Angelina Jolie, Louis Zamperini

Universal Pictures

Louis Zamperini, a former World War II hero and Olympian who inspired Angelina Jolie's newest film, Unbroken, has died at age 97.

He passed away on Wednesday after battling pneumonia, E! News confirms.

"It is a loss impossible to describe," Jolie told NBC News in a statement. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly."

Jolie is the director of Unbroken and had met Zamperini, who was also her Los Angeles neighbor. She told Deadline that she and partner Brad Pitt had waited anxiously for a call from studio Universal Pictures to find out if she would be chosen to helm the film. The movie is based on Zamperini's life and stars British actor Jack O'Connell as the war hero. Unbroken was co-written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and is set for release on Dec. 25.

 Louis Zamperini


Check out seven facts about Zamperini below:

1. He lived on both coasts.

Zamperini was born Louis Silvie Zamperini on Jan. 26, 1917, in the eastern New York community of Olean to Italian immigrant parents, according to Laura Hillenbrand's book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, on which the movie is based. His family moved to California when he was a child and he grew up in the city of Torrence as a teen, throughout the Great Depression. The city's airport is named after him.

2. He had a rad nickname.

Zamperini was a track runner in high school and at the University of Southern California. During a 1934 state championship, he became the fastest high school mile runner in the United States when he broke the national high school record at 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds. He made headlines and earned the nickname the "Torrance Tornado."

3. He met—and pranked—Adolf Hitler.

In 1936, at age 19 and amid the Nazi party's rise to power in Germany, Zamperini competed in the Summer Olympics in Berlin as the U.S. team's youngest distance runner in history, running the 5,000 meters final. He did not medal and came in eighth place. Nazi leader Hitler, who was watching the event from a private box, took notice of the teen and met with him briefly at the event, according to Hillenbrand's book.

Hillenbrad, who described Zamperini in a Facebook message as her "beloved friend" and "surrogate grandfather," wrote that during his trip to Berlin, the Olympian, after drinking a couple of liters of German beer and wearing his Olympics dress uniform, opted to steal a small Nazi flag from Hitler's official residence and office. A guard fired a shot and another asked Zamperini why he did it. He replied that he wanted a souvenir. They give him the flag and spared his life.

4. He survived a plane crash and years of torture behind enemy lines during World War II.

In 1940, months after World War II began, Zamperini was drafted into the military. He became a bombardier. In 1943, the plane carrying Zamperini and other troops crashed into the ocean. He and two others survived on a raft for 47 days. They were discovered by a Japanese patrol boat and captured by the enemy. Zamperini spent more than two years as a prisoner of war and was tortured in internment camps.

In September 1945, he was liberated amid the end of World War II. He was given a hero's welcome at home.

NEWS: Angelina Jolie gets animated while directing Unbroken—see the pics

5. He found love—and religion.

After returning home from war, Zamperini met Cynthia Applewhite. They got married 10 days later and had two children. The two remained married for 54 years, until her death in 2001.

Upon his return, he battled alcoholism and post-traumatic stress, which took a toll on his marriage. He told the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club that his wife convinced him to go hear a new evangelist called Billy Graham, in a bid to save their relationship.

6. He forgave his Japanese torturers.

The 700 Club reported that in 1950, Zamperini traveled to Japan to meet with and forgive the prison guards who tortured him during the war.

7. He once survived "death."

In June 1944, his parents received the following shocking letter signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to The New York Times:

"In grateful memory of First Lieutenant Louis S. Zamperini, A.S. No. 0-663341, who died in the service of his country in the Central Pacific Area, May 28, 1944. He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he a way that humbles the undertakings of most men."

Zamperini told the newspaper in a 2003 interview that he kept that condolence letter in a drawer...along with three Purple Hearts.

"One for being wounded, one for being a prisoner of war, and one for being dead," he said, adding, "I don't consider myself a hero..but more of a grateful survivor."

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