Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97.
A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.
Mr. Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the war gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Mr. Zamperini.
Mr. Zamperini was in his early 20s and a track star at the University of Southern California when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after the United States entered the war in 1941. He was a bombardier in a B-24 that was flying a rescue mission on May 27, 1943, when his plane, named the Green Hornet, malfunctioned and fell into the sea.
Sharing a life raft, Lieutenant Zamperini and two other crash survivors — the co-pilot, Second Lt. Russell Phillips, and the tail gunner, Sgt. Francis McNamara — fought off hunger, thirst, heat and storms while trying to avoid being shot by Japanese planes or eaten by sharks. They subsisted on rainwater and the few fish they could catch. Lieutenant Zamperini, who was 5-foot-9, went from 125 pound to 75 pounds.
In June 1943, Anthony and Louise Zamperini, at home in Torrance, Calif., received the following message regarding their son:
“In grateful memory of First Lieutenant Louis S. Zamperini, A.S. No. 0-663341, who died in the service of his country in the Central Pacific Area,” the message said. It continued, “He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives — in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.” It was signed, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States.”
Unknown to the military, Lieutenant Zamperini and the others were still adrift at sea, though Sergeant McNamara died after 33 days. Lieutenant Zamperini and Second Lt. Phillips were eventually captured by the Japanese.
They then suffered added harrowing experiences as they were shuttled from one prison to another. For a time Mr. Zamperini was in the brutal hands of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a camp sergeant who was classified as a war criminal after the war, though he evaded prosecution.
“I could take the beatings and the physical punishment,” Mr. Zamperini said, “but it was the attempt to destroy your dignity, to make you a nonentity that was the hardest thing to bear.” Mr. Zamperini said his athletic training had helped him withstand the torment.
“For one thing, you have to learn self-discipline if you are going to succeed as an athlete,” he said. “For another thing, you have to have confidence in yourself and believe that no matter what you’re faced with, you can deal with it — that you just can’t give up. And then there’s the aspect of staying in shape. And humor helped a lot, even in the gravest times.”
In 1945, at the war’s end, Mr. Zamperini was liberated along with hundreds of other prisoners of war at the Naoetsu camp, northwest of Tokyo. “Though he was still sick, wasted and weak, he glowed with euphoria such as he had never experienced,” Ms. Hillenbrand wrote.
Louis Silvie Zamperini was born on Jan. 26, 1917, in Olean, N.Y., a son of Italian immigrants. His family moved to Torrance in 1920.
Louis was a fighter before he was a runner, according to a biography released by the University of Southern California. His father taught him how to box so he could defend himself against bullies who taunted because he could not speak English. Pete Zamperini, an older brother, encouraged him to try out for the track team at Torrance High School.
There he set the national high school record in the mile at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1934; his record time of 4 minutes 21.2 seconds would last for 20 years. His schoolboy exploits earned him a scholarship to U.S.C.
Two years later, in the 5,000-meter Olympic trials at Randalls Island in New York, he finished in a dead heat with Don Lash, the world-record holder, which qualified him for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a teenager.
In Berlin he competed in the 5,000-meter race, finishing eighth (Lash finished 13th), though Mr. Zamperini had a good finishing kick. During those Games he stood with other athletes near Hitler’s box and wanted a photograph of the Nazi leader.
“I was pretty naïve about world politics,” Mr. Zamperini said in an interview with The New York Times, “and I thought he looked funny, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film, especially the way he stamped his feet and slapped his thighs.”
Because he was not close enough, he asked one of Hitler’s entourage to take Hitler’s picture for him. “It was the skinny guy,” Mr. Zamperini said, referring to Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda.
He did shortly meet Hitler, who shook his hand and said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”
Two years later, in 1938, Mr. Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record of 4:08.3, which stood for 15 years.
When he returned to the United States after the war, he fell into alcoholism and nearly divorced his wife, Cynthia, but they remained married, a total of 54 years until her death in 2001. His survivors include a son, Luke; a daughter, Cynthia Garris, and a grandchild.
Mr. Zamperini straightened out his life, he said, after hearing a sermon preached by Billy Graham. For much of the rest of his life, he worked in commercial real estate and remained physically active into his 80s and 90s, skiing, running, mountain climbing and skateboarding. He was prominent on the lecture circuit.
He also returned to Japan as a missionary and went back again to run a leg of the Olympic torch relay at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. The route took him past a camp where he had been imprisoned in Naoetsu, a snowy, mountainous region.
Mr. Zamperini wrote two memoirs, both titled “Devil at My Heels,” the first published in 1956 and written with Helen Itria, with a foreword by Billy Graham, and the second in 2003 with David Rensin, with a foreword by Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Past efforts to make Mr. Zamperini’s story into a movie failed. In the 1950s, Tony Curtis wanted to play the role. In the late ’90s, Nicolas Cage expressed interest in the part. Despite Mr. Zamperini’s two autobiographies, Ms. Hillenbrand thought more could be done with the story. In an email she wrote:
“Louie’s story was well told, but as an autobiography it was limited to Louie’s point of view. No one had approached Louie’s story as a biography, incorporating numerous points of view.
“I began interviewing Louie’s fellow airmen, POWs, Japanese camp officials and home-front friends and family, and went through their diaries, memoirs and letters. What I found was a fascinating untold story.”