War Hero Zamperini Lived ‘Unimaginable Drama’

LOS ANGELES (AP) -
Louis Zamperini during a news conference, in Pasadena, Calif. , May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
Louis Zamperini during a news conference, in Pasadena, Calif. , May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

Seventy years ago, the world was convinced that Louis Zamperini was dead. There had been no word of the former Olympian since his World War II bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The military told his parents he was dead, and an annual collegiate track competition named one of its races in his memory.

But Zamperini was alive, and very much so. After surviving 47 days in a life raft in shark-infested waters and enduring two years as a Japanese prisoner of war, Zamperini was liberated in time to attend the second running of the invitational mile that had been named in his memory. It was a story fitting for a man who lived a life on the edge of endurance, an ordinary man who did extraordinary things — all while sustained by a hope and strength that at times seemed superhuman.

Zamperini, a war hero, Olympian and the subject of a celebrated book on his harrowing story of survival against all odds, died after a long battle with pneumonia, his family said Thursday in a statement. He was 97.

Zamperini outlived almost all of those who watched him weave his way through his remarkable life, but the outpouring from those who came to know and love the man in his later years was as immediate and intense as the life he lived.