Zamperini was just inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame on May 20 for his service during WWII, his accomplishments as an Olympic track star, and his career as a motivational speaker. Allegedly, Zamperini had pneumonia and his health faded fast.
“Our nation lost a great World War II veteran and Olympian,” said State Senator Catharine Young, “a hero who was born in Olean, NY. I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of U.S. Army Air Forces Captain Louis Zamperini.”
Zamperini qualified for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in time for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, tying with the American record holder for the 5,000 meter event at the Olympic trials. A the time, he was the youngest ever American qualifier in the 5,000 meters, and in 1938 he set an impressive national collegiate mile record of 4 minutes and 8 seconds, which stood for 15 years. In Berlin, he finished 8th in the 5,000 meters. As Zamperini allegedly told it, he put on such speed at the end of the race that Adolf Hitler himself requested a personal meeting and handshake.
Zamperini enlisted with the Army Air Force at the age of 24, trained as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator, and was deployed to the Pacific theater. Within two years, his plane crashed into the ocean on a search mission for a missing aircraft. Of 11 men on board the bomber, only Zamperini and one other, Russel Philips, survived to be captured by the Japanese Navy. They had floated at sea for 47 days.
Zamperini and Philips endured routine beatings and abuse until their release in 1945, as part of the Japanese surrender. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, a year after being declared Killed in Action by the United States military.
Zamperini became a highly accomplished inspirational speaker after the war to spread his story of perseverance and fortitude. He continued to tour the United States and speak, especially on forgiveness, into his latest years. In 1998, on his 81st birthday, Zamperini ran part of the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, as a gesture of forgiveness to his captors.
Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), wrote a popular biography of Zamperini’s life and hardships. The book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) was a #1 New York Times bestseller.
For more on Louis Zamperini and his story, check out the Sun article below about his induction into the Veterans Hall of Fame.