Louis Zamperini, Christian Olympian and War Hero, Dies at 97; Angelina Jolie Film 'Unbroken' to be Released Christmas Day

( [email protected] ) Jul 03, 2014 12:20 PM EDT
Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini seen in a photo released by the Pasadena Tournament of Roses.

Former Olympian and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini died Wednesday at 97-years-old. "After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives," a family statement reads, released this morning. USA Today reports that the beloved national hero had been suffering from pneumonia.

Zamperini, who ran a 56-second lap during a 5,000 meter run in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, became a wartime hero after his plane crashed during World War II. He and two comrades survived for more than forty days drifting at sea, only to be rescued by an enemy ship. Zamperini was eventually released and returned home after surviving two years of torture as a prisoner of war in Japan.

The true miracle of Zamperini's life lies in what happened when he came back to the United States. After struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his experience in war, Zamperini at first turned to alcohol to ease his pain. One day he went to hear a preacher - one Billy Graham - talk about the restoration that can be found in Christ; the national hero fell to his knees and received his Savior, and afterward returned to Japan as a missionary to share the forgiveness and love of Christ with the very prison guards who had tortured him.

Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini
Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini (NBC Universal)

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie had formed a kindred friendship with Zamperini while producing "Unbroken," a film about the hero's life. The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. "I am deeply honored to be telling his extraordinary story, and I will do my absolute best to give him the film he deserves," Jolie said upon securing the rights to produce the film.

"Unbroken" is scheduled to be released in theatres on Christmas Day. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known [Zamperini]," Jolie says - "We will miss him terribly."