Louis Zamperini was born in Olean, New York to Anthony and Louise Zamperini. The Zamperini family moved to Torrance, California in the 1920s, where Louis attended Torrance High School. The son of Italian immigrants, Louis spoke no English when his family moved to California, which made him a target for bullies. His father taught Louis how to box for self-defense. Pretty soon, according to Louis, he was "beating the tar out of every one of them... But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it."
"Before long he was picking fights just to see if anyone could keep up with him. From juvenile thug, he progressed to 'teenage hobo.' Hopping a train to Mexico, he courted danger for the thrill of it. 'I caught a wild cow in a ravine and tore my kneecap till it was just hanging off,' he recalls. 'I snapped my big toe jumping out of some giant bamboo; they just sewed it back on. I’ve got so many scars, they’re criss-crossing each other!'"(USC News, "The Great Zamperini", 2003)
Louis had a knack for getting into trouble, so his brother got him involved in the school track team. In 1934 Louis set a world interscholastic record in the mile, clocking in at 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. The record would last for over twenty years, until broken by Dennis Hansen in 1959. That record helped Louis win a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.
In the Olympic trials at Randalls Island, Louis finished in a dead heat against world-record holder Don Lash, and qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Unfortunately, Louis ruined his chance at gold by gorging himself on the free food that was provided to the Olympic athletes during the trans-atlantic cruise. "I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich," he said. "And all the food was free. I had not just one sweet roll, but about seven every morning, with bacon and eggs. My eyes were like saucers.” By the end of the trip, Louis had gained 12 pounds.
Louis finished eighth in the 5000 meter distance event at that Olympics, but his final lap was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Louis tells the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply "The boy with the fast finish."
Two years later in 1938, Zamperini set a national collegiate mile record which held for 15 years. Zamperini's speed earned him the nickname "Torrance Tornado".
Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1941, and after being commissioned a second lieutenant the following August, he was deployed to Hawaii as a B-24 bombardier. After flying a number of missions, his aircraft went down due to mechanical failure on May 27, 1943. After 47 days adrift in the ocean, Zamperini and the only other surviving crew member (pilot Russ Phillips) were rescued by the Japanese Navy. Louis was held in captivity through the end of the war and his family thought he had been killed in action, but he eventually returned to a hero's welcome. Zamperini was held in a Japanese Navy camp for captives not labeled as Prisoners of War at Ofuna. Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington was held at the same camp and in Boyington's book, Baa Baa Black Sheep he discusses Zamperini and the Italian recipes he would write to keep the prisoners minds off of the food and conditions.
The Torrance airport was renamed Zamperini Field in the 1960's.
After the war, Zamperini met Billy Graham, who helped him launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker. One of his favorite themes is "forgiveness," and he has visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he has forgiven them. Many of the war criminals who committed the worst atrocities were held in the Sugamo prison in Tokyo. In October 1950, Zamperini went to Japan and gave his testimony and preached to them through an interpreter (a missionary called Fred Jarvis). The colonel in charge of the prison encouraged any of the prisoners who recognised Zamperini to come forward and meet him again. Zamperini threw his arms around each of them. Once again he explained the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. The prisoners were somewhat surprised by Zamperini's genuine affection for those who had once ill-treated him. Most of the prisoners accepted copies of the New Testament which had been given by the Gideons.
For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In March 2005 he returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there.
Torrance High School's home football, soccer, and track stadium is called Zamperini Stadium, and the entrance plaza at USC's track & field stadium was named Louis Zamperini Plaza in 2004. In his 90s, Zamperini continues to attend USC football games and befriended star freshman quarterback Matt Barkley in 2009.
Zamperini currently resides in Hollywood, California. A film based on his life story and starring Nicolas Cage is under development.
In October 2008, Zamperini was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, IL
Zamperini wrote two memoirs about his experiences, both of them bearing the same title, Devil at My Heels. The first (written with Helen Itria) was published by Dutton in 1956. The second (with David Rensin) appeared in 2003 from Morrow. Laura Hillenbrand, author of An American Legend, has written a biography of Zamperini. The book, titled "Unbroken," will be released by Random House on November 16, 2010.