Louie Zamperini literally faced down many enemies in his near century of life, including Adolph Hitler, Josef Goebbels, Japanese prison camps and maniacal torturers, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism and PTSD. By God’s saving grace and discovering the power of forgiveness, he beat them all. There have been several books written about his extraordinary life of triumph, the most recent entitled Unbroken, written by Laura Hillenbrand, New York Times bestselling author of Seabiscuit. On Christmas Day, the film version of Unbroken will be released, and if it is anything close to accurate in portraying this shining example of the Greatest Generation, it will be a splendid gift to “unwrap” time and time again.
Zamperini was born in 1917 in New York to Italian immigrants. In 1919 they moved to California, and he found himself being bullied due to the fact that he did not yet speak English. As a result, while in school he became a scrappy fighter. While he was a quick study in regard to English, he began to get into trouble and was headed for an early career as a juvenile delinquent. It was his older brother Pete, himself a track star, who was the first to come to the rescue of his little brother. Pete encouraged Louie to join him in track and field, which helped to straighten Louie out. Early on in his adolescent track career, Louie began to set records, some which stood for years.
Lou was the recipient of a full track scholarship to the University of Southern California, and ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His performance garnered him a face-to-face with Hitler and Goebbels, Hitler referring to him as “the boy with the fast finish.” He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and while on a search and rescue mission, his plane crashed, killing 8 of the 11 onboard. For 47 days he and the other two survivors were adrift, fighting sharks, surviving on small amounts of rainwater and fish, and on the 33rd day, one of them died. Then they were captured by the Japanese when their raft came ashore on one of the Marshall Islands.
For two years, until the end of the war in 1945, he was in several Japanese camps and the recipient of unspeakable torments, including “medical experimentation.” After the camps were liberated, he experienced what so many of our troops do, a period of euphoria, followed by depression, substance abuse, and the rest of the gambit of symptoms that we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He married, had two kids, and his drinking took a huge toll on his relationship with his wife. He was tormented by nightmares, sometimes dreaming that he was strangling his captors. His wife attended a Billy Graham crusade and became born again. At first Lou was highly resistant, but once he surrendered, he was “all in” for the rest of his life. The most dramatic aspect of his conversion story had to do with learning the power of forgiveness, and once he forgave his captors, he says that he “never had another nightmare.” Now, it is one thing to forgive one’s tormentors a half a world away from them, but it is another to make several trips to Japan to hug them and give them a chance to hear the gospel. Louie made a point of going to the Japanese prisons where his captors were serving terms for war crimes, spoke to them through an interpreter, and several became Christians.
He went on to be an inspirational speaker, an author, ran a camp for troubled kids, and just recently passed at the age of 97. He was known for his sense of humor, his boundless energy, and finally quit snow skiing at the age of 91.
There are fewer and fewer of the Greatest Generation amongst us, and soon they will all be gone. Let us learn well from them as well as from Louie regarding how to be “unbroken,” and do what we can to carry on their legacy. We owe it to them.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner