Famed Olympian, World War II veteran and lifelong Trojan, USC alumnus Louis Zamperini, ’40, died Wednesday in Los Angeles after a battle with pneumonia. He was 97.
“After a 40-day 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,” Zamperini’s family said in a statement to USA TODAY. “His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”
Zamperini was recently 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 time at USC and beyond.
“Life is full of problems,” Zamperini said students on March 13, 2013 in Bovard Auditorium. “Sometimes the problems are difficult, but you have to be resolute.”
Long before he spoke to current USC students, 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 8th place finish. Following his time at 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.
“Every morning I woke up and expected that this was the day,” Zamperini said of his POW 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. Looking back, 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 is survived by his son, Luke, and his daughter, Cynthia Garris.