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Original Issue

Harrowing Run for His Life

The author of Seabiscuit recounts an Olympian's survival as a World War II POW

In early 1945, Madison Square Garden announced plans to hold the Louis S. Zamperini Memorial Mile, named in honor of a man many believed would have become the first to break the four-minute barrier had World War II not intervened. Memorial was changed (before the event was held, on March 3) to Invitational in deference to Zamperini's mother, Louise, who hoped against hope that her son, an Army bombardier, had not perished in the Pacific, though Zamperini had been declared dead by the U.S. military. Jim Rafferty, then America's best miler, won the event in 4:16.4.

Rafferty's time was four seconds slower than Zamperini's mark set in a practice run two years earlier on the sands of Oahu, just before he climbed into a plane that would crash into the South Pacific and touch off a 28-month battle for survival. Zamperini spent 47 days on an open raft and more than two years in Japanese POW camps, where, statistics later revealed, 37% of American prisoners perished.

If Seabiscuit, the equine subject of Laura Hillenbrand's 2001 best-seller, was a brave and courageous soul, a champion of lowly pedigree and a defier of long odds, one struggles for adjectives to do justice to Zamperini, the subject of Hillenbrand's Unbroken, who is 93 and still giving motivational speeches, having conquered the physical and psychological demons that followed him for years after what Hillenbrand calls his "Odyssean saga."

Fresh out of high school, Zamperini had finished seventh in the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but directed his thoughts to the mile when he entered USC. By 1940 he was down to 4:07.9. Then came WWII, after which Zamperini never again ran competitively. He is not the first athlete whose potential was interrupted by battle, but he is the first whose gruesome internment—daily beatings, near starvation, sensory deprivation and assorted humiliation-inducing punishments—has been assiduously detailed by a writer as skilled and relentless as Hillenbrand. Unbroken demonstrates that a champion doesn't have to own an Olympic medal, only considerable mettle.



UNBROKEN Zamperini's Pacific ordeal lasted 28 months.