WWII Hero, 'Unbroken' Subject Louis Zamperini Dies at 97

Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini
Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini
 Universal

World War II hero and Unbroken inspiration Louis Zamperini has died at age 97, according to a spokesperson for Universal Pictures.

A statement released by the studio on Thursday morning included a message from his family, which read: "Having overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life, Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini has never broken down from a challenge."

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The staement continued: "He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of pneumonia. After a 40-day-long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives. His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days."

Angelina Jolie, who directed the upcoming film about his life based on the best-selling book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, immediately expressed her condolences. "It is a loss impossible to describe. We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly," she said in a statement.

Universal, which will release the film adaptation of Zamperini's incredible story on Dec. 25, 2014, went on to say in a statement: 

"We are so profoundly sad at this moment and all of our thoughts and prayers are with the Zamperini family. Louis was truly one of a kind. He lived the most remarkable life, not because of the many unbelievable incidents that marked his near century's worth of years, but because of the spirit with which he faced every one of them.  

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"Confronting challenges that would cause most of us to surrender, Louie always persevered and always prevailed, and he spent the better part of his lifetime sharing the message that you could do the same. His example of grace, dignity and resilience inspired all of us lucky enough to know him and the millions who got to know him from the pages of Laura's book. We move forward to the release of Unbroken with a renewed sense of responsibility in bringing Louie's abundant life and indomitable spirit to the screen. Now more than ever, we join Angelina in honoring the lessons and legacy of this extraordinary man who has meant so much to so many."

Born in Olean, N.Y., on Jan. 26, 1917, to Italian immigrant parents, Zamperini and his family moved to Torrance, Calif., when he was a child. He was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team in Berlin running the 5,000 meters, and at 19, was the youngest American qualifier ever in that event. 

In 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and was deployed to the Pacific as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber. The story of Unbroken, originally a best-selling book by Hillenbrand set in 1943, follows Zamperini as his Air Force plane crashes in the Pacific. He and two others survived without food and water for 47 days before washing ashore on a Japanese island behind enemy lines, where he was held as a prisoner of war for two years. 

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Zamperini was first declared missing at sea and then killed in action, but after the war he returned to his family in America with a hero's welcome and married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946. He remained with her until her death in 2001.

On his 81st birthday in 1988, the former athlete returned to Japan and ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Torrance Airport was renamed Zamperini Field in the 1960s, his former high school named its stadium after him and the entrance plaza at USC's track and field stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza in 2004. The football fan continued to attend USC games well into his 90s and became friends with then-quarterback Matt Barkley in 2009.

In May, Zamperini was named grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena, which on New Year's Day will feature the theme "Inspiring Stories."

In accepting the honor, Zamperini, wearing a USC cap, recalled that Hillenbrand, in researching the book, asked to interview his friends from college and the Army.

"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 realize that you've lost all your friends," he said. "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."

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After meeting Zamperini last year, Jolie, who lived near his Hollywood Hills home, revealed that they had "become close friends."

"It will be hard to make a film worthy of this great man," she said in October while filming the biopic in Australia. "I am deeply honored to have the chance and will do all I can to bring Louie’s inspiring story to life."

Jolie produced Unbroken with Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff. Jack O’Connell stars as Zamperini, and Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleeson also appear in the film.

In February, Jolie and Zamperini sat down with NBC News' Tom Brokaw for an interview at Zamperini's home. The film previously received the below Brokaw-narrated preview during the Winter Olympics.

During the interview, Zamperini told Brokaw what Adolf Hitler had said to him after the American ran a fast final lap to finish a strong eighth in the 5,000 meters at the Olympics.

"All that he said was 'the boy with the fast finish,' and I couldn't really shake hands — he was up pretty high — so I just reached up and touched his hand," he said.

Jolie said in her February interview that she felt an incredible commitment to telling Zamperini's story.

"[I have] such a huge responsibility to get it right because I love him so much and because he's helped me so much in my life," Jolie said.

Hilary Lewis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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