Crashing in the Pacific Ocean, Louis “Louie” Zamperini and two other WWII Soldiers mercilessly drifted for 47 days on a life raft. Left with only a couple small cans of drinking water, fishing line, a flare gun, and a few Hershey D-Ration candy bars, these men barely clung to life. Despite fighting off sharks, scorching heat, Japanese fighter pilots, and perilous swells, the worst was yet to come for Louis Zamperini. However, these experiences would serve to shape and plot the rest of his life’s trajectory in unexpected ways.
Louis Zamperini’s story, told in the best-selling biography and hit movie Unbroken, has captivated audiences worldwide. These accounts document Louie’s early days as a troubled youth, his rise to high school/Olympic track star, and his horrific experiences as a WWII POW.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Louis went on to become a star athlete competing in the 1936 Olympics. The Louie Zamperini Olympics debut, along with his widespread notoriety, opened up several opportunities, including a track scholarship to Southern Cal.
In 1941, Louie enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps as a bombardier and was deployed to Hawaii. On May 27, 1943, his aircraft crashed due to mechanical problems, and Louie, along with pilots Russ Philips and Mac McNamara, was stranded at sea. Presumed dead, Louie’s obituary was published in local newspapers. Unbeknownst to the public, Louie and Russ had climbed in lifeboats, and after 47 days of eating fish and shark meat, they were rescued by a Japanese fisherman.
After being brought ashore, Louie and Russ were eventually taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan. For two years, he was tortured and abused by the notorious Matsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe and Japanese prison guards.
After being released in 1945, Louie ran into a New York Times reporter, told the man his story, and was soon transferred back to the United States, where his story made headlines.
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“Unbroken” Book and Film Adaptation
The story of Louie Zamperini is shared by author Laura Hillenbrand in the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. After seven years of researching, interviewing, and writing, the book was released on November 16, 2010, becoming the fifth longest-running nonfiction best seller of all time. Hillenbrand’s book engagingly recounted how Louie was driven to the limits of endurance but triumphed in the face of tragedy.
Wanting to share his story with all audiences, Laura Hillenbrand also released a young adult adaptation of Unbroken, introducing a new generation to the thrilling survival story.
When Louie was first discovered, there was talk about making a movie about his experiences. Fifty years in the making, the Louis Zamperini movie adaptation, Unbroken, was released in 2014. Angelina Jolie directed the film and worked to ensure that the movie captured the intense violence and raw emotion that Hillenbrand wrote in her book. Jolie also portrayed the boredom, physical pain, starvation, and agony Louie experienced, staying true to his story.
While the Unbroken movie credits briefly mentioned Louie’s struggle with PTSD, and how through faith he was able to overcome it, that’s only part of the story. Here’s what you didn’t know.
A Life Falling Apart
Shortly after coming home, Louie Zamperini met and married Cynthia Applewhite. Earning fame as the “Olympic athlete that had come back to life,” Louie went on speaking tours and was treated as a war hero.
While his life looked great on the outside, he was falling apart internally. Nightmares haunted his dreams. Crushed by the torture he endured from “The Bird,” Louie turned to alcohol and survived on the obession of returning to Japan and murdering Matsuhiro Watanabe. His dreams of killing Matsuhiro soon became so graphic that he almost strangled his wife to death.
Withdrawn into depression and alcoholism and on the verge of losing his family, Louie realized he needed serious help.
From Broken to Whole
In 1949 at the urging of his wife, Louie reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. After listening to the scriptures that Graham read, Louie told his wife, “Let’s get out of here. Don’t ever bring me back to a place like this again.” However, the next night, he was talked into listening to Graham preach again.
According to Louis, it was through religion that his life came out of its downward spiral, and soon, the nightmares that haunted him ceased. Many newspapers ran stories about his conversion and his promise to dedicate his life to God.
Dedicating his life to serving God, Louie started the Victory Boys Camp for troubled youth, helping boys who had a similar upbringing.
Forgiveness and Spreading the Gospel
After his conversion, Louie’s desire for vengeance against his former captors and “The Bird” vanished completely. He forgave his former captors and agreed to meet with them to share the Gospel.
During his 1952 speaking tour in Tokyo, Louis was granted the opportunity to meet with the prisoners at Sugamo prison.
After sharing his story and testimony with the prisoners, Louis met with his former guards and recalled the interaction, “I didn’t even think of my reaction — I jumped off the stage, ran down and threw my arm around them. They couldn’t understand the forgiveness. We went in the room and there, of course, I continued to press the issue of Christianity, you see.”
At age 80, in 1998, Louis returned to Japan as part of the Olympic ceremonies. Here, he carried the Olympic torch for the Winter Games in Nagano. While there, Louis attempted to meet with Watanabe (“The Bird”), but he refused. Instead, Louis sent him a letter expressing his forgiveness.
Louis Zamperini passed away at 97 years old on July 2, 2014. Although many stories have focused on the pain and torment Louis endured during his captivity, he would surely want us to remember him for the remarkable faith and forgiveness that ultimately set him free.
Image: United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum