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Louis Zamperini: ‘Unbroken’ WWII POW survivor dies at 97 but legacy lives on

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Seventy years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Louis Zamperini’s parents a formal condolence note in 1944. What no one knew was this determined man was being held in a Japanese prison camp. His life became the subject of Lauren Hillenbrand’s NY Times best seller “Unbroken: A World War II story of survival.”

On July 2 Louis Zamperini died surrounded by his family after a 40-day battle with pneumonia and just two months after he had been selected to be the grand marshal for the 2015 Rose Parade.

“His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days,” family members said in a statement released by Universal Pictures. They added that he “left behind a legacy that touched so many lives.” It was that story that Hillenbrand captured in her book.

Born in Torrance, California to a poor family Zamperini was a puny child regularly beaten by the neighborhood bullies. His early resilience was the energy he later tapped into during his surrealist life as a World War II prisoner of war. He learned to run to avoid getting caught after stealing food or other items. By the time he entered high school, he was one of the tough kids, getting poor grades and not very motivated.

His brother suggested track. Louis hated it but he like the applause and attention. He lost his first race, to girls, but soon increased his speed and then no one could beat him. In 1933, Louis won the UCLA cross country race, beating the opposition by a quarter of a mile and breaking course record. By 1934 he was a two-time NCAA champion at USC and could run the mile in 4.21.3 minutes. He set his next goal for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where he hoped to be the first to break a four-minute mile.

At the Berlin Olympics, he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter run and afterward shook hands with Adolf Hitler, who called him the "boy with the fast finish."

When WWII began he joined the war effort which proved to be his hardest trial yet. His plane was shot down and he spent 49 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean off Japan. His many interviews with Hillenbrand revealed the horror of those days – starving, thirsty and fighting off sharks and attacks by Japanese planes.

"We were in constant, horrible fear," Zamperini told The Times in 2002. "Sometimes [a shark] would put its head right up on the raft and look at us. We'd whack them on the nose with the paddles."

The Discovery Channel has announced that it will be repeating the documentary “Adrift: 47 Days with Sharks” which first aired in 2012 to again honor this World War II veteran. It will air at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 6.

After drifting 2,000 miles the raft ended up on an island where Zamperini became a Japanese prisoner of war. He was tortured by their best and resisted, unwilling to give his tormentor the satisfaction of an outcry or to see tears.

Zamperini came home a broken man. He turned to alcohol to quash the memories until his wife persuaded him to see evangelist Billy Graham preach in 1949. That was the beginning of his battle to regain his life, faith and courage which was also hauntingly-captured in “Unbroken” by Hillenbrand.

This courageous vet started sharing his story with church groups. In 1950, he returned to Japan and offered his forgiveness to his former captors, many of whom were imprisoned as war criminals. He also regained a connection to the Olympics. Again fit and athletic, Zamperini carried the Olympic torch for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles and for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, near one of the camps where he was tortured.

"I figure the war took 10 years off my life," Zamperini told The Times in 2002. "I decided to get those 10 years back."

When the Tournament of Roses released the theme and name of the grand marshal for the 2015 parade the May 9 news release said, “The theme of the 2015 Rose Parade is ‘Inspiring Stories,’ which Zamperini’s life illustrates in many ways." On July 3 the organization announced that despite his death it was committing to honor Zamperini as the grand marshal of the 2015 parade. It added that no other grand marshal will be selected.

“We will remember and honor the courage and grace that made Louis who he was, and hope that by sharing his life’s story, we can uphold the values which built his strength, perseverance and his ability to forgive others. Louis’ life serves as an inspiration to us all,” the statement read.

Our WWII vets saw horrors that some have yet to speak of and for this generation only exist in history books. Louis Zamperini had the courage to go back to a time most men of his age struggle to forget. It is a subject that should be remembered this Fourth of July, a celebration of our love of country and permitted by the bravery of those who fought for our freedom since 1776.

Laura Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” is captivating, humbling and makes you marvel at the strength of the human spirit. A movie adaptation by Angelina Jolie is set to be released in December by Universal Pictures.

“Confronting challenges that would cause most of us to surrender, Louie always persevered and always prevailed, and he spent the better part of his lifetime sharing the message that you could do the same,” a statement from Universal Pictures read. “His example of grace, dignity and resilience inspired all of us lucky enough to know him and the millions who got to know him from the pages of Laura’s book.”

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