Louis Zamperini was born in 1917 in Olean, New York. As a youngster, Zamperini was a target for bullies, on account of his Italian descent. Because of this, he learned how to defend himself, and became addicted to boxing in self-defence.
Soon after joining high school, he began to get in trouble, underage drinking, smoking and altercations with the law.
To counter his ability for getting into trouble, his older brother Pete persuaded Louis to become involved in the school track team. As Louis became more dedicated to running, his local recognition grew, encouraging him to kick his smoking and drinking.
That first summer of running changed Zamperini so much that he even forbade himself from having a milkshake.
In 1936, he made the decision to try out for the US Olympic team, to represent America in the Berlin Olympics.
Consequently, Zamperini qualified to represent his country in the 5,000 metres, the youngest American to do so.
Zamperini raced in 1936, finishing 8th overall. However, Zamperini’s final lap time of just 56 seconds was impressive enough to catch the attention of the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, who he eventually got to meet.
Zamperini returned home a hero.
In 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War, Zamperini joined the United States Army Air Corps.
Sent to the Pacific, Zamperini became a bombardier in a bomber plane.
During a search and rescue mission, Zamperini’s plane crashed into the ocean, killing eight of the eleven crew on board.
Zamperini and his two surviving crew mates managed to survive on a life raft, beating off shark attacks, ariel strafing and hunger.
Living on rainwater and raw fish, Zamperini and one of his crew mates survived for 47 days floating in the ocean, sadly Francis McNamara died after 33 days at sea.
Zamperini was then taken into captivity by the Japanese army. Here he was singled out for particularly brutal treatment on account of his Olympic background.
It was here that Zamperini, and his fellow captives were subject to regular beatings with sticks, fists and any other weapons their captors wished to use, under the command of the camp commandant nicknamed “The Bird”.
After two years of savage brutality and captivity, the camp was liberated.
Zamperini returned home and married his wife Cynthia.
Badly affected by his experiences, and suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Zamperini turned to alcohol to prevent the vivid flashbacks he experienced.
He also experienced nightmares every night, and one night woke up to find himself strangling his wife, thinking she was “The Bird”.
Zamperini struggled with aggression, vowing to get revenge on his Japanese captors.
One day Cynthia returned home from a meeting declaring herself to be a Christian, and asked Louis to attend a meeting.
Zamperini refused and following her next meeting, Cynthia announced she wanted a divorce.
Consequently, he attended the next meeting, on the condition that when the speaker asked everyone to bow their heads they would leave.
The speaker that night was Billy Graham who spoke on John chapter 8. Zamperini identified with what Graham was saying and saw it applied to his own life.
However, when asked to pray, Zamperini grabbed his wife’s hand and left the meeting.
Zamperini attended another meeting but, on the same condition, that as soon as heads were bowed he would leave.
Graham spoke that night about why God allows suffering, and how people who are in a pit of desperation often turn to God.
After Graham bowed in prayer. Zamperini stood up to leave but before he reached the door, he froze. He thought of his treatment in the camp and how he’d prayed everyday with his camp mates.
It was while he was floating on that raft, that he’d promised God that he would dedicate his life to Him if God spared him. It was here, standing in this meeting that Zamperini remembered this promise.
God had kept his side of the bargain, but Zamperini had abandoned his.
Here, Zamperini finally gave his life to God.
That very night Zamperini’s nightmares stopped.
He forgave his guards who had tortured and beaten him.
One reviewer of his autobiography, Unbroken, could not believe how his PTSD suddenly vanished.
Zamperini simply said “That reviewer didn’t know scripture. ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away and all things become new’”.
In many ways, we are like “The Bird”. Every day we torture God with our rejections and sins against Him and yet our God never breaks his side of the bargain and forgives us for all the wrong we do.