Former Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini died yesterday at the age of 97.
His incredible story of resilience and survival at the hands of Japanese POW camps made him the subject of the best-selling book "Unbroken," written by 'Seabiscuit' author Laura Hillenbrand. The story is now being made into a feature film, directed by Angelina Jolie.
Hillenbrand joins Take Two to talk more about Louis' legacy.
I imagine this is a very hard day for you.
"This is a terribly dark day for me. It's very sad to let go of this beautiful man."
How close were you to him?
"I was extremely close to him, he really became the surrogate grandfather to me. I worked on the book for seven years and we would do interviews almost every day, sometimes three hours at a time and became so very close and he was very, very dear to me."
You mention seven years... I was amazed though to find out that you never actually met Louis during that time. How did you interact with him?
"We ran up some very big phone bills. My health is such that I can't fly on planes, so I couldn't get out to him and he couldn't get to me. We did meet in the end after the book was done, which was one of the great days of my life. I couldn't meet him at the time, but it was remarkable what we could accomplish together just working on the phone and through the mail. He sent me all his scrapbooks and he was a very generous source."
In some ways that actually helped you write the book?
"Yeah we began working on this when he was 86 years old and for me, as he told his story to me, it became so vivid that he was not a man in his 80s or 90s that I was talking to he was the 25-year-old he was telling me about. It was very vivid and real to me. In a way I think it became an advantage that I wasn't sitting in a room with him."
How did he come to live in California?
"He came out in 1919, two years after he was born — he was born during WWI, after he had pneumonia and they told him to move to a better climate. He had been in New York. He took Los Angeles by storm and became a juvenile delinquent out there until he discovered he was a great runner."
At Torrance High School he set a record in the mile, I believe.
"Yeah he was the greatest high school miler of all time in his era. He smashed the all-time record. He probably would have been the first man to break the 4-minute mile had the war not intervened. He was that good."
He went on to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and actually got to meet Adolf Hitler?
"Yes, he finished 8th in the 5,000-meters there after an extraordinary final lap of 56 seconds. Anything under 70 seconds in that era was extremely fast. Hitler caught sight of him and asked to meet him after the race. Louis really had no idea who Hitler was, and this is prior to the Holocaust. He was a teenager at the time. Goebbels brought him up to meet him and Hitler said through a translator, 'Ah, you are the boy with the fast finish,' and Louis reached up and touched his hand, and that was his moment of meeting Hitler."
After the Olympics he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. served in the Pacific during WWII. His plane crashed and he spent 47 days floating on a raft, fighting off not only starvation, but sharks as well. How did he get through that?
"I don't know how he got through that. It was an effort of extraordinary will and ingenuity. He found ways to catch fish, including two sharks, he caught two sharks and dragged them on the rafter and killed them with a screwdriver and ate their livers. He gathered rainwater, he was strafed by the Japanese during this experience, and one of the two rafts that he and his two crew mates were on sank. He manages to survive all of that and make it almost to safety until he was captured by the Japanese on the 47th day."
Can you tell us a little of what he went through at the POW camp?
"38 percent of Americans who were held by the Japanese died in captivity, because the Japanese were so cruel. Louis was enslaved and he was singled out by a terribly vicious monster of a man that they called The Bird. He spent 2.5 years tormenting him emotionally and physically trying to break him, and it was a great war of wills between these two men. Louis kept it together and survived this man, survived the war."
He came back to the U.S., but had a lot of bad memories that he couldn't shake...
"Like a lot of prisoners of war and veterans, he suffered from severe PTSD. He became an alcoholic, he became consumed by rage, he wanted to go back to Japan and kill this man who had tortured him. He actually woke up one night in a dream in which he thought he was strangling The Bird, the man who tortured him, and he was in fact strangling his pregnant wife. He did not hurt her, but that was when he hit bottom."
What eventually got him on the road to redemption?
"I don't know if I want to give it away, but he did find a way out of his troubles. he found true peace, he was a very, very happy man for the latter half of his life. The happiest man I ever knew."