zamperini, South Bay Native, Olympian and War Hero

He was named the grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade.

Louis Zamperini. Patch file photo.
Louis Zamperini. Patch file photo.

Originally posted at 11:48 p.m. July 2, 2014. Edited with new details.

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, has died from pneumonia at the age of 97, his family announced tonight.

"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."

Angelina Jolie, who directed "Unbroken," 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.

The 97-year-old's life story inspired the best-selling book and upcoming movie "Unbroken." His military record includes surviving 47 days on a raft after the bomber he was on crashed in the Pacific, then enduring repeated torture for two years as a POW.

Zamperini grew up in Torrance, lived in Los Angeles and made numerous speaking engagements across Patch towns in Southern California

Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Zamperini moved to the South Bay in 1919 and became a world-class distance runner by the time he graduated from Torrance High School, setting a world interscholastic record in the mile.

His track skills won him a scholarship to USC, where he was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity.

At age 19, Zamperini qualified to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he was America's top finisher in the 5,000-meter run, finishing the final lap in 56 seconds and causing Adolf Hitler to request a personal meeting with him.

During World War II, Zamperini became a bombardier and served in the South Pacific.

While on a reconnaissance mission, Zamperini's aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean. 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.

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

Zamperini returned to Southern California to a hero's welcome.

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.

Zamperini was inducted into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. Torrance High School's home football, soccer and track facility is named after him.

--City News Service


Tony Czuleger July 03, 2014 at 11:04 AM
As well as Torrance Airport is now in his Name.
Michael Loox July 03, 2014 at 11:26 AM
Louis Zamperini has made my list of persons I want to meet when I die. What an incredible life and spirit. I learned more about him this morning after reading of his passing and do not remember a time when I was moved to such immediate respect and awe all at the same time. The video of him running the Olympic torch in Japan is inspiring on so many levels- A true American hero and a person you want to teach your children about. Extraordinary life....
Kaye Thomas July 03, 2014 at 11:39 AM
What a life.. truly an amazing man!
Debbie Sampson July 03, 2014 at 12:47 PM
RIP Louis Zamperini His book was an amazing read of courage,strength and endurance, pleased to hear that his book will soon be a film. Condolences to his family.
Psychic One July 04, 2014 at 05:47 AM
Truly an American hero. My husband is from Torrance born and raised and I'm from Manhattan Beach and we remember this wonderful man. Such a wonderful, loving, funny man and such a character he was!! Ha! So sorry he didn't live long enough to be seated as the Grand Marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade but I'm sure he will be there in spirit. You will be missed Louis by many! And by Angelina Jolie too! Hehe! RIP wonderful loving man!!!!!!

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