Louie Zamperini died last year (2014) at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. Recently Angelina Jolie directed the movie, (Unbroken) which was about his life (a true story) and about the challenges and hardships that this man suffered. Challenges and hardships that would have broken me and perhaps you. Let’s look at his life and see if we can find any clues as to how this man was able to live ninety-seven years and still remain “unbroken”.
Louie was born in 1917 in
and when his large Italian family moved to the little town of Torrance,
immigrants some years later, they were not welcome. In the 1920’s Italians were thought to be
lawless and revolutionary by prejudiced people and the citizens of California had picked up
this prejudice! The boys at Louie’s
school would gang up on him and beat him up while cursing him for being
Italian. And Louie fought back by
becoming the town “bad boy” and drinking and smoking, playing pranks on the
kids who hurt him and getting into fights. Torrance
Louie’s older brother Pete was the “good boy” in the family and he encouraged Louie to join a sport. Pete thought if Louie put his energies into a sport he might not have so much time to get into trouble. Louie reluctantly agreed and decided to try running. When Louie would go out for a run Pete would ride his bicycle along side of Louie coaxing him to run faster. And by the summer of 1932, Louie did almost nothing but run.
In the 1930’s track was hugely popular and Louie won every race. People in the bleachers would cheer and stomp and all the high school girls had a crush on him. Now that Louie Zamperini was a super star, the people of
forgave him everything. Louie finished
high school and went off to college but he ran every day and won every
race. In 1936 this hometown boy made the
Olympic team and was soon on his way to Torrance to
compete in the Olympics. He was the
youngest distance runner to ever make the team.
Louie was a hero even though he did not come in first place in the
Olympic races in 1936. With more
practice Louie knew he could win the gold in 1940. A few weeks before, the officials had
announced which city would host the 1940 Games, and Louie shaped his dreams
around Berlin . He couldn’t wait to run through Tokyo, Japan and he set his heart
on it. Tokyo
But it was not to be. Louie started college and as he worked through the summer of 1940,
toward war. In Europe, Hitler had driven
the British and their allies into the sea at America .
And in the Pacific, Dunkirk Japan
was tearing through . In early 1941, Louie joined the Army Air
Corps. And before a year passed by China Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and
was at war. America
After basic training Louie was accepted into flight training in
and he later ends up as an officer
bombardier. Eventually he was flying
with his friend Phil in raids over Midland, Texas Wake Island
in a B24 plane. This plane, the B24 was
scary to fly as it often had fuel leaks and engine problems and Louie saw
several of his buddies’ burn up in these planes. Day after day Louie and his
buddies were sent out on missions flying long distances over the South Pacific
and engaging in battles in the sky with Japanese fighter pilots. Nerves were always on edge and death was a constant
companion. They prayed that their luck
But one day their luck ran out. Their plane had engine problems and went down in the middle of the ocean. And Louie, Phil and Mac went down with the burning plane. Louie passed out when they crashed into the sea and when he woke up he was underwater inside the plane with his finger caught in the metal frame. Air was gone from his lungs and he was gulping reflexively and swallowing salt water. He ripped his finger free from the metal and found a window of the plane, crawled through and pushed off kicking clear of the plane. Louie fumbled for the cords on his Mae West, and the chambers ballooned. The vest pulled him upward through a stream of debris. And finally he burst into dazzling daylight. He gasped in a breath of air and vomited up salt water and fuel that he had swallowed. But Louie had survived!
Louie saw Mac and Phil a few dozen feet away clinging to a fuel tank. Blood spouted from Phil’s head and nearby the life rafts were bobbing on the water and drifting away.. Louie swam for the rafts but the rafts slipped farther and farther from reach. Louie swam faster to reach them knowing that the life rafts meant their very survival. But the currant of water was moving the life rafts faster than he could swim. Just then he saw a long cord trailing off the raft nearby. He snatched the cord, reeled the raft to him and he and Mac climbed in one of the rafts and pulled Phil aboard too.
Phil’s mind was woozy and he lay vomiting and delusional in the bottom of the raft. There were pockets in the rafts containing some survival provisions: chocolate bars, tins of water, a flare gun, fishhooks, a brass mirror. They wouldn’t have enough water to last more than a couple of days. Adrift near the equator with little water and no shelter meant trouble. Mac went into a state of shock and curled up wailing, “We’re going to die! We’re going to die!” And Louie took charge.
The men soon ran out of water and they suffered terribly from thirst. They would open their mouths when it rained to get a few drops of rainwater to drink. The men soon became sun burned and shriveled and sharks circled the rafts waiting for them to die. They caught several fish and ate them raw. Day after day the desperate men bobbed around in the open sea praying that someone would come and rescue them. But no one ever came.
Finally a Japanese plane spotted them and turned around and came back and circled their rubber rafts shooting scores of bullets down at them. The men dove into the water under the rafts to avoid being shot but one of their bullet ridden rafts sunk and the other one began to slowly sink as they had no way to plug the holes. Each man shriveled up and kept losing weight and finally Mac died and Louie and Phil buried him at sea.
