Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner, World War II prisoner of war and the subject of an acclaimed biography by Laura Hillenbrand, has died at the age of 97.
Zamperini’s life was recounted in “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” and published in 2010.
He was a track star at USC, making the U.S. Olympic team at the 1936 Games in Berlin, where he shook hands with Hitler and later stole a Nazi flag from the German Reichschancellery.
Serving in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater, Zamperini survived 47 days adrift in a life raft after his bomber plane was shot down in May 1944. He was captured by the Japanese, enduring beatings and other mistreatment for more than a year until the war’s end.
Zamperini was adrift in other ways in the first years after the war, not unlike many World War II veterans. His marriage was threatened by his alcoholism, but hearing a sermon by Billy Graham changed his life. He had a long career in commercial real estate and wrote two memoirs before Hillenbrand penned her biography.
A Coen brothers film based on Hillenbrand’s book will be released in December, starring Jack O’Connell and Angelina Jolie, who is also the director.
Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Steve Oney talked to Hillenbrand after the release of “Unbroken” about how she came to do the book, as she talked about her battle with chronic fatigue syndrome that has left her largely homebound:
“I’m attracted to subjects who overcome tremendous suffering and learn to cope emotionally with it.”
Hillenbrand said Zamperini’s resilience came from his rebellious nature:
“As a boy he was a hell-raiser. He refused to be corralled. When someone pushed him he pushed back. That made him an impossible kid but an unbreakable man.”
Zamperini offered his own thanks to his biographer:
“Laura brought my war buddies back to life. The fact that Laura has suffered so much enabled her to put our suffering into words.”
Bringing the story to film has been something of an ordeal that others have experienced for decades, as Jolie found out.