Louis Zamperini remembered as Trojan, Olympian, war hero

The Trojan Family mourned the loss of famed Olympian, World War II veteran and USC alumnus Louis Zamperini, ‘40, on July 2 in Los Angeles after his battle with pneumonia. He was 97.

Unbroken · Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete, World War II hero and USC Trojan speaks to students at a campus visit in March 2013. - Daily Trojan File Photo

Unbroken · Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete, World War II hero and USC Trojan speaks to students at a campus visit in March 2013. – Daily Trojan File Photo

“He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of pneumonia,” Zamperini’s family said in a statement. “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.”

Zamperini is the focus of Angelina Jolie’s upcoming film, Unbroken, which chronicles the life of the former Olympian during his performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as well as his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II. The film, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s award-winning biography “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” is set to hit theaters in December.

Long before Zamperini was a war hero, however, he was a Trojan. A year ago, Zamperini returned to his alma mater as part of the “5 Traits of a Trojan” speaker series, in which he spoke about the power of resilience throughout his life.

“Life is full of problems,” Zamperini said to students on March 13, 2013 in Bovard Auditorium. “Sometimes the problems are difficult, but you have to be resolute.”

Born in Torrance, California, Zamperini made his mark on campus in the 1930s as an athlete, competing in the 5,000 meter run. His track career ultimately led him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he made his notable eighth place finish.

“Louis Zamperini was one of the greatest Trojans of all time, as well as a true American hero,” Athletic Director Pat Haden said in a statement. “He was the embodiment of the USC motto, ‘Fight On.’ All of us in the Trojan Family have a deep appreciation for what he did for USC and for our country, and we mourn the passing of this American legend, this national treasure.”

After graduating from USC, he went on to serve in the United States Army Air Corps. On May 27, 1944,  Zamperini served as a bombardier in a rescue mission that would ultimately end in a crash landing into the Japanese-controlled waters of the Pacific Ocean. The crash left both him and his fellow crew members stranded at sea for 47 days. Zamperini was eventually captured and served nearly two and a half years as a Japanese prisoner of war. He was mistakenly declared dead by the U.S. military and his parents received his death certificate a year after his plane went down.

“Every morning I woke up and expected that this was the day,” Zamperini said of his P.O.W. experience. “This is the day they’re going to kill us.”

Zamperini’s service earned him numerous national accolades, including three Purple Hearts and a Prisoner of War Medal. Zamperini said he was able to survive the war by recounting the lessons of his former track coach.

“You have to take the bull by the horns and fight ‘til the finish,” Zamperini said.

Zamperini will be honored as the grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade.

Zamperini is survived by his son, Luke, and his daughter, Cynthia Garris.