Louis Zamperini: Olympic Runner, WWII Veteran, Redeemed by Christ

  A magnet for trouble while growing up in California, Louis Zamperini, nicknamed Louie, was always picked on by other children. He started smoking, stealing, jumping trains, and got himself into all sorts of trouble. Until he began to run.
   His older brother, Pete, convinced him to try running and Louie threw all his energy into it, even running in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.
   That was before World War II. When World War II broke out, Louie was drafted into the military and made a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. Louie and the crew he was with were assigned to bomb Wake Island, then to a bombing raid on the Island of Nauru, both Japanese controlled. After the raid on Nauru, Japanese Zero Fighters opened machine gun fire on them, badly wounding several crew members, some of them dying, and damaging their plane, besides.
   The remaining crew and the new members who joined them had no plane until they were ordered to fly the Green Hornet to look for a missing plane. The Green Hornet was said to be hard to control; its tail sagged lower than its nose during flight, and worse, parts had been pulled from it to repair other planes. Phil, the pilot, was reluctant, but they had no choice but to follow orders.
   As the plane flew over the search area, one of the plane’s engines stopped. The crew worked to get it going again, but it was no use. Both engines went out, and the plane crashed. Louie was pulled underwater and wrapped in cords. Then he blacked out. When he came to, the cords were gone. Later, he concluded it must have been God watching out for him. There was no other explanation. He came to the surface and found only two other crew members, the pilot Phil, and Mac. Louie managed to get two of the life rafts, and the three climbed aboard. Phil had a bad gash, and Louie was sure he’d broken several ribs. The life raft was poorly supplied, but Louie was sure they’d be rescued within a day.
   He was wrong.
   They drifted farther and farther from land, into the largest stretch of the Pacific. Louie hadn’t thought much about God before, but now he began to pray. He prayed for water and promised to seek and serve God the rest of his life if God would give them water. Later that day, it rained. Several days later, he prayed again for water, and again, it rained.
   On the raft, they fended off sharks, endured hunger, heat during the day, and cold at night, machine gun fire from a Japanese plane, and a typhoon. They continued to drift farther west and on their thirty-third night on the raft, Mac died.
   On their forty-seventh day on the water, they reached land. A Japanese controlled island. Louie and Phil were swiftly captured. For the first two days, the Japanese gave them food, water, medical care, and rest. But after that, everything changed. They were locked in cells and treated terribly. Louie was dreadfully sick, but when he asked for water, a guard flung scalding water in his face.
   Then they were hauled off to a prison camp; a secret camp where they, along with the two hundred other men there, didn’t even get the privileges of being a prisoner of war. There were strict rules and if they broke a rule or failed to complete a chore satisfactorily, they were beaten. Every few days, a prisoner died of malnutrition. Louie was forced to run in a race against a Japanese runner and savagely beaten when he won the race. It seemed like things couldn’t get much worse. But they did.
   Louie was taken to another prison camp where the 900 prisoners of war worked as slaves under a brutal corporal. This corporal, known as the Bird, showed unbelievable cruelty to the POW’s, showing them letters from home, then burning them unopened, and beating them for no reason. From Louie’s first day at the camp, the Bird singled him out for especially cruel treatment, every day beating him with his huge belt buckle on the head. Then suddenly, the Bird left. Louie was overjoyed.
   But it was not to last. After being transferred to another camp, Louie nearly collapsed in shock when he saw the Bird there. Again, the Bird constantly tormented Louie. As if that wasn’t enough, Louie and the other POW’s were forced to do backbreaking work in the freezing cold—unloading heavy coal off barges and into railway cars. After Louie had a bad fall doing the work and could no longer haul coal, the Bird put him to work cleaning out a pig sty with his bare hands. Every day he prayed for the war to end. Every day was a nightmare.
   One day, the Bird made all the officers, including Louie, line up and ordered each enlisted man to punch them in the face, hard. After two hundred twenty punches, Louie and the other officers were bruised and bloodied, their faces turned to pulp.
    Time passed, and Louie was dreadfully sick with beriberi, but then a guard announced that the war was over. Shortly after, a U.S. plane flew overhead, giving a signal, confirming the news. The end had finally come.

