Louis Zamperini, 94, at his Hollywood home. The flame still burns in him as he holds the olympic torch he carried at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Louis Zamperini, 94, at his Hollywood home. The flame still burns in him as he holds the olympic torch he carried at the 1984 Olympic Games. (Photo by Brad Graverson 11-7-10)

Torrance icon Louis Zamperini, the Olympic speedster and World War II hero whose personal story of sacrifice and resilience resonated worldwide, died Thursday, just months before the release of a long-awaited movie of his life and his scheduled appearance as grand marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. He was 97.

Zamperini's death was confirmed by Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. A family statement released early Thursday said Zamperini had been suffering from 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,” the family statement said. “His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”

Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto said he has ordered all flags in the city to be flown at half-staff for the next week in honor of the city's most notable celebrity.

“Torrance is going to mourn the passing of Louis,” he said, adding that Zamperini had been bedridden for the last few weeks. “We all knew he was getting frail, we were just hoping he would last a little bit longer.

“Being 97 years old, he really made it a long time, but we were hoping he would make it past the release of his movie and be the grand marshal of the Rose Parade,” Scotto added. “His experiences during World War II are storybook material and I hope more people will read his book now.”

Details about memorial services are pending.

Zamperini was the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” which is being made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and is scheduled for a Dec. 25 release.

Hillenbrand could not immediately be reached for comment but posted this on her Facebook page:

“He died peacefully in his sleep last night, surrounded by his loved ones. He lived ninety-seven beautiful, extraordinary years. Louie was my beloved friend, my surrogate grandfather, a man who threw laughter and light across my dark days, my hero, my steadying hand. ... Farewell to the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew. Thank you, Louie, for all you gave to me, to our country, and to the world.

“I will never forget our last, laughing talk, your singsong ‘I love you! I love you!' and the words you whispered to me when you last hugged me goodbye, words that left me in happy tears, words that I will remember forever. I will love you and miss you to the end of my days. Godspeed, sweet Louie.”

Interviewed by the Los Angeles News Group in January 2013, Hillenbrand said: “He laughingly says, ‘It better not take too long to make the movie.' ”

When Zamperini was named as grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in May, Jolie said: “He's just one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met.”

Zamperini was an Olympic runner out of USC and war hero known as the “Torrance Tornado.” His harrowing World War II story of capture, endurance and personal redemption became a New York Times best-seller.

Hillenbrand's 2010 biography brought Zamperini's locally famous story of grueling humiliation, torture and survival in a brutal Japanese prisoner of war camp to a new audience.

“It not only reminded me (of prison), it put me back in prison,” he told the Los Angeles News Group in 2010. “It's just like I was there again.”

The film project had been in development limbo for years before Hillenbrand's book took the world by storm, finally moving it forward.

“It's going to take a couple of geniuses to sort it all out,” Zamperini told the Los Angeles News Group in January 2013 for a story about the film. “I'm pretty old, and I've had a life that's unbelievable.”

British actor Jack O'Connell is starring in the leading role. Filming, done on location in Australia, has been largely finished and the project is now in post-production editing.

Originally, Tony Curtis was slated to play him in 1956 after Zamperini sold the rights to his autobiography “Devil at My Heels.”

Among those who never gave up on the idea of a film about Zamperini was producer Matthew Baer, who had advocated for the project for several years before Hillenbrand's “Unbroken” was published.

“It was absolutely one of the highlights of my life to be able to tell Lou Zamperini that his life story was finally coming to the screen,” Baer said in a 2013 interview.

When Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling “Seabiscuit,” first approached Zamperini about writing her book, he told her, “You're just spinning your wheels. But she said, ‘I've got to do it.' ”

What followed were more than 75 telephone calls between the two.

“The interviews were very long, sometimes we'd be on the phone for three hours,” Hillenbrand told the Los Angeles News Group in 2013. “He was so patient with me. He was just a dream subject.”

