Skip to content

Louis Zamperini, Olympic track star and war hero, dies at age 97

Jul 3, 2014, 11:23 AM EDT

Louis Zamperini AP

Louis Zamperini, a 1936 United States Olympian and WWII prisoner of war, passed away Wednesday at age 97.

Zamperini was the subject of the bestselling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by “Seabiscut” author Laura Hillenbrand.

A film adaptation, directed by Angelina Jolie and adapted by the Coen brothers, is set to be released on Christmas Day 2014.

In a statement released by Universal Pictures, Zamperini’s family said:

Having overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life, Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini has never broken down from a challenge. He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of pneumonia.

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.

A world-class distance runner by the age of 19, Zamperini was the youngest member of the U.S. track team at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. He finished eighth, the best American finish, in the 5000-meter race.

Despite not earning a medal, his performance was so impressive that Adolf Hitler requested a one-on-one meeting.

The 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled due to World War II, and in 1941 Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

After his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, Zamperini and two crewmates spent 47 days on an inflatable raft before being captured by Japanese soldiers. He was held for two and a half years, suffered frequent beatings and torture, and was believed killed in action until his release at the end of WWII in 1945.

Zamperini stayed involved in the Olympic movement for the rest of his life. At age 81 he ran a leg in the Olympic torch relay for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, in 2005 he visited the Berlin Olympic stadium for the first time since competing there nearly 70 years earlier.

Latest Posts
  1. U.S. 400m runner Torrin Lawrence dies in car accident

    Jul 28, 2014, 10:19 AM EDT

    Torrin Lawrence Getty Images

    Lawrence won gold on the U.S. 4x400m relay team at the 2014 IAAF World Relays.

  2. Brazil’s Olympic coach wants Neymar to play at Rio 2016

    Jul 28, 2014, 9:32 AM EDT

    Brazil's forward Neymar (L) is challenge Getty Images

    Neymar played in 2012, but there’s a new obstacle that could keep him out of 2016.

  3. U.S. teams sweep World Series of Beach Volleyball (video)

    Jul 27, 2014, 6:46 PM EDT

    Kerri Walsh Jennings AP

    Kerri Walsh Jennings notched a milestone victory.

  4. UPDATE: Noelle Pikus-Pace’s brother and his children found in Idaho

    Jul 27, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    Jared Pikus

    Search and rescue crews were on the lookout for Jared Pikus and his three children.

  5. WATCH LIVE: World Series of Beach Volleyball

    Jul 27, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

    Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross Getty Images

    Kerri Walsh Jennings can hit another career milestone.

  6. Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross make WSOBV final

    Jul 26, 2014, 5:24 PM EDT

    Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross Getty Images

    U.S. Olympic medalists will face Spanish or Brazilian pair Sunday on NBC.

  7. WATCH LIVE: World Series of Beach Vollyeball

    Jul 26, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    Kerri Walsh Jennings Getty Images

    Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings in biggest tournament of 2014 in U.S.

  8. Usain Bolt arrives in Glasgow, says he’s injury free

    Jul 26, 2014, 10:17 AM EDT

    Usain Bolt Reuters

    Bolt will make a rare appearance in the heats of a 4x100m relay at Commonwealth Games.

  9. Henry Cejudo, Olympic champion wrestler, signs with UFC

    Jul 26, 2014, 9:02 AM EDT

    Henry Cejudo Reuters

    Beijing gold medalist slated for first bout in August.

  10. Runner with age discrepancy withdrawn from World Junior Championships

    Jul 25, 2014, 3:47 PM EDT

    IAAF World Junior Championships Getty Images

    Bahrain runner listed with 1996 birthday may have been born in 1990.

  11. Skateboarding to be showcased aside Youth Olympics

    Jul 25, 2014, 2:24 PM EDT

    Skateboarding Getty Images

    A step forward as skateboarding seeks Olympic inclusion.

  12. Bradley Wiggins probably done with Tour de France

    Jul 25, 2014, 11:36 AM EDT

    Bradley Wiggins Getty Images

    Brit can make Olympic history on the track in 2016.

  13. Mary Cain wins World Junior Championships 3000m (video)

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:07 AM EDT

    Mary Cain Getty Images

    Cain emerged from being boxed in to beat Kenyans.

  14. Australian women break 4x100m free relay world record

    Jul 24, 2014, 4:57 PM EDT

    Cate Campbell Getty Images

    How it impacts the U.S. and potential Olympic history for Missy Franklin.

  15. Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross clicking ahead of World Series of Beach Volleyball

    Jul 24, 2014, 2:22 PM EDT

    Kerri Walsh Getty Images

    U.S. pair is top seed at biggest tournament in the U.S. this year.

  16. Mo Farah withdraws from Commonwealth Games

    Jul 24, 2014, 11:25 AM EDT

    Mo Farah AP

    Lingering illness keeps Olympic, World champion from competing.

  17. Queen photobombs Commonwealth Games athlete selfie

    Jul 24, 2014, 10:35 AM EDT

    Jayde Taylor

    Australian field hockey player’s photo goes viral.

  18. Japan’s prime minister wants to hold Robot Olympics in 2020

    Jul 23, 2014, 4:12 PM EDT

    Mideast Iran RoboCup AP

    Hopes to create a “robotic revolution.”