Louis Zamperini: The Unbroken Man

The bedtime stories Luke Zamperini’s father told him were different than what most kids hear.

Louis Zamperini would tell his son about the time he placed 8th in the 5,000 meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He would talk about the time he stole a Nazi flag from the well-guarded Reich Chancellery. He would tell his son about being a bombardier in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. He would tell his son about the time his aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean and he survived adrift at sea for 47 days. He would tell his son about the time he battled a shark. He would tell his son about the torment he overcame while being held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where he was singled out for his Olympic success.

Every single story Louis told Luke was true. And Luke never forgot a single one of them. “I would say ‘Dad, tell me about wrestling the sharks again,’” Luke told Good News, “I always knew my dad had this great story, this amazing life. I knew he was a special person. But he was also just a great dad.”

Louis’ life inspired a bestseller, Unbroken, written by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand learned of Louis’ story while researching her previous book, Seabiscuit. “While she was researching Seabiscuit she kept seeing stories about my dad on the same newspaper sports pages,” Luke explained. “It piqued her interest. One day she called him up and said ‘I want to write your story.’”

Hillenbrand conducted more than 90 phone call interviews with Louis during the course of writing the book. After the book’s release in 2010, discussions of a movie based on the book began. Louis’ story eventually fell into the hands of Angelina Jolie, who contacted the studio and told them she wanted to direct it. Jolie told Luke that it was his father’s ability to face any challenge head on that truly inspired and motivated her to want to be the one to direct the film. Unbroken was released in theatres on Christmas Day 2014. Both the book and the film tell Louis’ story as an Olympic athlete who became a World War II hero after spending 47 days adrift at sea and more than two years in Japanese prison camps.

Louis (born in 1917) was raised in Torrance, California, the second child of two Italian immigrants. As a child, Louis would often get into trouble and into fights with other students. To counteract this, his older brother Pete encouraged him to join the track team and focus his energy into running. Louis eventually became a running fanatic and trained constantly to improve his times.

Louis Zamperini joined the track team and poured his love and enthusiasm for running into an invitation to the represent the United States in the Olympics. © 2014 - Universal Pictures.

Louis Zamperini joined the track team and poured his love and enthusiasm for running into an invitation to the represent the United States in the Olympics. © 2014 – Universal Pictures.

Louis’ running earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California and eventually a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. He finished in 8th place in the 5000-meter run at the Olympics in Berlin, Germany. He was fast enough to impress Adolf Hitler, who complimented him on his fast finish. A few days later, Louis saw a small Nazi flag outside the Reich Chancellery and decided, “It would make a swell souvenir, and it looked easy to reach,” he told Hillenbrand. Although a guard caught him after stealing the flag, the guard let him go and let him keep the flag when Louis convinced him he just wanted a souvenir of “his happy time in Germany.”

In 1941, Louis enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. Two years later, mechanical difficulties caused a plane Louis was on to crash into the ocean 850 miles south of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard. Louis and another survivor floated on a life raft with almost no water and food for 47 days, drinking rainwater and surviving on small fish they caught. A Japanese bomber strafed them, but Louis survived using skills he had learned long before the accident.

“He knew from being an Eagle Scout that bullets will lose their velocity in a few feet of water,” Luke said. “So that’s why he dove into the water under the raft to avoid being hit by the bullets.” When Louis dove into the water, however, there was another problem: the waters were shark infested.

“He had taken a survival course in Hawaii when he was stationed there on surviving in the water with sharks,” Luke said. “When he dove over the side of the raft to avoid the Japanese plane, down below were two sharks. When the sharks were coming up to have their lunch, what he did and what he had learned in the class was to put his hand up against the shark’s nose because the shark’s nose is tender and would cause them to move away long enough for him to go back up and get another breath of air. He continued this until the plane had moved on and he was able to get back up in the raft.”

While on the raft, Louis prayed that if God would save him, he would serve heaven forever. After a month and a half on the raft, Louis and his fellow survivor Phil floated to the Marshall Islands, which were a Japanese territory. They were immediately captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp. Over the next two years, Louis spent time in four different POW camps. He was singled out in the camps because of his Olympic success and was tormented especially by Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed “The Bird”), one of the war’s most wanted criminals. After his rescue, it was The Bird who tormented Louis in his sleep every night.

After Japan’s surrender in September of 1945, Louis was finally able to return home to his family. His homecoming was glorious, but it was soon marred by post-traumatic stress disorder. He would have reoccurring nightmares about The Bird. He married a beautiful young woman, Cynthia, but his trauma soon affected their relationship as well. Louis tried turning back to running to ease his nightmares, but a war injury made it difficult. Instead, he found comfort in drinking.

Louis Zamperini (left) with his son, Luke, answer questions during resilience training during the Wingman Day event held at the Base Theater Dec. 10, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Edward Cannon)

Louis Zamperini (left) with his son, Luke, answer questions during resilience training during the Wingman Day event held at the Base Theater Dec. 10, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Edward Cannon)

Everything changed in 1949 after Cynthia went to a revival meeting led by Billy Graham. She persuaded Louis to go and listen to Graham speak. While listening to the evangelist, Louis remembered all the times he had prayed while in captivity. And in that moment, everything changed in his life.

“The most important part of my dad’s story and all he went through with his athletic prowess, his survival at sea, his being singled out in prison camp, and his subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder was that he came to faith,” Luke said. “When he went into that Billy Graham tent meeting in 1949 he came to grips with his life, and came to terms with all the promises that he’d made to God when he was on the life raft and in prison camp. He had promised God that if He brought him home, he would seek Him and serve Him for the rest of his life. And at that moment he realized that he had never come through on his part of the bargain. And he got down on his knees and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Immediately, at that moment, he knew he was done. He was done being drunk. He was done being in brawls. He had forgiven all his prison guards, including The Bird. He went home that night and it was the first night he did not have this recurring nightmare where he would throttle The Bird. That was the first night he didn’t have that nightmare and he never had it again the rest of his life. His life was instantly changed. The post-traumatic stress disorder was instantly gone the moment he began his relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Louis began a new life as a Christian speaker. A year later, he returned to Japan to meet with his captors and tell them he forgave them. “The men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face,” Hillenbrand wrote. Louis was never able to meet with The Bird, despite several attempts. However, he made it clear that he no longer held any hate in his heart toward him. “My dad has always said that hating someone does not harm the object of your hate, it harms you,” Luke said. “The big message of the experience is that of forgiveness. He knew Jesus had forgiven him through this love God has for man even though man is corrupt and sinful. With that same kind of love he had to forgive the men who had mistreated him.”

Luke explained that people were often amazed when they met his father because he was not a bitter man, but a joyful man who was full of life. “I hope that my sister and I, his children, and my son, his grandchild, will continue to honor his story and his faith in Christ,” Luke said.

Louis established a boys camp in 1954 to help wayward youth find direction in their life through Christian ideals. “We have decided we will keep that charity alive,” Luke said. “My wife and my son and I are working to keep that dream going. The greatest legacy of all is that we would continue to tell his story and the legacy of his life.”

Louis Zamperini passed away July 2, 2014 at 97 years old. Before his death, Louis had been chosen to be the Grand Marshal of the Parade of Roses in Pasadena, California, on New Years Day 2015. The parade chose not to seek another Grand Marshal. Luke and his family walked in the parade in his honor.

Jessi Hooley is the editorial assistant at Good News.


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