Louis Zamperini, the Inspiration for Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, Dies at 97

07/03/2014 at 08:15 AM EDT

Louis Zamperini, the Inspiration for Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, Dies at 97
Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini
Universal Pictures
One of the most incredible American lives of the past century has come to an end.

Louis Zamperini, a former Olympian who spent 47 days lost at sea and two more years as a prisoner of war during World War II, has died at age 97, according to Universal Pictures, which is making a movie of his life.

The Olean, New York, native passed away after a 40-day battle with pneumonia, said the Hollywood Reporter.

Zamperini recently became fast friends with Angelina Jolie, who is directing the Universal movie, Unbroken, based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand. He recently called Jolie a "human dynamo," and added, "I know she will tell this story in the right way."

"It is a loss impossible to describe," Jolie said in a statement about Zamperini's death. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly."

In its own statement, the Zamperini Family said: "Having overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life, Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini has never broken down from a challenge. He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of 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."

A U.S. track star at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Zamperini became a bombardier in WWII and survived 47 days adrift in a lifeboat after crashing his plane in the Pacific. He eventually washed up on a Japanese island and spent the next two years as a prisoner of war.

Universal Pictures said in a statement that Zamperini "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."

The studio added: "We are so profoundly sad at this moment, and all of our thoughts and prayers are with the Zamperini family. Louis was truly one of a kind. He lived the most remarkable life, not because of the many unbelievable incidents that marked his near century's worth of years, but because of the spirit with which he faced every one of them."

Unbroken is due in theaters on Christmas Day.

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