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On This Date in Sports May 28, 1943: Louis Zamperini

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Louis Zamperini, a distance runner who finished eighth in the 5000 meters at the Berlin games in 1936, is one of three survivors floating on a raft after being shot down during a search and rescue mission during World War II. Sustaining himself on rainwater and fish, Zamperini would survive 47 days in the open ocean before being captured by the Japanese, who made him a Prisoner of War.

Louis Zamperini was born in Olean, New York, on January 26, 1917, and raised in Torrance, California. To keep him from getting in trouble, Zamperini’s family signed him up for the track team, where he set several scholastic records for the state of California. Despite being under the age of 20, Louis Zamperini qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 5,000 meters at the Olympic Trials in New York. Not given much of a chance to win in Berlin, Louis Zamperini finished eighth in the 5,000 meters but had a great last lap, running in 56 seconds which impressed everyone in the stands.

After the Olympics, Louis Zamperini became one of the top track stars in college track and field, running at USC. Earning the nickname, the Torrance Tornado, Zamperini set the national record in the mile in a time of 4:08. He was expected to be a big part of the American Track and Field squad for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo. However, the start of World War II led to the cancellation of the Olympic games.

After college, Louis Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a forerunner of the Air Force. In April 1943, Zamperini survived a bombing mission on Nauru Island that took the lives of several crewmates. After the mission, he was transferred to Hawaii, where he was a member of a Green Hornet crew that would go out on search and rescue missions. While searching for another lost aircraft, the B2 4 he was aboard had mechanical difficulty and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Eight of the 11 crew members did not survive the crash, but Louis Zamperini, along with pilot Russell Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara, managed to get into a raft where they hoped to soon be rescued. For the next month, Zamperini, Phillips, and McNamara drifted in the Pacific Ocean, surviving on rainwater and fish while fighting off sharks. After 33 days at sea Francis McNamara died, leaving Russell Allen Phillips and Louis Zamperini alone in the raft. They would float in the ocean for a total of 47 days, drifting towards the Marshall Islands occupied by Japan, where they would be captured and held as a Prisoner of War. Over the next two years, Louie Zamperini endured brutal conditions in a POW camp run by Mutshurio Watanabe. Nicknamed the Bird, he was a sadistic Japanese soldier who beat prisoners in his camp daily and later declared a war criminal.

Back home, Louis Zamperini was declared Killed in Action. In 1944 at Madison Square Garden, a mile race was held in his memory. Many considered Zamperini, a candidate to be the first to break the four-minute mark in the mile race. When the war finally ended in 1945, and Louis Zamperini was rescued, a second race was held at Madison Square Garden, this time with Zamperini participating.

After the war, Louis Zamperini became a born-again Christian and worked as an evangelist for Reverend Billy Graham. There, he became a motivational speaker, telling the story of his ordeal and how he learned to forgive his tormentors. In 1998, Zamperini was honored by the Japanese Olympic committee before the start of the Winter Games in Nagano, as he became a symbol of resilience and hope, Zamperini wrote two memoirs about his life and the story of his ordeal made into a movie entitled “Unbroken” released in 2014 just a few months after Louis Zamperini died at the age of 97.