Part 2: Louie Zamperini
You can see Part One of this series for a more thorough introduction. But the idea is that I long to sing worship to God and the Lamb around the throne of Heaven with people from a thousand generations. Both biblical heroes like John the Baptist and Hannah, Samuel’s mom, but also the incredible saints of God at my church who have moved on to eternal life, like Sonny Bunton, Jim Price, and Cecil Webb. But I also long just to hug people in Heaven. And not just family members and friends. People I never met but whose stories inspired me in my faith to finish my race.
I doubt any story has impacted me the way Louie Zamperini’s has.
You can read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand for all the fantastic details, truly one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read1. Even beyond how amazing the source material is. But I want to just hit the highlights today and hopefully encourage others to learn more about how God used this one man to prove that he is sovereign over every detail of our lives.
He was an Olympic hero at a young age with a bright future ahead of him2, but his second turn at the Olympics was upended when World War II started, and they were canceled. As God’s providence would have it, Zamperini ended up in the war with the Air Force after he graduated from the University of Southern California.
From there his story reads like fiction because it is way too outrageous to be true. Except, it is.
On May 27, 1943, while stationed in Hawaii and on a search and rescue mission for a different plane, his plane crashed into the Pacific. Only three of the 11 men on board survived. Those three men–Louie, Phil, the pilot, and Mac, the tail-gunner–spent 47 days on lifeboats (two, then eventually just one), fighting against no protection from weather elements, sharks, dehydration, starvation, and being shot at by an enemy plane.
Two phenomenal stories came out of the time. First, my personal favorite part of his story outside of him preaching forgiveness of the Japanese war criminals, is how they survived the shark attacks. Zamperini was taught while stationed in Hawaii that if ever came face-to-face with a shark to not swim away. But instead to stand his ground and swat it in the nose. He did this over and over when they were being fired at and had to jump overboard. That advice saved his life. It also proves that fear is a liar.
Secondly, after their life raft sustained holes from being fired at, the sharks began to attack again. The three men had to pump air into the raft, patch the holes, and fight off the sharks with oars. This took hours and hours, and they were already sleep-deprived and malnourished. But all three jobs had to be done around the clock to keep from being killed. If there had only been two men on the raft at this point, they certainly would have died.
Mac actually did die of malnourishment on Day 33. And at that point, Louie promised God if He got him out of this, he’d serve him the rest of his life.
Louie and Phil drifted on, 2000 miles straight into Japanese territory. Where they were taken as POWs and mistreated to the most severe degree. In one prison, Louie came across an imperial soldier prison guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, infamously known as “The Bird”. Watanabe made Louie’s life a living Hell and did all but kill him, presumably because of Zamperini’s success as an athlete.
Louie was also promised at one point by the Japanese better living arrangements and more luxuries if he would get on the radio and read anti-American propaganda. He refused.
He was eventually freed after Japan surrendered in 1945. And upon coming back home, he struggled psychologically and relationally. But he eventually found salvation in Christ from a Billy Graham Crusade. And while he wasn’t magically fixed, he was able to have a successful marriage to Cynthia and held up his bargain with God by spreading the Gospel of Christ around the world. He traveled with Graham himself.
In fact, by 1950, just five years after the war, he was preaching forgiveness of the Japanese war criminals. And he himself went back to Japan to find many of them in their cells to tell them he forgave them. He searched for “The Bird” but was unable to find him.
Zamperini died at 97 years of age of pneumonia in his home in Southern California. I’ve often said this proves that God has a sense of humor. Because the crash couldn’t kill him. The sharks couldn’t kill him. The dehydration and starvation couldn’t kill him. The bullets couldn’t kill him. The Bird couldn’t kill him. All because God wanted to use him to tell this story. Millions have been moved by it and I have no doubt many have come to know what biblical perseverance and forgiveness look like.
And for these reasons, among others, I can’t wait to find him and hug him in Heaven.
- There is a movie about Louie Zamperini as well and it is good, but the book is transcendent. I’ve never read anything like it. ↩
- He never lost a race in high school. And He finished 8th in the 5,000 meters in 1936, setting a record for the fastest lap at the time, and gained the interest of Adolf Hitler himself. He to this day is the youngest American to ever qualify for the 5,000 meters. ↩