Louis Zamperini: A Life Unbroken

Louis Silvie "Louie" Zamperini January 26, 1917 – July 2, 2014

This morning I was shocked to read of the death of Mr. Louis Zamperini. You see, in God’s amazing providential timing, I just finished reading the biography on his life Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand last week, and not a day has gone by that I have not thought about his story. 

The story of his life is one I will never forget. After spending his mischievous childhood and youth stealing and getting chased by police, Zamperini eventually channelled his energy into running. Soon he was setting records and ended up in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.    

Louie, fondly known by his friends and town as the "Torrance Tornado".

Then came World War II.  Zamperini served as a bombardier in the Pacific on a B-24 aircraft. After multiple noteworthy bombing raids, in 1943, he crashed in the ocean while on a rescue mission. He survived 46 days in a little raft subsisting on shockingly little to eat and drink. His only companions were the pilot and one crewman who later died, not to mention the ever present sharks that circled the raft. Finally on day 47, the last survivors of the plane crash, Russell Allen Phillips and Louis Zamperini, arrived at the Marshall Islands and were quickly captured by the Japanese. Already in very bad health after almost 7 weeks on a raft, Zamperini weighed in at a pitiful 79 pounds, less than half his original body weight. He and his pilot were taken to various prison camps where they endured experimentation and incessant beatings. One man in particular, whom the prisoners nicknamed “The Bird,” found it his mission to torment and beat the Olympic athlete constantly. The torture inflicted by this sadistic corporal shaped his life for years afterward. 

Finally in 1945, when the war ended, his trials as a prisoner of war were over. Louis Zamperini returned home and was hugged and kissed by his family for the first time in close to three years. 

Louie, reunited with his family after years of separation, is warmly embraced by his loving mother and father. 

To many his liberation from a life as a POW may seem like a happy conclusion to his story, but Zamperini still had years of darkness ahead of him. Like so many other war heroes, coming home was not as easy as it sounded. At first he seemed like his old self, but inside he was still at war. Night after night in his dreams,  “The Bird” beat him again and again. Night after night, Zamperini tried to strangle him to no avail. It seemed to him that his only escape from the man who still had grasp of him was to kill him. So it became his mission to return to Japan and finish off “The Bird.”

Louie with Billie Graham in the 50s. 

But then one day Louis Zamperini’s true liberation came. At a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles, he remembered a promise he made on the raft years before. He had told God that if God got him out alive that he would serve Him for the rest of his life. Zamperini was physically liberated years before when the war ended, but his real freedom came when the gave his life to Jesus Christ. He went home that night, poured out his bottles of alcohol which had become his nightly companion to drown his memories, went to bed, and never dreamed of “The Bird” again.

Many years later, Louie would return to Japan and meet with the men who had tortured him during the war.

To me, that is a true success story. Freed from drunkenness, freed from his flashbacks and nightmares, freed from hatred for his enemies, Zamperini returned to Japan in the early 1950s. He went to Sugamo Prison where Japanese war criminals were held. He found his previous captors and persecutors and told them he forgave them for all they had done to him. While he never had face to face closure with “The Bird,” Zamperini was at peace. 

What I have just given you is a very, very rough sketch of the life of such an extraordinary man. I would really like to encourage all of you to read the biography on his life. It is one you cannot possibly read with out coming away impacted! I for one have been heavily reminded of the power of God’s saving grace and the freedom it brings to those who have endured some of life’s hardest trials. Mr. Zamperini could have lived out the rest of his life in misery like so many others, but because of the beautiful work of Christ in his heart, he lived out a full life of 97 years and used his story to impact the lives of countless others.