​Remembering the "Unbroken" spirit of Louis Zamperini

Remembering the "Unbroken" spirit of Louis Za... 08:28

A FINAL SALUTE now to Louis Zamperini, an American hero in both war and peace who died this past week at the age of 97. The suffering he endured during World War II was matched only by the remarkable forgiveness he later extended to his former tormentors.

Chip Reid's visit with him two years ago is this Independence Day weekend's Cover Story:

[An earlier version of this story was broadcast on May 27, 2012.]

Louis Zamperini with correspondent Chip Reid. CBS News

"The house is full of antiques," said Louis Zamperini. "Including me!"

Zamperini's home is too small to hold memories of a life so large. There are the trophies honoring his athletic accomplishments, including the five torches he carried at five different Olympic Games

And then there are the souvenirs from the prison camps where he spent two years of his life, including a bamboo fork, and an old belt buckle he still has.

"I'm surprised the Japanese didn't take it away from me, 'cause they were short of brass," he said.

But Zamperini's story was pretty much ancient history -- an elderly man waving in a parade -- until a bestselling book, "Unbroken," reminded the world of his harrowing tale.

His first fame came when he was just a teenager. In 1936, he made the U.S. Olympic team; at 19, he was the youngest qualifier in the 5,000 meters.

He didn't win, but Louis Zamperini became a household name -- a sports hero.

A few years later, the nation was at war, and Zamperini was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. In May 1943, his B-24 crashed into the Pacific.

"Our number one engine, the rpm stopped," he recalled. "This plane was barely flying with four motors, and with two gone, it just dropped like a rock. And so we hit the water nose down. I felt like someone hit me on the forehead with a sledgehammer. The plane was completely blown apart."

As documented in a 1998 CBS News story from correspondent Bob Simon, Zamperini spotted a life raft floating rapidly away from the burning water. He swam to it. He spent 47 days in the inflatable raft.

"I never prayed before," Zamperini said. "When you're on a raft, you pray like in a foxhole."

He fought off sharks, and battled the sea.

Things went from bad to worse. Zamperini was near death when he was captured by the Japanese and taken to a place known as "Execution Island," where every known prisoner had been put to death.

"They took great joy in telling us we were going to be executed," he said. "They'd always go through the motions [slitting throat]"