She pored over newspaper accounts, interviewed eyewitnesses and painstakingly reviewed Zamperini's diaries, letters and other memorabilia.

Hillenbrand and Zamperini met in person only after the book was written but became fast friends, talking frequently by phone.

“He was very, very honest,” Hillenbrand said. “Some of the articles that had been written about him had exaggerations or outright falsehoods, and he was always quick to point those out to me.”

Exaggerations were hardly needed.

Zamperini's story encompassed the sweep of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 47 days adrift in the Pacific evading sharks and the jarring brutality of two years in a Japanese POW camp. His story plumbed the depths of one man's courage, despair and range, soaring ultimately into a vision of good overcoming evil.

He returned from the war a haunted man, filled with bitterness and rage, his once promising running career over. Suffering from what today would be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, Zamperini took to heavy drinking.

Then everything changed.

After attending a 1949 Billy Graham revival tent meeting on the streets of Los Angeles at the insistence of his wife, Cynthia, Zamperini experienced a rebirth and Christian conversion that was to guide the rest of his days.

While once wanting to hunt down and kill his former POW camp captor, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, Zamperini instead wrote a letter of forgiveness to him.

Selling commercial real estate for a living after the war, Zamperini founded the Victory Boys Camp for troubled teens in 1952 and ran a seniors group at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood for more than two decades.

“After his Billy Graham conversion, he began to tell the story all the time, endlessly,” said his son, Luke, in an interview with the Los Angeles News Group in January 2013. “He's gone to universities all across the country. He's been to military bases; he speaks to anybody who wants to hear his story.”

Zamperini became a sought-after inspirational and motivational speaker known for his piercing blue eyes and quick wit. While his speaking schedule slowed in recent months, he was still traveling to out-of-state engagements as recently as a year ago and addressed a packed house on Feb. 3, 2013, during a breakfast at the Armstrong Theatre in Torrance sponsored by King's Harbor Church in Torrance.

Zamperini's vaunted athleticism continued to defy the passing years.

He skied until he was 91 and at 65 took up skateboarding, which he didn't give up until the age of 81. But he still jogged at 87.

Honors flowed, too.

Both Torrance airport and the stadium at Torrance High School were named after the man who carried the Olympic torch five times.

Considered one of USC's greatest athletes, the brick plaza outside the university track stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza in 2004.

“I was flabbergasted,” Zamperini said at the time. “I don't know (many) other athletes with a monument on campus.

“Of course,” he added in typically self-deprecating fashion, “people will be walking all over me now for the rest of my life.”

And a colorful, larger than life existence it was.

Zamperini was an Italian immigrant who spoke no English when his family moved from Olean, N.Y., to Torrance shortly after the community's 1912 founding; the home he grew up at 2028 Gramercy Ave. remains standing.

Teased mercilessly, Zamperini became the “worst kind of rebel,” by his own admission.

A smoker by the time he attended kindergarten, Zamperini and his friends stole, drank and hopped freight trains. His juvenile delinquency hardened Zamperini, prompting him to get in shape and beat up a bully who had picked on him, for instance.

“We knew who made beer and wine (during prohibition),” Zamperini recalled in 1993. “When they went to the movies, we'd break into the houses and steal it. … Even if they knew who did it, they couldn't do anything.”

In a subsequent interview, he added: “I was belligerent. I was always wanting to get even. Police were chasing me all over town.”

By the time he turned 15, Zamperini's parents were worried about their son's direction, so he was eventually convinced to channel that proclivity for outrunning cops into the more constructive athletic pursuit of middle distance running urged on by his older brother, Pete, who later became the track coach for decades at Banning High School.

As a Torrance High School sophomore in 1933, Zamperini set a course record in a two-mile cross-country race he won by a quarter mile. He was unbeaten for the next three years.

The next year, as a junior, Zamperini set a national high school record mile time of 4:21. It remained unbroken for two decades.

The 19-year-old miler was invited to the 1936 Olympic trials in New York, but opted to run in the 5,000 meters instead, figuring the distance gave him a better chance of success. He tied for first to make the Berlin Olympic team.