   But not for Louie. He came home and had a joyous reunion with his family (pictured above; he's hugging his mother). Hailed as a hero, reporters interviewed him and people asked him to share his story. But every night, he had vivid nightmares of the Bird beating him, his giant belt buckle crashing down on Louie’s head. So he turned to alcohol, hoping it would make him forget. But it didn’t. It just made things worse.
   He fell in love with a young woman named Cynthia, and the two married. But still the Bird haunted his dreams and he drank heavily.
   Two years passed. They had a baby girl now, but money was short, and their marriage was falling apart. Louie’s nightmares continued every night, and a doctor had told him he couldn’t run anymore because of his injury when he fell hauling coal. Louie grew more and more angry and bitter, and became convinced that killing the Bird was the only thing that could make his nightmares go away. Until one night.
   A new neighbor in their apartment building invited them to a Billy Graham crusade meeting. Louie would have nothing to do with it, but Cynthia decided to go. She came back a different person. Cynthia had given her life to Christ and no longer wanted a divorce, but told Louie she was going to pray for him and asked him to come with her to the meeting the next night. Louie finally agreed to go, but left before the meeting was over.
   The next night Cynthia tried again, and Louie reluctantly went, fully intending to leave before it was over. But something stopped him. He tried to ignore Billy Graham’s words, but he couldn’t. When he tried to leave, he remembered his promise on the raft to seek and serve God, and he could go no further. Instead of leaving, he went to the prayer room where he completely and totally gave his life to Jesus Christ.
   From then on, he was a different man. He felt light, cleansed, forgiven. He no longer hated the Japanese. And when he got home, he poured his bottles of liquor down the drain and threw his cigarettes in the trash. He slept deeply that night. The next morning he realized it was the first night in over four years that he didn’t have a nightmare about the Bird.
   Louie planned to just get a regular job, but that’s not what happened. He began to get invitations to speak all over the
country, so he traveled, sharing his story and God’s message of redemption.
   Soon, Louie and Cynthia had a baby boy. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they were happy.
   Louie continued speaking, and at one event he heard someone speak about the need for missionaries to go to Japan. Louie felt God telling him he needed to take a trip there. But Louie wasn’t too sure. He no longer hated the Japanese, but neither did he want to go back to Japan. “You’ll have to give me a swift kick in the pants so that I know it’s really You,” he prayed. Shortly after, a man gave him $500, telling him it was for his ministry trip to Japan. Then a group of young people gave him money to go. He couldn’t ignore God’s prompting. He was off to Japan.
   In Japan, after speaking and sharing his story, Louie visited one of the prisons where he had been held captive. But now, this prison held Japanese war criminals, including some of Louie’s former guards. Louie had been nervous about meeting his former guards, but when the time came, he realized he felt only compassion and forgiveness toward these men. He found himself running toward them and telling them God loved them, and he loved them, too. However, the Bird was not there and Louie learned that it was believed he had committed suicide. Louie was sad that he was not able to tell the Bird he forgave him, but he left Japan happy and at peace.
   Back home in the U.S., Louie started a camp for boys who had been in prison, juvenile detention centers, and the foster care system. At that camp, the boys spent time in the outdoors and learned about a God who loved them.
   Years passed, and Louie, now eighty-one years old, headed to Japan again to carry the Olympic torch in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
   Shortly before, Louie had been shocked to learn the Bird was still alive. Louie wanted to meet with him, but the Bird refused. So Louie sent him a letter, telling the man who had so badly treated and humiliated him he forgave him, he loved him, and that God loved him and Louie hoped he too would become a Christian.
   Louie died at 97 years old on July 2, 2014.



P. S. For a good movie on Louis Zamperini, watch Pure Flix's Unbroken: Path to Redemption. (I recommend reading the Answers in Genesis review of it first. Read it here.)



Popular Posts