By: Erin Palmer
In 1936, teenage Louis Zamperini traveled to New York City to compete in the 5,000 meter Olympic trials for track. His finish at the trials was enough to qualify him to enter into the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. During the games, he ran the 5,000 meter race and placed eighth, but ran the fastest final lap of all of the competitors in 56 seconds. This final push gained him recognition all over the world and the attention of Adolph Hitler who congratulated him himself.
World War II Bombardier
With the start of World War II and the cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games, Zamperini enlisted into the Army Air Corps. He landed a job as a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator, which went on many bombing raids. In May 1934, the crew of the Liberator were sent out to search for a missing pilot, but Zamperini's plane suffered mechanical failures and eventually crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Of the 11 to have been on the plane, only Zamperini and two other crew members survived the crash. Together, the three men were stranded on a raft for 47 days. The men on the raft were subjected to the harsh sun, little drinking water, dangerous weather, and circling sharks. Before being saved, one of the other crew members had died, leaving only two left. Finally on July 15th, the two men, Louis Zamperini and Russel Phillips were rescued by Japanese soldiers.
Japanese POW Camp
Zamperini and Phillips were moderaltey nursed back to health by the Japanese until they could be take to the POW camp (prisoners of war). Throughout the war, Zamperini was seperated from Phillips and sent to many different POWs. He was treated especially cruel by the Japanese due to his running fame. He was especially singled out and abused repeatedly by a camp sergeant called the BIrd. However, he was spared from being killed due to the Japanese belief that he could be a helpful propaganda tool. His captivity lasted for nearly two years until Japan surrendered and released the prisoners on September 5, 1945.
Louis Zamperini (right) and friend at Hamilton Field, California, after their release from a Japanese POW in 1945.
Family and friends gathered at the airfield to greet Zamperini after the end of the war.
Zamperini frequently talked on Japanese radio for Japan's propaganda campaign.
After the War
Having believed Zamperini died, most of his family and friends were surprised to have seen him return to the US on October 5, 1945. In 1950, Zamperini went to Tokyo to forgive his Japanese tormentors, who were serving war-crime sentences. He later returned to Tokyo again in 1998, to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games and forgive The Bird, who refused to meet with Zamperini. Louis Zamperini died at the age of 97 on July 2nd, 2014.