USC NCAA Mile Champ And Olympian Louis Zamperini, WWII Hero, Dies
July 3, 2014
Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini, a two-time NCAA mile champion from USC who gained international acclaim for his exploits during World War II, died on Wednesday (July 2) in Los Angeles. He was 97.
The American, USC and Olympic flags in front of USC's Heritage Hall are flying at half-staff today in honor of Zamperini's passing.
"Louis Zamperini was one of the greatest Trojans of all time, as well as a true American hero," said USC athletic director Pat Haden. "He was the embodiment of the USC motto, `Fight On.' All of us in the Trojan Family have a deep appreciation for what he did for USC and for our country, and we mourn the passing of this American legend, this national treasure."
A 3-year letterman (1938-39-40) who co-captained the 1940 Trojan squad and was a member of three NCAA championship teams, Zamperini was the NCAA champion in the mile run in 1938 and 1939. The collegiate mile record (4:08.3) that he set lasted for 15 years.
He placed eighth in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Olympics, while a teenager at Torrance (Calif.) High. He had set the national prep mile record (4:21.2) in 1934, a mark that stood for 20 years.
A bombardier in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he was lost at sea, spending 47 days adrift and then two-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Japan, enduring hunger and torture before being rescued. His story was chronicled in author Laura Hillenbrand's award-winning and best-selling biography, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption." The book has been made into a movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, and it will be released in December.
Zamperini also co-wrote two autobiographies, both titled "Devil at My Heels," in 1956 and 2003.
"Today is a sad day at USC, knowing that the wonderful life of Louis Zamperini has ended after 97 remarkable years," said former longtime USC track and field head coach Ron Allice. "I can think of no more famous Trojan than Louie, with his combination of athletic exploits and war heroics. He was one of USC's greatest ambassadors and he never went anywhere without wearing his USC hat. Even in his later years, he stayed very connected with USC, giving inspirational talks to Trojan teams and in USC classrooms. The fact that he still is the only Trojan to win the NCAA outdoor mile championship, which he did twice some 75 years ago, speaks volumes of his athletic ability. I know I will miss him, as will so many others. He was a great man."
Said four-time USC Olympic gold medalist swimmer John Naber, a close associate of Zamperini: "Louis was very proud of being a Trojan. He happily wore his USC hat in public and private, and was quick to hug any fellow Trojan. During his remarkable athletic career as an Olympic runner, by his endurance on the life raft, and with his resilience at the torturous hands of `The Bird' during World War II, Louis' life exemplified USC's `Fight On' spirit. Amazingly, his impact on other people continued as he grew older. His example inspired thousands to be better people, myself included."
Zamperini recently was named the Grand Marshal of the upcoming 2015 Rose Parade.
He was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. He received the prestigious NCAA Inspiration Award in 2011.
The entrance to USC's Loker Stadium track and field facility is called Louis Zamperini Plaza (it was dedicated in 2004), and features a water fountain with photos highlighting Zamperini's career and five obelisks acknowledging USC's track and field Olympians and NCAA champions.
Zamperini established his Victory Boys Camp to inspire local youth to emulate his life.
Zamperini is survived by his son, Luke, and his daughter, Cynthia Garris, and a grandchild. His wife, Cynthia, died in 2001.