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Louis Zamperini

Olympian and airman.

Born: January 26, 1917; Died: July 2, 2014

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

He had enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbour, and before joining the military had been a runner at the University of Southern California. He ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, placing eighth in the mile, completing the final lap in 56 seconds.

His story was told in Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 bestseller, and is the subject of a film of the same name, directed by Angelina Jolie, which is due to be released in December.

He was born in Orlean, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, but moved to Torrance, California, when he was a child. As a teenager, he got into trouble and it was athletics that gave him the focus he needed. He broke several school records as a runner and managed the mile in 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

By the mid-1930s, he was focusing on qualifying for the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and became the youngest distance runner to make the US track team. running the 5,000 metres. At 19, he was also the youngest American qualifier ever in that event.

After his impressive run, he was presented to Adolf Hitler who commented on his speedy final lap. "All that he said was 'the boy with the fast finish,'" said Zamperini. "And I couldn't really shake hands — he was up pretty high — so I just reached up and touched his hand."

After his success in Berlin, Zamperini hoped to return to the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo but the Second World War put an end to that. He enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1941 and was later deployed to the Pacific on a B-24 Liberator bomber.

In May 1943, while taking part in a search and rescue mission, the bomber ditched in the sea after the engines failed. Eight of the crew died but three initially survived: Russell Allen Phillips, Francis McNamara and Zamperini. Clinging to a raft, they survived by drinking rainwater although Zamperini lost half his body weight and at one point escaped a shark attack by punching it on the nose.

After 33 days, McNamara died of starvation but two weeks later Zamperini McNamaraand Phillips were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat before being held as prisoners of war.

Zamperini spent his time as a prisoner in a number of camps and his particular nemesis was an officer called Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known as The Bird. Watanabe seemed to fix on Zamperini, perhaps because of his fame as an athlete, and beat him almost every day. He also ordered other prisoners to do the same and once made more than 200 prisoners punch Zamperini in the face one by one.

Having been posted missing at sea and then killed in action, Zamperini returned to his family in America after the war was over, although he was determined to track down Watanabe and kill him.

However, he was told either that Watanabe had committed suicide or disappeared; in fact, he had survived the war and went on to run an insurance company. When this came to light in the 1990s, Zamperini offered to meet his former captor but Watanabe refused. He died in 2003.

Back in civilian life, Zamperini found work as a horse trainer in Hollywood although he also struggled with mental health problems. He published his memoirs, Devil at My Heels, in 1956 and was the subject of the biography Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit.

The book has been turned into a film by Angelina Jolie.

After meeting Zamperini last year, Jolie, who lived near his Hollywood Hills home, revealed that they had become friends. "It will be hard to make a film worthy of this great man," she said in 2013.

"I am deeply honoured to have the chance and will do all I can to bring Louie's inspiring story to life."

Later in life, Zamperini became a Christian and served as a missionary to Japan. He also created the Victory Boys Camp for troubled youths, at which he taught other delinquents the skills to succeed in life.

On his 81st birthday in 1988, he returned to Japan and ran a leg of the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, which led to Hillenbrand becoming interested in his life story.

"When the book was written the writer wanted 15 of my college buddies to interview. That scared me," he said. "But she interviewed 15 of 'em and then she wanted to interview 16 of my war buddies that were in prison with me.

"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 realise that you've lost all your friends. 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."

Zamperini was pre-deceased by his wife Cynthia Applewhite and is survived by his daughter.

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