“Don’t get up.” was an order Louis Zamperini was all too familiar with…and an order he never followed.
Years before Zamperini was born, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, thrusting the European theatre into the First World War in 1914. Three years later, during the height of the bloodiest war in history, Zamperini was born and only a few years later, his family migrated from Italy to the United States.
Now a resident of California, Zamperini would make life hell for his family due to his reckless behavior. However, after years of smoking, drinking, and stealing — his family was convinced he would end up in prison or on the streets — Zamperini ditched his criminal lifestyle for his high school’s track team. Eventually, Zamperini gained elite athlete status with a scholarship to the University of Southern California and made his way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Although he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter race, Zamperini still showcased his talents by setting a new lap record. Back at USC, Zamperini maintained his record-shattering stamina and was on track to medal at the 1940 Olympics, but the world had other plans.
World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, halting the upcoming Olympics Games and Zamperini’s dream. Still wanting to represent his country, Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a B-24 Liberator Bombardier for the 372nd Bomb Squadron, but he still continued to train for his next Olympics.
During one of his missions in 1943, Zamperini’s plane was severely damaged, leading to his and his crew’s reassignment to Hawaii. The day before his crew was scheduled to conduct a search and rescue mission — which would become their last mission ever — Zamperini recorded a 4:12 mile while running in the sand. Sadly, this would be Zamperini’s last run for a very long time.
The search and rescue mission resulted in Zamperini’s bomber crashing in the ocean, killing 11 crew members. Three survivors remained — pilot Russell Allen Phillips and gun shooter Francis McNamara survived the crash with Zamperini — and remained adrift at sea for almost two months, surviving off of raw fish and birds, and rainwater. McNamara eventually passed, and on day 47, Zamperini and Phillips were captured by the Japanese Navy. The two would then spend the next couple of years as prisoners of war.
On top of daily beatings, Zamperini and other prisoners were constantly battling diseases, exposure, and starvation. And because of his Olympic athlete status, Zamperini was the target of additional torment from prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe — Watanabe once ordered every prisoner to punch Zamperini in the face. The torture became so bad that Zamperini said he was always keeping an eye out for Watanabe “like I was looking for a lion loose in the jungle.”
It wasn’t until September of 1945 that Zamperini and other POWs were liberated, and he returned to California as a war hero. However, Zamperini’s battles were far from over. It took many years to overcome PTSD and his dependence on alcohol. Eventually, life righted itself and Zamperini lived out his days thankful for his wife and kids, and his faith. His Olympic dream finally come true in 1998 when Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Japan.
Zamperini’s story was an inspiration to all long before his death in 2014, and will continue to live on in those who believe if “they can take it, they can make it.”