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Thursday 28 August 2014

War hero, Olympian Zamperini dies

Published 03/07/2014 | 14:22

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Louis Zamperini has died aged 97. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

An Olympic distance 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, has died. Louis Zamperini was 97.

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Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses said Zamperini died on Wednesday.

Zamperini enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbour and was a pilot in the Second World War. He and his crew were searching for a downed B-25 when their plane crashed in the Pacific, killing eight of the 11 men.

Before joining the military, Zamperini was a runner at the University of Southern California. He ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, placing eighth in the mile.

His story was told in Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-seller, and is the subject of an Angelina Jolie-directed film by the same name being released in December.

"It is a loss impossible to describe," Jolie said in a statement. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly."

A high school and University of Southern California track star, Zamperini competed in the 5,000-metre run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished eighth but caught attention by running the final lap in 56 seconds.

In the Second World War, he was a bombardier on a US Army Air Forces bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean during a reconnaissance mission. He and one of the other surviving crew members drifted for 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters before being captured by Japanese forces. He spent more than two years as a prisoner of war, surviving torture.

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

In accepting the honour, 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 realise 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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