 

On the cruise to Europe, the Depression-era youngster was amazed he could eat and drink all he wanted while aboard. He gained 14 pounds on the trip over, which didn't do much for his chances.

“I ate myself out of a medal,” he said in 2000.

Yet Zamperini finished eighth out of a field of 41, producing a blistering 56-second final lap that caught the attention of Adolf Hitler himself, who summoned the athlete to his box seat.

“He reached down with his thin, little hands and gave me a flimsy handshake,” Zamperini remembered. “He said ‘the boy with the fast finish' and that was it.”

Two days later, Zamperini yanked a Nazi flag off a building. It remained in his possession for the rest of his life.

Earning a scholarship to USC, Zamperini won two NCAA championships as a miler and ran a mile time of 4:08 that remained a collegiate record for 15 years.

“I didn't even push it,” he acknowledged later. “I was so mad at myself afterwards. I could have run 4-flat.”

England's Roger Bannister wouldn't reach that vaunted landmark time until 15 years later.

Zamperini's Olympic dreams of 1940 and 1944 were destroyed by the outbreak of the war. After graduating from USC, Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps.

He was piloting a B-24 bomber in 1943 when the aircraft crashed into the ocean 800 miles south of Hawaii.

All but two of the 11 crew members died, while Zamperini and his co-pilot endured a horrific 47 days drifting 2,000 miles in a leaky life raft. The pair killed birds and fish with their bare hands to survive, once went seven days without water and were strafed by an enemy airplane.

Captured by the Japanese, the bone-thin Zamperini spent 2 1/2 years in a POW camp where he was singled out for horrific treatment by his captors.

He was declared legally dead, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Zamperini's death certificate on May 28, 1944. New York's Madison Square Garden held the “Zamperini Memorial Mile.”

Zamperini didn't die, but it was close. Upon his release from the labor camp, he weighed just 60 pounds.

He was interrogated by a former USC classmate, a Japanese national who headed a team of a half-dozen inquisitors.

“This guy was the most obnoxious of the six,” Zamperini recalled in 2011. “I couldn't believe he was a Trojan. … I finally came to this conclusion: He had to be a third-year transfer from UCLA.”

But the worst of Zamperini's tormentors was the Japanese Army sergeant, Watanabe, who set out to break the Olympian during the war. He used a leather belt with a steel buckle to beat Zamperini into unconsciousness 14 days in a row.

Watanabe was later declared a war criminal and was a fugitive for years before he died.

“Faith is more important than courage,” Zamperini would later say. “I think of myself as only one thing — a grateful survivor.”

While he moved to the Hollywood Hills and had lived there for years, Zamperini never forgot his Torrance roots. He often returned to the South Bay for appearances, speaking engagements and to see old friends.

“Louie's story is a lesson in the resilience of the soul and the wondrous breadth of possibility that life affords, even in our bleakest hours,” Hillenbrand told the Los Angeles News Group in a 2010 email. “We can overcome so much more than we realize; we need only look to Louie to be reassured of this.”

Zamperini was pre-deceased by his wife of 55 years, Cynthia, in 2001 as well as his brother, Pete.

He is survived by his son, Luke, and a daughter, Cynthia, both of the San Fernando Valley.



Tournament of Roses says they are 'committed to honoring' Louis Zamperini who was picked to be 2015 Grand Marshal

By Samantha Valtierra Bush, LA Daily News

PASADENA>>The Pasadena Tournament of Roses released a statement saying they are “committed to honoring” Louis Zamperini who has died at age 97 and was chosen in May to be 2015 Rose Parade Grand Marshal.

“Louis' life serves as an inspiration to us all, and we are committed to honoring him as the Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade,” the statement says.

It is unclear how the tournament plans to honor Zamperini or whether he will be replaced as Grand Marshal.

“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 the statement. “We are honored to shine the light on one who truly lived a life of unconditional love, courageous perseverance and patient endurance.”