Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestseller, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” tells the amazing story of Louis Zamperini.
Zamperini made many transitions, including from juvenile delinquent and uninhibited adventurer to Olympian, to bombardier, to crash survivor, to POW, to alcoholic, to inspirational Christian speaker.
His older brother Pete turned irreligious Zamperini from thievery into the “Torrance Tornado” track star. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he placed eighth in the 5,000 meters for which he had not trained. He might possibly have broken the 4-minute mile barrier before Roger Bannister in 1954 if not for World War II and injury.
In the war, he was an Army Air Force officer and bombardier.
While seeking downed fliers in May 1943, his plane crashed at sea, killing all but him, the pilot and the tail-gunner. They survived on two small poorly provisioned rafts despite injuries, boredom, stress, starvation, thirst, exposure, a typhoon and many shark attacks. A plane also strafed and bombed them, punching 48 bullet holes through their rafts but none through them.
They scraped by on hand-caught birds and some fish. Near death on their sixth day without water, Zamperini prayed he would dedicate his life to God if they got water. Unlike them, God was not missing in action and more than once sent rain when they prayed.
They quizzed each other, recited recipes, told all about their lives, prayed and sang hymns to keep their brains active to avoid fear and insanity.
Zamperini and the pilot survived on activity, optimism and hope, but the tail-gunner sank into resignation, pessimism and death.
Zamperini then vowed to serve God if he saved them.
Finally, after 2,000 miles and a record 47 days adrift they—skeletons half their old weights—were rescued.
Not exactly—they got Marshall Islands prison cells. They ran into some kind Japanese, including one Christian, but mostly they got cruelty and atrocities, especially from a sadist prison guard nicknamed the Bird. Any Japanese soldier showing POWs help or concern was liable to receive a beating.
Japanese press tallied their mass murders “as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants.” Guards tortured to degrade.
“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food and oxygen,” Hillenbrand writes. “The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”
Zamperini received dreadful mistreatment—beatings, starvation, spoiled food laced with maggots, feces and dirt, sewage-polluted drinking water and no medicine for deadly disease.
A clean-freak, he was forced to clean pig pens with his bare hands while scavenging pig food.
After WWII, he juggled jobs, including speaking, and became a drunkard.
His wife Cynthia, about to divorce him, helped turn him from alcohol to the Almighty at the 1949 Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade.
Dramatically converted and victorious over post-traumatic stress, pornography, cigarettes and booze, he even testified in later crusades.
Apparently not an evangelical herself, Hillenbrand nevertheless fairly covers Zamperini’s spiritual life.
He illustrates what C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Problem of Pain”: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Zamperini died in 2014 at age 97.
Richard Penn is a member of Southeast.