By John Stonestreet at http://www.breakpoint.org, July 11, 2014
Louis Zamperini died July 2nd at the age of 97.
Louis Zamperini was bullied as a youngster because of his Italian heritage. He responded by, as he described it, “beating the tar out of every one” of his tormentors. He admitted, “I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.” So his parents got him into track and field to provide an outlet for his aggressiveness. As a high school track star in 1934, Zamperini set a world interscholastic record in the mile. In 1936, he made the U.S. Olympic team, even rooming with Jesse Owens. Though Louis did not medal in his event, the 5,000 meters, he earned a meeting with Adolf Hitler after running the final lap in an amazing 56 seconds. Hitler shook his hand, remarking, “That boy with the fast finish.”
By 1943, he was at war in the Pacific as a bombardier. Lieutenant Zamperini crashed in the Pacific when his B-24 developed mechanical problems. Of the eleven crew members, only Louis and one companion survived, enduring 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters. He was then captured by Japanese forces and sent to a prison camp for two years, where he was tortured almost daily. One Japanese camp sergeant, nicknamed “the Bird,” beat Louis over and over in a psychotic fury. Louis would later say, “Pain never bothered me. Destroying my dignity stuck with me.” The U.S. military had even declared him dead.
Somehow though, Louis survived. He married Cynthia in 1946, but struggled with rage, nightmares, alcoholism, and depression. One night he even woke up to find his hands around his wife’s neck. Something had to change.
In 1949, Cynthia went to the Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade. She urged Louis to go along. He initially refused, but then he relented and went. There he heard the Good News of forgiveness in Christ, trusted in the Lord, and began a personal journey of forgiveness that has touched the world.
In his autobiography Devil at My Heels, Louis said, “I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate someone, you’re not hurting the person you hate, you’re hurting yourself.” So in 1950 he went back to Japan and preached a message of forgiveness and love to imprisoned war criminals who had hurt him, and even threw his arms around them. What a picture of doing good to one’s persecutors! But he wasn’t finished.
When Louis was 81, in 1998, he ran part of the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. While there he sought out “the Bird” to offer forgiveness. Tragically, the old prison guard, who had somehow avoided prosecution as a war criminal, refused to even see him. But at least Louis tried.
Unbroken, the best-selling biography of Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand, was released in 2010. Next year, Angelina Jolie will release a major motion picture based on his life. Speaking about Louis’s death, Jolie said, “It is a loss impossible to describe. We are so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly.” Let’s pray that the Christian secrets of Zamperini’s greatness don’t get left on the cutting room floor. And as we’re praying with thanksgiving for his life and impact, let’s remember anew how stories like Zamperini’s can point a wayward culture to grace and truth.
“God has given me so much. He expects so much out of me.” –Louis Zamperini
For more on this amazing man’s life go to:
2 Corinthians 5:17 — Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Matthew 25:21a — (Jesus said), “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant…”
2 Timothy 4:7 — I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Teach us, dear Lord, frequently and attentively to remember this truth:
That if I gain the whole world and lose you, in the end I have lost everything;
Whereas if I lose the world and gain you, in the end I have lost nothing.
–John Henry Newman (1801-1890)