During this holiday season, I would like to share the moving story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a man who endured inconceivable tragedy and yet in the end, chose to live a truly inspirational life. I am sure that he never thought that his actions would provide a lesson to us all. Yet his story perfectly demonstrates… the impact of a single life.
Louie’s life is chronicled in a book and the soon-to-be released movie called Unbroken. While Louie’s early years were filled with delinquent behavior – stealing, fighting, trouble with the police – he changed his ways in high school and focused on running. He soon emerged as one of America’s greatest runners.
At age 19, Louie was the youngest American to ever qualify for the Olympics in the 5 kilometer event, and he competed in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Although he did not medal (he was 8th), Adolph Hitler was so impressed with his performance that he insisted on a personal meeting, shook Louie’s hand and commended him on running such a fast final lap. Louie was training to break the 4-minute mile and compete in the 1940 Olympics when World War II began.
Louie joined the Army Air Corps and endured harrowing combat in the Pacific. During a rescue mission, Louie’s plane crashed into the ocean 850 miles from Hawaii, and only he and the pilot survived. They endured 47 days on a life raft, surviving on rainwater and the few fish and birds that they could catch. While on the raft they were attacked by a Japanese bomber and used oars to fight off circling sharks.
Upon landing, Louie and the pilot were captured by the Japanese and held as prisoners of war for more than two years. They were subjected to medical experiments, beaten, starved and interrogated. Due to Louie’s defiant and unbreakable spirit, he was singled out by a prison guard for sadistic beatings and slave labor.
Louie returned to the U.S. after the war as a hero, but he was angry, bitter and suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. He experienced flashbacks and nightmares and was obsessed with vengeance. He even tried to save up money to fly to Japan to strangle the prison guard who had tortured him. Louie abused alcohol, had fits of rage, and then impulsively he married.
At the urging of his wife, he attended a Billy Graham crusade, and his life turned around. He became a born-again Christian. He gave up drinking alcohol, his rage dissolved, and he never had another nightmare about his POW days.
Billy Graham helped Louie launch a career as a Christian inspirational speaker. One of Louie’s main themes was “forgiveness.” Taking his own advice to heart, he travelled to Japan and visited many of the prison guards who had held him captive. He personally forgave them for the cruelty that they had inflicted upon him.
The author of Louie’s biography has beautifully summed up his life as “a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.” Louie died this past July in Los Angeles at the age of 97.
Louie’s book Unbroken has already impacted millions. The upcoming movie about Louie’s story of courage in the face of horrible circumstances will undoubtedly impact millions more. It would have been easy for Louie to continue to wallow in his pain and live a life full of anger, vengeance and hatred, but he was able to forgive and gain peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all embrace forgiveness as fully as Louie was able to do?
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Written by R. J. Kelly – December 2014