The story of Louis Zamperini captured the attention of Americans in the 1940’s and again in recent years thanks to the biography by Laura Hillenbrand Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and the hit movie Unbroken.
Those familiar with either the movie or the book will recall that after his days as a troubled youth Louis took up running and became a star athlete. Louis went on to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After WW2 broke out, he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber.
Louis and his fellow crewmen cheated death multiple times, but none more harrowing than after his plane went down in the Pacific Ocean. While most died in the crash, Zamperini and another airman survived a total of 47 days adrift in the ocean on a life raft (a third survived the crash but died at sea).
After being rescued from the water by enemy forces, both men became prisoners of war and were eventually sent to Japanese POW camps.
Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners referred to as The Bird. His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, and he was by all accounts a sadistically cruel and abusive Japanese soldier who terrorized the prisoners. He especially had it out for the Olympic athlete, whom he had regarded as his ‘number one prisoner.’ As such, Louis experienced even worse treatment than the other prisoners.
Watanabe was so notorious in his abusiveness, he was listed as number 23 on General MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan after the war. However, after years of hiding from the authorities (and being thought to have killed himself) he would never face trial for his actions. He died in 2003.
The movie Unbroken does an excellent job chronicling the trials that Zamperini experienced as a downed airman adrift at sea. It vividly depicts his time in a hellish POW camp. It is an inspiring tale of how with courage and determination he persevered through it all.
But the story doesn’t end there.
A Life Unraveling
Unlike the book, the film does not depict the great struggle that followed Zamperini’s return to the United States after the war ended and his prison camp was liberated.
Louis was now married and was rather famous–he was after all, a renowned athlete who came back to life after being declared dead by the War Department. In his words, “after being declared dead and finding that we’d crashed and survived the 47 day drift and nearly 2,000 miles, you get quite a bit of publicity.” 1
He went on speaking tours and was treated as a war hero. But despite outward appearances, Zamperini’s life was falling apart.
Louis was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences during his two years as a POW. Watanabe was a constant figure in his nightmares. Zamperini found that he was in many ways still under the control and power of The Bird.
Filled with anger, anxiety, and hatred, Zamperini found solace in alcohol and in concocting plans to return to Japan to murder The Bird. This was the only way Louis felt he could finally be free of him.
As he continued to withdraw into depression and alcoholism, he would also lash out unpredictably. Louis was on the verge of losing his family. “I got married, I had a little girl and I continued to drink and continued to party, and my wife refused to go with me,” Louis said. “Pretty soon I found myself fading away, to the point where I realized that I was in serious need of help.” 2
From Brokenness to Redemption
In 1949 Louis Zamperini grudgingly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles at the urging of his wife. It was the first extended Crusade event that Graham ever held, and it was the one which propelled him to become a nationally-known figure.
After the first night he went, Louis was upset and did not want to attend any similar events in the future. He recalled in an interview:
I got under conviction and got mad because of the Scriptures he read, grabbed my wife and said, “Let’s get out of here. Don’t ever bring me back to a place like this again.” But the next day she persuaded me in going back. I said, “Okay, I’ll go under one condition. When this fellow says, ‘Every head bowed and every eye closed,’ I’m getting out.” She said, “Fine.” 3
However, he was talked into going to hear Graham preach the next night also.
After again hearing of the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus Christ, Louis Zamperini gave his life to the Lord and was saved. This time, salvation was not from shark-infested waters or from the horrors of a POW camp.
In Christ, Zamperini found eternal, life-changing salvation that would save his soul and rescue him from his downward spiral.
The nightmares–which had been so frequent and so intense that Louis came to fear going to bed–stopped.
He poured all his alcohol down the drain the night he was saved.
Louis Zamperini was a new creation in Christ Jesus.
Listen to the message that Billy Graham preached to Louis and thousands of others in Los Angeles:
- October 22, 1949: “The Only Sermon Jesus Ever Wrote”
- Oct. 23, 1949: “Why God Allows Communism to Flourish”
Newspapers across the country were reporting on the Crusade, and many ran articles on Zamperini’s conversion. When he returned a week later to speak to the crowd, he was quoted as declaring “I have accepted Christ and from now on I am going to be an honest-to-God Christian.” 4
Just as he had promised when he was desperate and adrift at sea, Zamperini dedicated his life to God. “Now, as God leads, I am leaving my business work and planning to work with young people…I’d rather build character–and win boys for Christ–than build a fortune,” Louis said.
He eventually started a camp for troubled youth–the Victory Boys Camp. Here he poured his life into serving God by helping boys and young men who were not unlike himself in his younger years.
Forgiving the Unforgivable
Amazingly, after his conversion Zamperini’s desire for vengeance left him completely.
Louis forgave his former captors and later met with many of them. He greeted them warmly and shared the Gospel with them and many accepted Christ.
During a speaking tour in Tokyo in 1952, Louis had the opportunity to meet with prisoners at Sugamo prison, which was filled with 850 Japanese war criminals.
After speaking to the prisoners, Louis had requested to meet with his former guards personally.
“I looked out and saw them coming down the aisle and, of course, I recognized each one of them vividly. I didn’t even think of my reaction—I jumped off the stage, ran down and threw my arm around them, and they withdrew from me. They couldn’t understand the forgiveness. We went in the room and there, of course, I continued to press the issue of Christianity, you see. And all but one made a decision for Christ.”
One former Japanese soldier wondered how he could forgive these men who treated him so badly. Louis responded,
I said, “Well, Mr. Sasaki, the greatest story of forgiveness the world’s ever known was the Cross. When Christ was crucified He said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ And I said, ‘It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.” Then he responded to the invitation to become a Christian. 5
This is a tremendously powerful image of loving your enemies and forgiving others as we have been forgiven in Christ.
Louis even attempted to meet with Watanabe when he returned to Japan as part of the Olympic ceremonies in 1998. His former tormentor refused. Instead, Louis sent him a letter which expressed his forgiveness.
Here are the words that he wrote to The Bird, the man that tortured and dehumanized him as a POW for so many months:
To Mutsuhiro Watanabe,
As a result of my prisoner war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.
Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.
The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love has replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”
As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison… I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian. 6
Such radical forgiveness is made possibly by an overwhelming sense of Christ’s love and forgiveness for us.
More than just a tale of courage and resilience, Louis Zamperini’s life is a powerful look at the transforming grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
2 Corinthians 5:17
1 Taken from an interview conducted in June 1988 titled An Olympian’s Oral History, page 82.
2 An Olympian’s Oral History, page 83.
3 Interview with Louis Zamperini by Dr. Lois Ferm on May 16, 1976. Audio and transcript available here.
4 This quote and a story about Louis’ conversion can be viewed in this newspaper clipping from November 1, 1949.
5 An Olympian’s Oral History, page 89.
6 Watch Louis read his letter to Watanabe in this video.
This short documentary put together by the Billy Graham foundation recounts some of Louis’ incredible story in his own words and sheds light on the part of Zamperini’s life not covered in the film: Louis Zamperini – Captured by Grace.
Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II (Autobiography written by Louis Zamperini)