Nearly seven decades ago, the world was sure Louie Zamperini was dead. There were good reasons.
Among them: The former Olympic athlete’s bomber had crashed into the Pacific, no one had heard from him since, and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed his death certificate. The story of how Zamperini survived his own death — and how his life was revived — was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”
Much was written about Zamperini when he actually died on July 2, 2014, a lot of it about his grit, resilience and determination. But much less was written about his spiritual journey, about his redemption. That’s because it involved a man named Billy Graham and a savior named Jesus Christ.
It’s been said that cats have nine lives. Louis Zamperini had at least three. The first began in 1917. Born in Olean, New York, he moved with his family to Torrance, California, in 1919. The son of Italian immigrants, he spoke very little English when he was a young man. This made him susceptible to bullying, and not the cyber kind. The old-fashioned beat-down variety.
His father did what good dads did back then. He taught his son how to box. And soon, his son was beating up the very boys who’d been beating him.
Louie was an angry and rebellious teenager, and his love of alcohol fueled an even deeper passion for fighting. Young Louie’s life was on the wrong track until his older brother, Pete, intervened and set his brother on another track: an oval one at the local high school.
Pete was already a star on the high school track team; he started taking his younger brother on training runs. Louie took to the sport, and at the end of his freshman year, he finished fifth in the All City C-division 660-yard dash.
Louie, it turned out, was a natural. But if he wanted to tap his true God-given potential, his brother told him, he’d need to get his act together. “Pete told me I had to quit drinking and smoking if I wanted to do well, and that I had to run, run, run,” Zamperini recalled to Runner’s World. “I decided that summer to go all out. Overnight I became fanatical. I wouldn’t even have a milkshake.”
Running, and a loving brother, altered the course of Zamperini’s life.
In the final three years of his high school career, he would never lose a race. Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile and won a scholarship to USC. “Local newspapers started calling me ‘Zamp the Champ,'” he told America in WWII, a magazine, in 2006. “I relished every moment in the limelight, knowing at last I could make something of myself.”
Zamperini’s speed impressed the reporters and sports fans in Los Angeles. Indeed, it earned him the nickname “the Torrence Tornado.” “The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” his coach at USC once gushed.
Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter run. But he was best remembered for what he did off the track. One night, he scaled a wall near the Reich Chancellery, pulled the Nazi flag off a flagpole, and ran as fast as he could. German security eventually ran him down, but he wasn’t charged. When a high-ranking German Army commander found out who Zamperini was, he let him keep the flag.
His next goal was the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but that dream was put on hold as the world prepared for war. Zamperini traded his track uniform for another: a bombardier’s. After some training in Texas, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii in 1942 with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force, as a master bombardier.
He was involved in several dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater, and then came the mission that changed everything.
On May 27, 1943, Zamperini’s crew of 11 was ordered to search for a B-25 that had been shot down near Palmyra Island, 900 miles south of Hawaii. They left Kualoa Airfield in the early morning on the only B-24 available. At about 2 p.m., the plane’s two port engines failed, and within minutes the plane slammed into the sea
“It felt like someone hit me in the head with a sledgehammer,” Zamperini told Life magazine. “The crash forced me forward and down into the sea. I blacked out momentarily from the impact and found myself entangled in coiled wires and cables that wound around me like metal spaghetti.”
Zamperini wasn’t finished with the harrowing tale.
Swallowing a nauseous saltwater mixed with gasoline, oil, hydraulic fluid, and blood, I somehow managed to inflate my “Mae West” — my life jacket. Then I noticed two crewmen about 20 feet away clinging to the side of a gas-tank float. I managed to grab onto a portion of a nylon parachute cord that was attached to an inflatable life raft. I climbed in, unhooked the oars, and rowed over to pick up our pilot, Russell Phillips, who was badly injured, and pulled him up into the raft. Then Francis McNamara, our tailgunner, made it in. We were the only three survivors of the eleven-man crew.
Zamperini had survived one ordeal only to endure another. One day floating in a small raft in the Pacific Ocean turned into two, and one week turned into more than six. The men had little food and even less water.
“Six bars of chocolate and a few cans of water lasted us awhile,” Zamperini said. “Then, the only food for the next month and a half was two tiny fish, a two-foot shark, three birds, and four albatrosses.”
But there was even more bad news to come, if that was possible. It turns out the water they were floating in was filled with sharks that were bigger than Zamperini’s raft. Worse, Japanese bombers spotted the raft and made several passes at them.
“I slid into the water, which was infested with sharks, and hung below the raft to avoid the bullets,” Zamperini recalled. To keep up morale, the men crooned their favorite pop hits and pretended to cook meals. But it wasn’t enough to keep one of his raft mates alive. Francis McNamara’s body began to fade, and he died. Zamperini gave a brief eulogy — and buried his comrade in the sea.
After 47 days at sea, the two remaining survivors saw something they thought they’d never see again: land. But the hope they experienced was short-lived; their raft had drifted 2,000-plus miles to the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands, which had been turned into fortresses in preparation for the eventual American invasion.
The camp Zamperini was locked up in as a POW was so bad, it earned the name Execution Island. Nine U.S. Marines were beheaded there. One sadistic guard, who was known at the camp as The Bird — a man so brutal even his fellow guards despised him — was tough on Zamperini. But he endured — and when the war ended, he returned home to a hero’s welcome.
Zamparini managed to escape physical death not once, but twice. But Zamperini’s tormentors had killed his spirit. And when all the celebrating was over, the rage he felt toward them persisted. “Pain never bothered me,” he told the Associated Press in 2003. “Destroying my dignity stuck with me.”
Zamperini’s life descended into darkness and chaos. He began to drink, and he took out his anger on the people around him. He was soon on the verge of losing all that mattered to him: his family.
Then came the part of Zamperini’s story — the redemption part — that’s not as well-known as the rest. The part that made readers of Hillenbrand’s book weep. The part that Angelina Jolie left out of her cinematic adaptation of Louie’s life.
Louis’s wife, Cynthia, was nearly about to serve him with divorce papers. She would have done so but for the intervention of a neighbor, who persuaded her to go hear a young evangelist preaching in a big tent near downtown Los Angeles. His name was Billy Graham.
Cynthia accepted Christ that night — and told her husband that because of her conversion, she wouldn’t file for divorce. She asked Louie if he would accompany her to the crusade. After a week of arguing, she persuaded him to attend. The year was 1946. That day, almost 30 years from the day he was born in New York, Zamperini was born again in Los Angeles.
“I acknowledged to God that I was a sinner,” he told a large crowd at a Billy Graham Crusade 12 years later. “I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life and save me, and of course He did.”
“Their compassion and love … more than compensated for my past years in Japan.”
The change in his life was almost instantaneous. “That night when I got home from the crusade, it was unbelievable. I didn’t have a nightmare, and I haven’t had one since,” he recalled. It didn’t take Zamperini long to realize what he had to do to free himself from his tormentors: He had to forgive them. And forgive them he did, even returning to Japan to do so. Zamperini also tried to track down the sadistic guard who had tortured him so mercilessly to forgive him, too. But The Bird wouldn’t allow it.
Nearly 60 years after his harrowing wartime experiences, Zamperini finally got to participate in the Olympics in Japan. As adoring crowds lined the streets, he carried the torch through the town where he had been a POW all those years before. CBS reporter Jim Nance asked him about that day, and the graciousness of the Japanese people, who smothered a POW statue with flowers near the place where he and so many GIs had been tortured. “Their graciousness and compassion and love was unbelievable,” he told Nance. “It more than compensated for my past years in Japan more than 53 years ago.”
Jolie’s 2014 movie version of “Unbroken” should have been called “Broken,” because she left out the part that unbroke Louie. Leaving Billy Graham and Jesus Christ out of Louie Zamperini’s life story is like leaving the piano out of Vladimir Horowitz’s story. Or naked 19-year-old girls out of Hugh Hefner’s. Or race out of Jackie Robinson’s.
Louie Zamperini could have chosen a life of self-pity. He could have chosen to remain a victim. But he chose life. And he spent the rest of his time inspiring people with his story.
Zamperini gave up skateboarding at 81. At 91, he reluctantly gave up skiing. To the end, he was teaching us all not just how to survive, but how to live, how to forgive — and how to love.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.