The news just came out this morning that Louis Zamperini has died. Zamperini will be known to history as an Olympian and World War II hero, but his life was so much more than that. In fact, his story is larger than life, painted on a global canvas, encompassing the heights of human triumph and the depths of human degradation. In short, Zamperini went from juvenile delinquent to Olympian (who met Hitler!) to bombardier to lost at sea to abused POW to home again. The story is vast and incredible.
Zamperini had been a prisoner of war for two years in Japan during World War II. No one ever wants to be a prisoner of war, but the Japanese POW camps were the worst of the war. Survivors of European POW camps reported far different experiences from those in the Japanese camps. The Japanese were especially cruel, beating their prisoners mercilessly, starving them, turning them into slave labor, working them until they died, and depriving them of human dignity. Many Americans who survived the Japanese camps experienced great emotional and psychological trauma for the rest of their lives.
That was Louis’s story. He survived the camps, but even after he arrived home he wasn’t free of them. There was one particular Japanese guard nicknamed “the Bird” who had been especially cruel to him. After the war, the Bird haunted Louis’s dreams. Louis carried with him a burgeoning hatred for the Bird and became consumed with plans to go back to Japan to find the Bird and to murder him. In the meantime, Louis was sinking into a black hole of bitterness and substance abuse. Things were so bad, that his wife left him and was ready to divorce him.
But before the marriage ended, his wife trusted Christ at Billy Graham’s 1949 crusade in Los Angeles. Her life was immediately transformed, and she began trying to get her bitter, drunken husband to attend with her. Finally, Louis agreed. Louis was very resistant to the idea of going to a tent revival, and he liked it even less once he got there. He despised the confrontation that Graham’s preaching brought to him. Graham preached about the final judgment saying, “Your own words, your own thoughts, and your own deeds are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day. And God is going to say, ‘Depart from me.'”
Laura Hillenbrand reports Louis’s response:
Louis felt indignant rage flaring in him, a struck match. I am a good man, he thought. I am a good man.
Even as he had this thought, he felt the lie in it. He knew what he had become. Somewhere under his anger, there was a lurking, nameless uneasiness… With the urgency of a bolting animal, he wanted to run (Unbroken, p. 373).
And run he did. But he came back to the crusade a second night, and God broke him. Louis repented of his sin and trusted in Christ. Immediately, his life was changed. He stopped drinking. His rage against the Bird melted away. The grace of God had transformed him.
Louis Zamperini was 97 years old when he died. He will be remembered by many for his achievements during the 1936 Olympics and for his heroic service during the war. Nevertheless, he lived most of his life after the war. And that life was indelibly marked by the grace of God. I thank God for Louis’s life. His story has meant the world to me. His ultimate surrender to God has meant even more. He is with Jesus now, and no story could finish any better than that.
Louis’s autobiography: Devil at My Heels, by Louis Zamperini.
New York Times best-selling biography: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Lauren Hillenbrand
Memorial from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: “Remembering Louis Zamperini,” by Trevor Freeze
My recent sermon that discusses Zamperini:
Louis shares testimony: Excerpt from 1958 Billy Graham Crusade
Report on his passing this morning: