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Louis Zamperini, 1936 Olympian, World War II POW, Dies At 97

LOS ANGELES ( — Former Olympian, World War II hero and Grand Marshall of the 2015 Rose Parade Louis Zamperini has died at the age of 97.

Zamperini died Thursday from pneumonia.

"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. His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days," his family said in a statement released by Universal Pictures, which will release a movie on Zamperini's life, "Unbroken", on Christmas Day.

Louis Zamperini Speaks With KNX1070's Mike Landa

Angelina Jolie, who directed "Unbroken," called Zamperini's death "a loss impossible to describe."

Laura Hillenbrand, author of the 2010 biography "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," which inspired the film, spoke to KNX 1070's Jim Thornton and Diane Thompson about the loss of the man she calls a "Great American."

"I'm going to miss him. He was the most bouyant, most genrous soul I ever knew and I owe him so much, as do so many of us. We all owe him for his service to this country. And it's appropriate to remember him on the 4th of July. He was a Great American," she said.

Zamperini was a world-class distance runner by the time he graduated from Torrance High School. His athleticism won him a track scholarship to USC, and at 19 years old, a spot on the 1936 US Olympic team.

During World War II, Zamperini was a bombardier, serving in the South Pacific, when his plane crashed.

He survived 47 days on a raft before the Japanese captured him and held him as a POW for two years, during which time he endured various forms of torture.

Author Of Zamperini Bio 'Unbroken' Speaks To KNX1070

"Louis Zamperini was one of the greatest Trojans of all time, as well as a true American hero," said USC athletic director Pat Haden. "He was the embodiment of the USC motto, `Fight On.' All of us in the Trojan Family have a deep appreciation for what he did for USC and for our country, and we mourn the passing of this American legend, this national treasure."

Zamperini's name remains etched on a plaque on the campus. Former USC track coach, Ron Allice, told CBS2's Jeff Nguyen it honors a treasure.

"The plaques and so forth that are on there kind of represent the various segments of his life," Allice said while gesturing to the tribute, noting of Zamperini's legacy: "His courage, his determination, his influence on others. He stood for the things that are good."

Zamperini was named Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade in May.

"The Tournament of Roses expresses our heartfelt sympathy to the family of Louis Zamperini. We will remember and honor the courage and grace that made Louis who he was, and hope that by sharing his life's story, we can uphold the values which built his strength, perseverance and his ability to forgive others. Louis' life serves as an inspiration to us all, and we are committed to honoring him as the Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade," the Tournament of Roses said in a statement Thursday.

Zamperini is survived by his son, Luke, and his daughter, Cynthia Garris. His wife, Cynthia, died in 2001.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti publicly offered his condolences to the Zamperini family in a statement issued Thursday.

"I am saddened to learn of the passing of one of our finest Angelenos, Louis Zamperini, a World War II hero, Olympian and inspiration for our nation," Garcetti said.

"My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family, particularly his son Luke, Chief Inspector for Training and Emergency Management at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety."

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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