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The film opens with Louis "Louie" Zamperini flying as a bombardier of a United States Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator bomber, during an April 1943 bombing mission against the Japanese-held island of Nauru. The plane is badly damaged in combat, with a number of the crew injured. The pilot, Phil, manages to bring it to a stop at the end of the runway thanks to an exploded tire.
The story flashes back to Louie's childhood as a young Italian-American boy in Torrance, California. Louie is a troublemaker, stealing, drinking liquor and smoking, to the disappointment of his parents. He is picked on by other kids for being Italian. One day, Louie is caught looking up women's dresses from under the bleachers during a track meet. His brother Peter sees how fast Louie runs away and decides to train him to be a runner. As he grows, Louie becomes more disciplined and also becomes an accomplished distance runner, earning him the nickname "The Torrance Tornado". He qualifies for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Louie comes in 8th and sets a record for speed in the final lap in the 5,000 meters race.
Returning to 1943, Louie, the surviving crew and several replacements are sent on a search-and-rescue mission with a plane previously used for spare parts. During the mission, the plane's two left engines fail and the plane crashes in the ocean. Louie, Mac and Phil survive and live on two inflatable rafts. After three days, a search plane flies over but they are unable to get its attention. They weather a storm and fend off a shark attack while subsisting on rations, rainwater, birds and fish. On the 27th day, they get the attention of a Japanese plane, which strafes and damages the rafts but misses them. On the 33rd day Mac dies.
On the 47th day, Japanese sailors capture Louie and Phil and they become prisoners of war. The Japanese force Louie and Phil to tell them what they know about the Allies. Louie tells them that he doesn't know anything. Louie and Phil are sent to different prisoner of war camps.
Louie's camp in Tokyo is headed by a Japanese corporal, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who treats him very cruelly, in part because of Louie's status as a former Olympian and American soldier. Watanabe is especially tough on Louie (presumably) out of jealousy and hatred, beating him often. Louie is given to escape from Watanabe's torture when two Japanese newsmen give him the opportunity to broadcast a message home saying that he is alive. When he refuses to broadcast a second message with anti-American propaganda, he is sent back to camp where Watanabe has each of the other prisoners punch him to teach him respect.
After two years, Watanabe gets a promotion and leaves the camp. The camp is damaged when Tokyo is bombed by American forces. Louie and the other internees are forced to move to another camp where Louie discovers, to his horror, that Watanabe is in charge. The prisoners are now put to work loading coal barges. Louie, exhausted, pauses during work, and Watanabe tells him to lift a giant piece of wood and orders a guard to shoot Louie if he drops it. Louie successfully lifts and holds up the wood, angering Watanabe who beats him.
At the end of the war, Louie and the other prisoners in the camp are set free to return to their homes. Back home in America, he kisses the ground and hugs his family.
At the end of the film, there is a slideshow showing what happened after the war. Louis was married and had two children. Phil survived and eventually married his sweetheart. Mutsuhiro "Bird" Watanabe went into hiding for several years and successfully evaded prosecution in spite of being listed in the top 40 most-wanted Japanese war criminals by General Douglas MacArthur. Louie lived out his promise to devote his life to God; eventually believing in Jesus Christ and forgave his war-time captors, meeting with many of them. Watanabe, however, refused to meet with Louie.
In January 1998, Louie had an opportunity to revisit his time as an Olympian when he ran a leg of the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. He was four days short of his 81st birthday. The site for his leg of the relay was not far from one of the POW camps where he was held during the war. The closing titles reveal that Louie Zamperini died on July 2, 2014, at age 97.