Remembering Louis Zamperini

by Lee Habeeb
A soldier who taught the world about heroism, love, and redemption

Seventy years ago, the world was convinced he was dead. There was good reason: A death certificate had been signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There had been no news from the former Olympic athlete since his World War II bomber crashed into the Pacific while he was on a rescue mission.

The story of how Louis Zamperini survived that ordeal, and overcame it, was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

Zamperini’s life here on earth ended last week, on July 2. You will read much about the survival and resilience part of his story in obituaries and tributes in the days to come. But little about the redemption. Little about the most important — and beautiful — part of Zamperini’s story.

That’s because it involved a man named Billy Graham. And a savior named Jesus Christ.

They say cats have nine lives. Louis Zamperini had at least three. The first began in 1917. He was born in Olean, N.Y., and moved with his family to Torrance, Calif., in the 1920s. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louis spoke very little English. That made him a target for bullies, so his father did what dads did back then when a son was being bullied: He taught him how to box. Soon, Louie was beating up the boys who had been beating him up.

Louie was an angry and rebellious teenager; his passions included alcohol and fighting. His prospects were looking bleak until his older brother Pete got him involved in the school track team. Track saved young Louie’s life. He set a world interscholastic record for the mile and won a scholarship to USC.

“Local newspapers started calling me Zamp the Champ,” he told America in WWII magazine in 2006. “I relished every moment in the limelight, knowing at last I could make something of myself.”

Zamperini’s speed impressed everyone. “The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” his coach at USC told a reporter.

Los Angeles knew Louie, and the world got to know him in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He competed in the 5,000-meter run and finished eighth. But he was best remembered for what he did off the track. One night, after a few drinks, he scaled a 15-foot wall surrounding the Reich Chancellery (the German White House), pulled the Nazi flag off a flagpole, and ran. German security caught him, but he wasn’t charged. When a high-ranking German Army commander found out who Zamperini was, he let him keep the flag.

Zamperini’s next goal was training for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but that dream was killed as the world prepared for war. The 1940 summer games were canceled, and Zamperini traded his track uniform for a military uniform and signed up for bombardier training in Texas. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and deployed to Hawaii in 1942 with the 11th Bombardment Group, Seventh Air Force, as a master bombardier.

Zamperini was involved in a number of dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater, and then came the mission that changed his life. On May 27, 1943, his crew of eleven was ordered to search for a B-25 shot down near Palmyra Island, about 900 miles south of Hawaii. They left Kualoa, on Oahu, in the only B-24 available, the Green Hornet.

At about 2 p.m., the plane’s two port engines failed, and within minutes, the plane slammed into the sea. “It felt like someone hit me in the head with a sledgehammer,” Zamperini told Life magazine. “The crash forced me forward and down into the sea. I blacked out momentarily from the impact and found myself entangled in coiled wires and cables that wound around me like metal spaghetti.”

“Swallowing a nauseous saltwater mixed with gasoline, oil, hydraulic fluid, and blood, I somehow managed to inflate my Mae West — my life jacket,” he continued. “Then I noticed two crewmen about 20 feet away clinging to the side of a gas-tank float. I managed to grab onto a portion of a nylon parachute cord that was attached to an inflatable life raft. I climbed in, unhooked the oars, and rowed over to pick up our pilot, Russell Phillips, who was badly injured, and pulled him up into the raft. Then Francis McNamara, our tailgunner, made it in. We were the only three survivors of the eleven-man crew.”

He had survived one ordeal, only to endure another. One day floating in a small raft in the Pacific turned into two, and one week turned into more than six. The men had little food and less water.

“Six bars of chocolate and a few cans of water lasted us a while,” Zamperini said. “Then, the only food for the next month and a half was two tiny fish, a two-foot shark, three birds, and four albatrosses.”

There were the other dangers. The water was filled with sharks that were bigger than Zamperini’s raft, and, if that weren’t bad enough, Japanese bombers spotted the raft and made several passes at them. “I slid into the water, which was infested with sharks, and hung below the raft to avoid the bullets,” Zamperini recalled.

To keep up morale, the men crooned their favorite pop hits, and pretended to cook meals. But it wasn’t enough to keep one of his raft mates alive. Francis McNamara’s body began to fade, and he died. Zamperini gave a brief eulogy, and buried his comrade in the sea.

After 47 days at sea, the two survivors saw something they thought they’d never see again: land. But the hope they experienced was short-lived; their raft had drifted 2,000-plus miles to the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands, which had been turned into fortresses in preparation for the eventual American invasion.

The camp Zamperini was locked up in as a POW was nicknamed Execution Island. Nine U.S. Marines were beheaded there. One sadistic guard, who was known at the camp as The Bird — a man so brutal that even his fellow guards despised him — was particularly tough on Zamperini.

Zamperini endured, and when the war ended, he returned home to a hero’s welcome and a big tour. He had managed to escape death not once, but twice. Physical death, that is.

But Zamperini’s tormenters had killed his spirit. And when all the celebrating was over, the rage he felt toward them persisted. “Pain never bothered me,” he told the Associated Press in 2003. “Destroying my dignity stuck with me.”

Zamperini’s life descended into darkness. He began to drink, and he took out his anger and resentment on the people around him. He was soon on the verge of losing his family.

Then came the part of Zamperini’s story — the redemption part — that you won’t read much about in the media. The part that made readers — Christian and non-Christian alike — weep.

It turns out Louis’s wife, Cynthia, was on point of serving him with divorce papers. She would have done so but for the intervention of a neighbor, who persuaded her to go hear a young evangelist preaching in a big tent near downtown Los Angeles. His name was Billy Graham.

Cynthia accepted Christ that night, and told her husband that because of her conversion, she wouldn’t file for divorce. She asked Louie if he would accompany her to the Crusade. After a week of arguing, she persuaded him to attend. The year was 1946. That day, almost 30 years from the day he was born in New York, Zamperini was born again in Los Angeles.

“I acknowledged to God that I was a sinner,” he told a large crowd at a Billy Graham Crusade twelve years later. “I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life and save me, and of course he did.”

The change in his life was almost instantaneous. “That night when I got home from the Crusade, it was unbelievable. I didn’t have a nightmare, and I haven’t had one since,” he recalled.

It didn’t take Zamperini long to realize what he had to do to free himself from his tormenters: He had to forgive them. And forgive them he did, returning to Japan to do it. Zamperini even tried to track down the sadistic guard who had tortured him so mercilessly and forgive him too. But The Bird was, to the end, a bad man; he wouldn’t allow Zamperini to meet him.

Zamperini spent the rest of his life as a motivational speaker, inspiring people with his story. Whenever and wherever he could, he told people about the power of Christ’s love.

In 1998, Zamperini finally got to participate in the Olympics in Japan. He carried the torch through the town where he had been a POW 50-plus years before as adoring crowds lined the streets.

CBS reporter Jim Nance asked him about that day, and the graciousness of the Japanese people, who smothered with flowers a POW statue near the place where he and so many GIs had been tortured. “Their graciousness and compassion and love was unbelievable,” he told Nance. “It more than compensated for my past years in Japan more than 53 years ago.”

Louie Zamperini could have chosen a life of self-pity and self-hate. He could have chosen to remain a victim. And who would have blamed him?

But instead he chose life. And it was his faith that gave him his love for life.

He gave up skateboarding at 81. At 91, he reluctantly gave up skiing. This May, he was named grand marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade in Pasadena.

To the end, Louie Zamperini was teaching us how to not only survive, but live.

Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network and a senior adviser to AmericaStrong. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.

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