Rest in Piece Louis Zamperini: ‘Unbroken’ WWII POW and Survivor of 47 Days Adrift Dies at 97

by Owen James Burke

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Capt. Louis Zamperini, right, and Capt. Fred Garret at Hamilton Field, CA, after being released from a Japanese POW camp in 1945 (Photo: PCS/AP)

The 97-year-old former Olympic runner, WWII veteran, plane crash and POW survivor died at home in Hollywood, California on Wednesday, January 2nd of pneumonia. His death was mistakenly announced once before by the US government, which declared that he was killed in action during World War II after his B-24 malfunctioned and crashed into the ocean 850 miles west of Oahu.

Only three of the eleven men who were aboard the plane (which was known among pilots as a “lemon plane”) survived and boarded a life raft. Along with Zamperini were Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips and Francis “Mac” McNamara. With little food and absolutely no water, they drifted along gathering rain water when they could and eating small raw fish. They also caught two albatrosses, which they used for bait.

All the while, storms threatened to capsize their raft as they were forced to fend off sharks. To make matters even worse, a Japanese bomber discovered them and opened fire multiple times, puncturing their life raft. Fortunately, no one was wounded.

McNamara died after 33 days at sea, just two weeks before Zamperini and Philips made land in the Marshall Islands, though they were still far from safe. In fact, they were out of the kettle and into the fire. They had landed on enemy grounds, and were taken to the prisoner-of-war camp Ōfuna, where they were badly abused and beaten until the end of the war in August, 1945.

Spirits were low, imaginably, but it was noted by several prisoners that Zamperini did what he could to lift morale. For one thing, the Italian-American wrote out food recipes to distract his comrades from the dreary reality of their oppression.

In the meantime, Zamperini had been declared missing at sea and then killed in action, a year and one day after his disappearance.

When he returned home, he received a hero’s welcome, and shortly thereafter in 1946 married Cynthia Applewhite, who was his wife for 55 years until her death in 2001.

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Zamperini authored two memoirs about his World War II exploits: Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II, and another by the same title, subtitled A World War II Hero’s Epic Saga of Torment, Survival and Forgiveness.

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Zamperini with Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken (Photo: Laura Hillenbrand)

He was also the subject of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit), which is to be portrayed on film and directed by Angelina Jolie, and scheduled to be released in December.

Louis Zamperini died peacefully in his sleep at home in Hollywood, California, surrounded by loved ones.

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