On this day in 1943, a B-24 carrying U.S. airman and former Olympic runner Louis “Louie” Zamperini crashes into the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps. His story of survival was featured in the 2010 best-selling book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.
Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, where he was frequently in trouble with the law. As a teen, he channeled his energy into athletics and became a champion distance runner. At age 19, Zamperini competed for the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. He ran the 5,000-meter race and finished in eighth place; however, his fast final lap caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who later asked to shake Zamperini’s hand. After the Olympics, he was a record-setting standout on the University of Southern California’s track team.
In the fall of 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was eventually stationed in Hawaii. In May 1943, he was serving as the bombardier on a B-24 that was searching for a missing plane when his own aircraft developed mechanical problems and went down in the Pacific. Of the 11 people onboard, only the 26-year-old Zamperini, along with the pilot and the tail gunner survived the initial crash. The three men stayed alive in their small raft by drinking rainwater and eating the occasional seabirds and fish they were able to catch, all while facing strafing from Japanese bombers and the ever-present threat of shark attacks. After a month at sea, Francis McNamara, the tail gunner, perished. On their 47th day in the raft, Zamperini and fellow survivor Russell Allen Phillips, having drifted some 2,000 miles since the crash, were picked up by Japanese sailors.
For more than two years, the two men were held in a series of prison camps, where they were repeatedly beaten and starved. As an ex-Olympian, Zamperini was considered a propaganda tool by the Japanese and saved from execution; at the same time, however, he was singled out for particularly vicious forms of torture. The defiant American managed to survive and was released after the war ended in 1945.
Back home in California, Zamperini drank heavily and was haunted by his experiences in captivity. Then, after being inspired by evangelist Billy Graham to convert to Christianity in 1949, Zamperini went on to become an inspirational speaker, forgive his captors and publish an autobiography, Devil at my Heels. A wider audience learned about his life with the publication of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the 2001 best-seller Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about the Depression-era champion racehorse.
Zamperini died in July 2014, in Los Angeles. He was 97.