1. He was a juvenile delinquent.
Born in January 1917 to Italian immigrant parents, Zamperini spent his youth as one of Torrance, California’s most notorious troublemakers. A smoker at age 5 and a drinker by 8, he built an adolescent criminal empire based around stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down from neighbors and local businesses.
Zamperini blackened the eyes of any kids that dared challenge him, deflated a teacher’s car tires after she disciplined him and once even lobbed tomatoes at a cop. Family members were convinced he was headed for prison or the streets, but he finally abandoned his life of petty crime in high school, when a group of girls charmed him into joining the school’s track team. Encouraged by his older brother, Pete, he soon became one of southern California’s top athletes, and achieved a national high school record after blazing through a mile run in only 4 minutes, 21 seconds.
2. He met Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics.
After graduating high school, Zamperini set his sights on competing in the 1936 Olympic games. Switching from his preferred 1,500 meters to the 5,000 meters, the “Torrance Tornado” made a good showing at the U.S. trials and became the youngest distance runner to ever make the Olympic team. At age 19 he was still too inexperienced to mount a challenge for gold, but during a Berlin Olympiad held in the shadow of the burgeoning Nazi empire, he finished eighth in his race and won over the crowd by laying down one of the fastest final laps in the history of the event.
Among the impressed spectators was none other than Adolf Hitler, who shook Zamperini’s hand from his box and said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.” Despite winning congratulations from the German “Fuhrer,” Zamperini wasn’t above getting into trouble during the Olympics. Before leaving Berlin, he was nearly shot while trying to swipe a Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery as a souvenir.
3. He was a leading candidate to break the 4-minute barrier in the mile run.
Following his strong showing at the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini shattered collegiate records at the University of Southern California and became one its most celebrated student athletes. At the time, a sub-4-minute mile was considered a near-impossible feat, but as Zamperini’s profile grew, many began to whisper that he might be the man to pull it off. Former world record holder Glenn Cunningham tapped him to be “the next mile champion” in 1938, and Zamperini responded by going undefeated during his 1939 track season. He planned on gunning for gold and a potential miracle mile at the 1940 Olympics, but the contest was called off after the start of World War II. With his Olympic dream temporarily dashed, Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941.
4. He cheated death several times while serving as a B-24 bombardier.
During World War II, Zamperini served as a B-24 Liberator bombardier in the Army Air Corps’ 372nd Bomb Squadron. From his perch in the nose of a craft nicknamed “Super Man,” he flew several missions including a famous December 1942 air raid on Wake Island, after which his plane nearly ran out of fuel before limping back to Midway Atoll.
During a subsequent bombing run over the tiny island of Nauru, Japanese Zero fighter planes attacked Zamperini’s B-24, seriously wounding several crewmen and killing one. Leaking hydraulic fluid, the shredded B-24 only narrowly avoided disaster during an emergency landing at the island of Funafuti. Zamperini and his crewmates later learned that their plane had been riddled with nearly 600 holes from enemy gunfire and shrapnel.
5. He spent 47 days lost at sea.
On May 27, 1943, Zamperini and his crew were participating in a search and rescue mission over the Pacific when their plane suddenly lost power to two of its engines and careened into the sea. Only three of the ship’s 11 crewmen survived: Zamperini, pilot Russell Allen Phillips and tail gunner Francis McNamara. Adrift on a pair of life rafts with only meager provisions, the trio spent the next several weeks braving blistering heat, hunger, dehydration and circling packs of sharks.
On one occasion, machine gunners from a passing Japanese bomber strafed the airmen, deflating one of their rafts and leaving the other on the verge of ruin. Zamperini and his fellow castaways survived on rainwater and the occasional captured bird or fish, but all soon saw their weight drop below 100 pounds, and McNamara perished after 33 days at sea. Zamperini and Phillips remained adrift for another two weeks before being captured by the Japanese Navy near the Marshall Islands. By then, the men had drifted an astonishing 2,000 miles.
6. He endured daily torment as a prisoner of war.
After being held for some six weeks on the island of Kwajalein, Zamperini was shipped to the Japanese mainland and eventually confined to three different interrogation centers and POW camps. Over the next two years, he suffered from disease, exposure, starvation, and near-daily beatings from guards. Japanese corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird” by the POWs, took particular glee in torturing the runner.
During stints at the Omori and Naoetsu prison camps, Mutsuhiro pummeled Zamperini with clubs, belts and fists and regularly threatened to kill him. On one occasion, he had Zamperini hold a heavy wooden beam above his head and threatened to shoot him if he dropped it; on another, he forced Zamperini and other American prisoners to punch each other until they were nearly all knocked unconscious. Speaking of Mutsuhiro, Zamperini would later say he kept a watch out for him “like I was looking for a lion loose in the jungle.”
7. The Japanese tried to use him as a propaganda tool.
Zamperini’s reputation as a former Olympian saved him from execution at the hands of the Japanese, but it also saw him singled out for special punishment. Guards at the Ofuna interrogation center forced a weak and starved Zamperini to run foot races against Japanese competitors and then beat him with clubs when he had the nerve to win.
Later, Japanese officials at Radio Tokyo hauled him into their studio and tried to persuade him to read propaganda messages over the air. Zamperini had been given up for dead back home, and the Japanese hoped to use him as a tool to lower American morale and paint the U.S. government as being incompetent. Zamperini agreed to read a message telling his parents he was alive, but despite warnings that he would be condemned to a punishment camp, he refused to cooperate any further.
8. He reunited with his former captors after the war.
Zamperini and his fellow POWs were liberated following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, but his wartime experiences would continue to haunt him. His years of malnourishment and torture left him unable to resume his career as a runner, and he became dependent on alcohol to stave off nightmares and flashbacks. Zamperini later claimed he was saved from his posttraumatic stress after witnessing a sermon by the evangelical preacher Billy Graham in 1949. He went on to discuss his conversion to Christianity on nationwide speaking tours and started a wilderness camp for troubled youths.
In 1950, Zamperini returned to Japan for the first time since his liberation to address the Japanese war criminals held at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo. While there, he shook hands and embraced many of his old camp guards. Mutsuhiro Watanabe had avoided capture, but Zamperini later wrote a letter forgiving his former tormenter and even unsuccessfully tried to meet with him while in Japan for the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano.