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War hero, Olympian Zamperini dies at 97

  • FILE - In a May 20, 1939 file photo, Louis Zamperini of he University of Southern California, breaks the tape and record with a time of 4:16.3 to win the mile run in the Pacific Coast Conference Track and Field meet the University of Washington Stadium in Seattle. Leo Girard, of Stanford, left, was second and Cole, of California, second from left, was third. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  (AP Photo/Paul Wagner, File)

    FILE - In a May 20, 1939 file photo, Louis Zamperini of he University of Southern California, breaks the tape and record with a time of 4:16.3 to win the mile run in the Pacific Coast Conference Track and Field meet the University of Washington Stadium in Seattle. Leo Girard, of Stanford, left, was second and Cole, of California, second from left, was third. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/Paul Wagner, File)

  • This undated photo provided by Universal Pictures, Angelina Jolie is photographed with Louis Zamperini. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  Jolie is directing the Universal movie, "Unbroken," about the life of Zamperini. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

    This undated photo provided by Universal Pictures, Angelina Jolie is photographed with Louis Zamperini. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. Jolie is directing the Universal movie, "Unbroken," about the life of Zamperini. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

  • FILE - In a Oct. 3, 1945 file photo, Capt. Louis Zamperini (right), Torrence, Calif., former track star, who was adrift 47 days in Pacific after bombing mission against the Japanese and presumed dead, stands with his Pal, Capt. Fred Garrett, Riverside, Calif., upon  their arrival at Hamilton Field, Calif. Both were prisoners of war. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/PCS, File)

    FILE - In a Oct. 3, 1945 file photo, Capt. Louis Zamperini (right), Torrence, Calif., former track star, who was adrift 47 days in Pacific after bombing mission against the Japanese and presumed dead, stands with his Pal, Capt. Fred Garrett, Riverside, Calif., upon their arrival at Hamilton Field, Calif. Both were prisoners of war. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/PCS, File)

  • FILE - In a July 13, 1936 file photo, Don Lash of Indiana, left, Louis Zamperini of Los Angeles, center, and Thomas Deckard of Indiana, who will represent the United States in the Olympic Games in the 5,000 meter team, at the Olympic tryouts in New York. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - In a July 13, 1936 file photo, Don Lash of Indiana, left, Louis Zamperini of Los Angeles, center, and Thomas Deckard of Indiana, who will represent the United States in the Olympic Games in the 5,000 meter team, at the Olympic tryouts in New York. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo, File)

  • FILE - In this May 10, 2008 file photo provided by the National Ethnic Coalition, 91-year-old World War II veteran and member of the U.S. Olympic team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics Louis Zamperini, left, shares a moment with actor and founder of "Operation Iraqi Children" Gary Sinise before the start of the 2008 Ellis Island Medals of Honor ceremony on Ellis Island. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  (AP Photo/National Ethnic Coalition, Tina Fineberg, File)

    FILE - In this May 10, 2008 file photo provided by the National Ethnic Coalition, 91-year-old World War II veteran and member of the U.S. Olympic team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics Louis Zamperini, left, shares a moment with actor and founder of "Operation Iraqi Children" Gary Sinise before the start of the 2008 Ellis Island Medals of Honor ceremony on Ellis Island. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/National Ethnic Coalition, Tina Fineberg, File)

  • FILE - In a June 16, 2004 file photo, Louis Zamperini, 86, reacts to cheers from the crowd as he rides through the Dodger Stadium parking lot during the Olympic Torch Relay, in Los Angeles. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

    FILE - In a June 16, 2004 file photo, Louis Zamperini, 86, reacts to cheers from the crowd as he rides through the Dodger Stadium parking lot during the Olympic Torch Relay, in Los Angeles. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

  • AP FILE PHOTO<br/>In a May 9, 2014, file photo, Louis Zamperini gestures during a news conference, in Pasadena, Calif. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.

    AP FILE PHOTO
    In a May 9, 2014, file photo, Louis Zamperini gestures during a news conference, in Pasadena, Calif. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.

  • FILE - In a May 20, 1939 file photo, Louis Zamperini of he University of Southern California, breaks the tape and record with a time of 4:16.3 to win the mile run in the Pacific Coast Conference Track and Field meet the University of Washington Stadium in Seattle. Leo Girard, of Stanford, left, was second and Cole, of California, second from left, was third. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  (AP Photo/Paul Wagner, File)
  • This undated photo provided by Universal Pictures, Angelina Jolie is photographed with Louis Zamperini. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  Jolie is directing the Universal movie, "Unbroken," about the life of Zamperini. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)
  • FILE - In a Oct. 3, 1945 file photo, Capt. Louis Zamperini (right), Torrence, Calif., former track star, who was adrift 47 days in Pacific after bombing mission against the Japanese and presumed dead, stands with his Pal, Capt. Fred Garrett, Riverside, Calif., upon  their arrival at Hamilton Field, Calif. Both were prisoners of war. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/PCS, File)
  • FILE - In a July 13, 1936 file photo, Don Lash of Indiana, left, Louis Zamperini of Los Angeles, center, and Thomas Deckard of Indiana, who will represent the United States in the Olympic Games in the 5,000 meter team, at the Olympic tryouts in New York. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  (AP Photo, File)
  • FILE - In this May 10, 2008 file photo provided by the National Ethnic Coalition, 91-year-old World War II veteran and member of the U.S. Olympic team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics Louis Zamperini, left, shares a moment with actor and founder of "Operation Iraqi Children" Gary Sinise before the start of the 2008 Ellis Island Medals of Honor ceremony on Ellis Island. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.  (AP Photo/National Ethnic Coalition, Tina Fineberg, File)
  • FILE - In a June 16, 2004 file photo, Louis Zamperini, 86, reacts to cheers from the crowd as he rides through the Dodger Stadium parking lot during the Olympic Torch Relay, in Los Angeles. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday, July 2, 2014, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
  • AP FILE PHOTO<br/>In a May 9, 2014, file photo, Louis Zamperini gestures during a news conference, in Pasadena, Calif. Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, died Wednesday according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. He was 97.

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner and World War II veteran who survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after his bomber crashed, then endured two years in Japanese prison camps, has died. He was 97.

Zamperini’s death was confirmed by Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses. A family statement released early yesterday said Zamperini had been suffering from pneumonia.

He is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which is being made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and is scheduled for a December release by Universal.

“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,” the family statement said. “His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”

Jolie said the loss was “impossible to describe.”

“We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him,” she said in a statement. “We will miss him terribly.”

A high school and University of Southern California track star, Zamperini – known as the “Torrance Tornado” – competed in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished eighth but caught attention by running the final lap in 56 seconds.

In World War II, he was a bombardier on a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean during a reconnaissance mission. He and one of the other surviving crew members drifted for 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters before being captured by Japanese forces. He spent more than two years as a prisoner of war, surviving torture.

Zamperini became a born-again Christian in 1949 after attending a Los Angeles crusade led by evangelist Billy Graham. He eventually traveled as an inspirational speaker preaching the power of forgiveness.

At age 81, Zamperini – a five-time Olympic torch-bearer – ran a leg in the torch relay for the 1988 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 speeches all over the world, Zamperini never failed to mention his alma mater, said former USC track and field coach Ron Alice.

“He was the greatest ambassador the university ever had. At every appearance, at every speech, he always wore his USC hat,” Alice said. “He was the most gracious, humble, inspiring person you’d ever hope to meet. Just very, very special. And that’s why there’s going to be a movie of his life.”

In May, Zamperini was named grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., which next New Year’s Day will feature the theme “Inspiring Stories.”

In accepting the honor, Zamperini – wearing the ever-present USC cap – recalled that Hillenbrand, while researching the book, asked to interview his friends from college and the Army.

“And now after the book was finished all of my college buddies are dead, all of my war buddies are dead. It’s sad to realize that you’ve lost all your friends,” he said. “But I think I made up for it. I made a new friend – Angelina Jolie. And the gal really loves me, she hugs me and kisses me, so I can’t complain.”

He was a guest of Jolie last year when she was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Hillenbrand called him “the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew.”

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