Louis Zamperini, 1936 Olympian, World War II POW, dies at 97

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Louis Zamperini at a news conference,Friday May 9, 2014 in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Louis Zamperini at a news conference,Friday May 9, 2014 in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Funeral plans were pending today for Louis Zamperini, a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track and field team who survived repeated torture for two years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II.

Zamperini, about whom a film will be released on Christmas Day, died Thursday from pneumonia at the age of 97.

“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,” his family said in a statement released by Universal Pictures, which will release a movie on Zamperini’s life, “Unbroken.”

Angelina Jolie, who directed “Unbroken,” called Zamperini’s death “a loss impossible to describe.”

“We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him,” she said.

In May, Zamperini was selected to be grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade.

Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Zamperini moved to Torrance in 1919 and became a world-class distance runner by the time he graduated from Torrance High School, setting a world interscholastic record in the mile. His track skills won him a scholarship to USC.

At age 19, Zamperini qualified to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing eighth in the 5,000 meters, finishing the final lap in 56 seconds and causing Adolf Hitler to request a personal meeting with him.

During World War II, Zamperini became a bombardier and served in the South Pacific.

While on a reconnaissance mission, Zamperini’s aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He and a surviving crewmate spent 47 days adrift on an inflatable raft before being captured by Japanese soldiers when they reached the Marshall Islands.

He was a POW for more than two years, during which time he was frequently beaten and tortured by his captors. He returned to Southern California to a hero’s welcome.

Suffering from post traumatic disorder, Zamperini found solace in 1949 when he became a born-again Christian after attending a Los Angeles crusade led by evangelist Billy Graham. He eventually became an inspirational speaker preaching the power of forgiveness.

He practiced what he preached in 1950, when he went to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, where Japanese war criminals were being held, and met with some of his torturers to offer them forgiveness.

At age 81, Zamperini — a five-time Olympic torch-bearer — ran a leg in the torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano. During his visit, he attempted to meet with his most brutal wartime tormentor, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but Watanabe, who escaped prosecution as a war criminal, refused to see him.

In 2005, Zamperini returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there in 1936.

Zamperini has been inducted into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. Torrance High School’s football, soccer and track stadium is named after him, as is the Torrance airport.

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