Louis Zamperini, b. 1917 – d. 2014

Louis_Zamperini_at_announcement_of_2015_Tournament_of_Roses_Grand_MarshalA great number of people may not be familiar with the name Louis Zamperini, but the man’s fame is beginning to spread. In May the Whittier Daily News carried an article reporting that this ninty-seven-year-old would be the Grand Marshall for the 2015 Rose Parade, this after the book about his life, Unbroken, hit the New York Times best-seller list. On top of that, a movie based on the book is due out this coming December.

The only sad part of this story is that Louie Zamperini passed away earlier this month. The joyous part, besides his successful athletic career and his World War II heroism, is his transformed life. Some might even say Louie was a miracle.

As a fifteen-year-old, Louie was bordering on juvenile delinquency, though I don’t know if that term was in use yet.

Thankfully, his success as a runner provided him with a meaningful channel for all his energy and drive and got him off the streets and into school. After setting records at USC, he made the 1936 US Olympic team.

However, another turn in his life lay ahead. World War II dashed his hopes of returning to the Olympics to run for a medal.

While serving in the Air Force Louie’s plane was shot down. He and two others survived, only to be adrift on the Pacific Ocean for forty-seven days (one man died a month into the ordeal). Unfortunately the two US servicemen were “rescued” by the Japanese and consigned to a prisoner of war camp. The treatment there was cruel.

Once again, events in Louie’s life changed him:

He returned from the war a haunted man, filled with bitterness and rage, his once promising running career over. Suffering from what today would be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, Zamperini took to heavy drinking. (Obituary, Whittier Daily News)

God had preserved and protected this man for a reason, though. He had not seen the last of dramatic twists in the direction his life would take. In what I consider to be Apostle-Paul-like fashion, Louie changed again, this time not because his circumstances were different, but because he was.

Then everything changed.

After attending a 1949 Billy Graham revival tent meeting on the streets of Los Angeles at the insistence of his wife, Cynthia, Zamperini said he experienced a rebirth and Christian conversion that was to guide the rest of his days. (Obituary, Whittier Daily News)

Probably the greatest evidence of his changed life was his ability to forgive those who had tortured him, in particular the commander in charge of both the prisoner of war camps in which Louie was taken. In essence, when he met Christ, the supernatural power of His Spirit brought peace to Louie’s life.

After Louie met Billy, the former POW never had another prisoner-of-war nightmare. He lost his desire to kill the Bird [the commander responsible for his torture]. He no longer hated the guards who’d tortured him. He forgave Jimmie Sasaki [a Japanese man who had graduated from USC] for pretending to be his friend when he really was his enemy. The turmoil of his life was replaced by calmness and a conviction that he’d found the right path.

Zamp began to speak about his experiences. He wasn’t afraid to talk about his new faith, but he resolved that he would never push his thinking on anyone (Awesome Stories, p. 12).

No need for Louie to try to make people listen. God clearly has opened a door for the world to hear bout this one changed life.

I don’t know if the movie will mention Louie’s coming to Christ or even Victory Boys Camp, the organization he founded in 1952 for troubled teens. But that’s OK. Louie Zamperini’s life can be an example that prepares soil for some or shines the light on the path to Jesus for others. God can use him even now after he has heard the “Well-done, good and faithful servant,” from the Master he served.

When he was adrift on that raft back in 1943, he’d prayed

If you will save me,
I will serve you forever.

For years he struggled to live the life God had saved without serving Him in return. I don’t really believe in “bargaining with God,” but it’s apparent that God in fact wanted Louie to serve Him.

Louie fought against God’s call on his life. His wife wanted him to go to listen to that preacher Billy Graham, and Louie said no. Over and over he said no. When he finally gave in, he left early. His wife asked him to go back. Finally he agreed, only if they would leave at the point that the preacher would tell them to bow their heads.

Zamp returned to the tent, fully planning to leave at the predetermined time. Then, he heard Billy say these words:

    What kind of life are you living? Are you satisfied with your life?

Louie reacted to Dr. Graham’s words:

Just then, my whole rotten sinful life passed before my eyes and I began to get an inkling of what I feared I had to do. Only I didn’t want to do it. Why? Men prefer darkness to light. How could I give up the parties and the liquor and living for the moment and the fun? (Devil at My Heels, page 241.)

Zamp grabbed Cynthia’s hand and told her they were leaving. When he got to the aisle, something made him change his mind:

…I got to the aisle. I stepped onto the sawdust path and knew it was my crossroads of decision. I fought against it, perhaps harder than I’d ever fought, but in the end I made my decision, turned right, toward Billy Graham, released Cynthia’s hand … (Devil at My Heels, page 242.)

(Awesome Stories, p. 11; quotes from Louis Zamperini’s autobiography)

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2 Comments

  1. Such an amazing life, and one given to God for years after his ordeal was over. I am saddened that he is no longer here with us, but feel that Laura Hillenbrand’s biography revived this story for us!

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    • I agree. I’m glad the biography has brought Louie’s story to the greater public. I suspect the movie won’t mention his faith and what he did with his life after he came home, but perhaps people will want to know and will read the biography as a result.

      Becky

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