Forty seven long days had gone by now and Louie and Phil knew they couldn’t hang on much longer. Louie lay on the sinking raft looking up at the starry sky while drifting in and out of consciousness. Louie began to pray and his prayers turned to begging. “Please God, if you will save us I will give you my life. I will follow you anywhere, do anything you want. I promise. Please God, save us. Please!”
The next day a Japanese boat spotted the sinking life raft and picked the men up. Louie and Phil became prisoners of war. As prisoners they were beaten and tortured and given very little food. The guard broke Louie’s leg in many places and hobbled around on it. He would never run again he figured. For two long years Louie was beaten and humiliated and nearly starved and he watched helplessly as his fellow prisoners were tortured and starved and beaten. When the prisoners were sick or hurt or diseased there was no medical help available. Two out of three prisoners died and those who came out alive looked like living skeletons
One guard in the Japanese prison camp, Watanabe, had been especially cruel. One day Watanabe forced all of the prisoners in the camp to sock Louie in his face. Already Louie had a broken jaw. Watanabe knew how to humiliate the men and enjoyed watching them suffer and die. .
The war ended and Louie and the surviving prisoners went home overjoyed but broken and changed men. Americans in the 1940’s did not understand post traumatic stress disorder or P.T.S.D. Folks in the 1940’s believed that the men who fought in World War 2 should suck it up and come home and be the same men as before.
After months on a hospital ship, Louie did come home, and there was a joyful reunion with his family! But Louie wasn’t the same man. He wanted to settle in and get a job, but the years of stress and depravation had taken their toll. He married his girlfriend Cynthia, and tried to be a husband and father to their two children but he had flash backs of prison life. Louie trembled constantly and couldn’t settle down and hold a job. After awhile he wouldn’t even look for a job.
All Louie could think about was revenge. Unforgiveness was breaking him down.. He wanted Watanabe, the Japanese guard who humiliated and tortured him for those two awful years in prison to be punished. Hate and anger consumed Louie and he would wake up in the night screaming and shaking from nightmares. He was back in the prison camp watching his buddies die. He was back on the raft waiting for help that never came. Hate and anger had taken over! Years went by and nothing seemed to change. Cynthia loved Louie but she couldn’t hold on much longer. It wasn’t fair to the children. She told Louie she was thinking of divorce.
But then one day (October 1949) the Billy Graham Crusade came to town (
and set up a huge tent. Thousands came
to the tent meetings and hundreds went forward to accept Christ as Savior. Cynthia went to one of the meetings and she
came home and begged Louie to go back with her the next evening. He refused at first but finally went but he
got angry and left early. The next
evening Cynthia pushed Louie to go just one more time with her and he agreed
with one caveat: When Billy Graham ends with, “Every head bowed, every eye
closed,” they were leaving. Los Angeles
Under the tent that night, Graham was preaching about creation – how God runs the whole universe and still knows how many hairs are on our heads and cares when a sparrow falls. Louie started remembering the day on the raft when had looked up at the night sky – God’s creation – and was awed
“What God asks of people is faith,” Graham continues. Louie jumps up and grabs Cynthia’s hand charging for the exit. He feels cornered and accused. But then as he is running out Louie remembers that day on the raft when he promised God that if God would only save his life he would follow Him always. He had long forgotten that promise. But now the memory of his promise to God is upon him.
Louie let go of Cynthia and turned toward Graham. He felt supremely alive. He began walking toward the altar. “That is it” said Graham. “God has spoken to you. You come on.” Tears were rolling down Louie’s eyes as he walked down the sawdust aisle toward Graham. Cynthia was standing in the back crying too. Around the tent one could hear whispers of “Praise God” and “Hallelujah!” Louie kept walking to the front altar along with hundreds of others as everyone sang and prayed and cried. Louie knelt at the altar, head bowed and opened his heart and life to Christ, promising to follow God as Graham prayed and blessed him and the others. Louie’s face shone and he was a changed man.
Louie and Cynthia started a Christian camp – a ministry - for troubled boys and ran it for many years helping hundreds of boys. Years later (when he was 80) Louie finally got to run through the streets of
in a race (not the Olympics). He also
tried to find the guard who had harmed him to forgive him personally. Tokyo
Louie had many challenges throughout his life that threatened to break him but he seemed to overcome each one of them with sheer grit or talent or endurance. But Louie was not able to overcome the anger he held for the Japanese prison guard or to forgive the inhumane acts that he lived through as a prisoner of war. Not being able to forgive his enemy was too heavy a burden for Louie to carry and the stress it caused was breaking him, where nothing else before had broken him.
God knows that we cannot carry the burden of not forgiving those who wrong us either. Perhaps that is one of the reasons God commands us to forgive those who harm us. To give these persons to God to take care of. To live in love and not hate so we too will remain unbroken. To let God change us when we can’t change ourselves. Louie allowed God to change him. And with God’s help he remained unbroken.
Louie’s life was no longer about hating and winning, but about forgiving and serving and following God. Louie forgave Watanabe and everyone else who wronged him! And Louie kept on forgiving. His new life now was about living generously and loving his enemies. That was where God was leading him and he must follow. . Louie knew that God would take care of him. He lived out his life unbroken to the end. What can we learn from his example?