Athletes, actress, author pay tribute to Louis Zamperini

By Erica Palmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, July 8 2014 5:00 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 10 2014 4:08 p.m. MDT

Louis Zamperini with his good friend, Angelina Jolie. Jolie is directing a movie about Zamperini's life, "Unbroken," which is scheduled to come out in theaters December 2014. Zamperini died Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at age 97, according to Universal Pictures studio spokesman Michael Moses.

Associated Press

Days after the death of Olympian, World War II veteran and American hero Louis Zamperini, an outpouring of memories and tributes came from many walks of American life.

"It is a loss impossible to describe," said actress Angelina Jolie in a statement shortly after his death July 2. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly."

Jolie became close friends with Zamperini after she began directing a movie about his life. "Unbroken" is set to premiere in theaters on Christmas Day 2014.

In a "TODAY Show" interview with Jolie and Zamperini from February 2014, Jolie said retelling Zamperini’s story on the screen is a huge responsibility. But she said the message she hopes to get across is clear.

"For me, I think Louis (has) been very clear about what his message is," she said. "… I think for my children, and for everybody in the world, I want to be able to say it can seem dark and it can seem hopeless and it can seem very overwhelming, but the resilience and the strength of the human spirit is an extraordinary thing."

The movie is based on the book "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," by Laura Hillenbrand.

Hillenbrand also posted a moving tribute to Zamperini on her Facebook page, calling him the “grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew.”

Zamperini’s story is one of turning challenges into successes. He overcame physical trials, such as qualifying for the Olympic mile race and surviving for 47 days in a small life raft at sea. But he also overcame mental hardships, such as surviving two years in a Japanese POW camp and overcoming the hatred for his captors that later threatened to consume his life.

After his death, his "fighting spirit" and physical accomplishments were celebrated with tweets and statements from the University of Southern California and U.S. Olympic track teams.

Sen. John McCain pointed out Zamperini's patriotic heroism in a tweet, calling him a "true American hero." Zamperini's hometown of Olean, New York, plans to erect a granite marker and bench in honor of him near the city’s existing World War II memorial.

"We hope to provide the youth of Olean a real-life, hometown, inspirational hero to look up to and respect, as opposed to a cartoon, comic book or video character," stated the Louis Zamperini Tribute Committee in a March 2014 article for the Olean Times Herald. "(Zamperini's) life story demonstrates the incredible will of the human spirit, courage, determination and true grit."

But many have pointed to Zamperini's ability to forgive as his greatest accomplishment.

"Indeed, when Zamperini reflected on the best day of his life, he didn’t mention the day he was liberated from a Japanese war camp," said an obituary published on World magazine's website. "Instead, he said, ‘It was the day I came to Christ.’ It seems fitting that Zamperini died during the week that America celebrates its independence from tyranny. But for Zamperini, Christ’s triumph over the tyranny of sin, darkness, and eternal death was the greatest victory of all.”

Hillenbrand pointed out his spirit of forgiveness in an article she wrote for Guideposts magazine.

"He was infectiously cheerful, speaking of his captors’ cruelty without a trace of bitterness," she said, describing the first time she spoke with Zamperini. "I asked how he could speak so easily of such vicious men. His answer was simple: 'I’ve forgiven them.' … I take from Louie’s life one beautiful, undeniable truth. Even when a man suffers the most soul-shattering of abuses, even when he seems hopelessly bound by resentment, forgiveness can still find him and set him free."

Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: epalmer@deseretnews.com

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