Louie Zamperini running in college.
On May 27, 1943 the plane carrying famed runner and former Olympian Louie Zamperini crashed while on a rescue mission over the Pacific Ocean. Of the 11 men on board, only three survive the crash. Clambering aboard a woefully inadequate life raft, they float aimlessly westward, drifting toward islands occupied by Japanese troops. One of the men eventually dies. Zamperini (who ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and a friend manage to hang on for 47 days of unbearable thirst, constant danger from sharks, and near-starvation. When captured by the Japanese, Zamperini weighed around 80 pounds.
Laura Hillenbrand (author of “Seabiscuit”) tells the story in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
The treatment Zamperini (and other American POWs) suffered in Japanese prison camps was horrific and inhuman. For 25 months he endured sadistic guards, brutal torture, slave labor, medical experimentation, public humiliation, starvation, and bloody dysentery. When the war finally ends and he heads home, the memories drive him to alcohol to deaden the pain inside. He becomes a prisoner of his own inner demons that nearly destroy his marriage.
Then it happens.
In 1949 a young evangelist named Billy Graham came to Los Angeles to preach in the “Canvas Cathedral.” Thousands flocked to the services. One night Zamperini’s wife Cynthia attends with some friends and is profoundly changed by the gospel message. Louie grudgingly agrees to go to get his wife off his back. When he goes a second time, his life is changed forever.
Let me say it clearly. This is perhaps the most profound conversion story I have ever read. Like a modern-day Saul of Tarsus, when Louie Zamperini met Jesus, his life was utterly transformed. From 1949 until the present day (Zamperini is now 93), he has spent his life speaking to groups everywhere about redemption and forgiveness.
“Unbroken” is currently number one on the New York Times bestseller list. I should note that this is not a “Christian” book in the sense that we usually use the term. It’s simply the story of Louie Zamperini’s heroic survival first adrift in the ocean and then as a POW. But the end of the story is deeply Christian, which is all the more remarkable since the book comes from a mainstream publisher.
If you want to read a story that will leaving you cheering, pick up a copy of “Unbroken.” You might want to buy a second copy to give to a friend. It’s that good.