'Unbroken' inspiration Louis Zamperini honored with monument in hometown

Olean, NY

The late World War II veteran, POW and Olympian Louis Zamperini is making headlines because of the box office success of his biopic, "Unbroken." But in Olean, N.Y., the town where he was born, Zamperini's actions are etched in stone. Literally.

A monument to Zamperini now stands in War Veterans Park in Olean, a short walk from the local recreation center. Legionnaire and Vietnam veteran Bill Moore served on the committee to erect the memorial.

Moore said he didn't know about Zamperini or his link to Olean until little over a year ago, when the book and movie were publicized.

Olean resident Jim Bardenett's grandparents rented out an apartment to the Zamperinis when they immigrated from Italy, and Bardenett's grandmother became Louis' godmother. Bardenett represented Zamperini alongside his children in the Rose Bowl Parade.

The family moved to California when Zamperini was 2 years old. He would grow to be an Olympic runner, who served the United States as a bombardier in World War II. When his plane was shot down above the Pacific Ocean, he floated for 47 days, and then was captured by the Japanese as a POW. After he returned home, he became a missionary to Japan.

His story captivated Angelina Jolie, the Coen Brothers and Lauren Hillenbrand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote Zamperini's biography.

"When you read the book, when you see the movie, it's like, how could somebody do something like that? The Greatest Generation, that's what he was part of," Moore said.

This is why the people of Olean decided to add a special granite wall, sandblasted with Zamperini's likeness on the front and his story on the back. A granite bench etched "Olympian" sits near the wall. The project took about six months to complete, Moore said, due in part to copyright permissions. In August 2014, they dedicated the monument in a special ceremony, which included the Legion performing a 21-gun salute.

Moore said it's important to commemorate hometown heroes, especially those like Zamperini.

"I think that they set a very great example of what kind of people our country is made out of," Moore said.

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