Louis Silvie Zamperini earned the moniker “Torrance Tornado” for his track and field records in Torrance, California. He was all set for the 1940 Olympics when World War II broke out. Lou served in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier. He was on a flight mission over the Pacific Ocean when their plane crashed due to mechanical failure. Of the eleven men onboard, only three survived.
Unbroken: Adrift for 47 days
Adrift at sea on a raft for 47 days, they were exposed to harsh weather, strafings of Japanese bombers, and circling hungry sharks. They drank whatever rainwater they could collect and killed birds that happened to perch on the raft for food. By the time they were washed ashore, one of them had died. They found themselves in the Marshall Islands, an enemy-occupied territory.
Unbroken: Hell on Earth as POW
Their harrowing experience at sea was followed by a more horrific ordeal as prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese forces. They were subjected to physical and psychological torture. They were starved and brutally manhandled. It was hell on earth for Lou. He was singled out by a Japanese sergeant called the Bird to be on the receiving end of psychotic fits of violence. He was constantly and mercilessly beaten to a pulp.
“The Bird” would have other POWs line up and throw jabs at Lou like a punching bag. Fellow prisoners naturally didn’t want to hurt their own kind. But Lou himself would insist and challenge them. Otherwise, an already bloodied comrade-at-arms would get the blows whenever one of the men refused to follow the Bird’s orders. The soft side of Lou would rather endure the pain than see someone else suffer.
Unbroken: Punch Him in the Face!
He was made to carry a heavy piece of lumber on his shoulders under the heat of the sun while other prisoners quietly looked on. The Bird watched him intently, waiting for Lou to buckle under the weight. Dropping the wood meant more trouble for Lou.
Unbroken: Don’t Look at Me!
Just when Lou was close to breaking point, he mustered all the strength he had left, raised the lumber higher over his head and looked the Bird in the eye. It was the impudent, sadistic sergeant who backed down first and out of frustration bludgeoned Lou with a vengeance. Lou won the test of wills. Sticks and stones may break Lou’s bones, but not his dogged spirit.
Lou returned to the United States after his release when the war ended in 1945. However, the trauma as a POW left Lou scarred. He was hounded by nightmares so he turned to alcohol. This strained his marriage that almost ended in divorce.
The Bird: Forgiving the unforgivable
Lou was on a downward spiral when he heard a Billy Graham sermon in Los Angeles in 1949. That marked the beginning of his healing process. Not long after, he established the Victory Boys Camp, a camp for troubled youths.
His greatest liberation came when he was able to personally forgive some of his tormentors. This happened in 1950 when he visited a Tokyo prison where they were serving sentence for war crimes. In 1998, he returned to Japan to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games. There he made efforts to reach out to the Bird, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but Watanabe refused to see him.
His legacy for every Christian facing his own battle
Deeply moved and inspired by Lou’s story, a biofilm was produced and directed by Angelina Jolie in 2014. She was quoted as saying, “It will be hard to make a film worthy of this great man.” Never give up. Never give in! These words could have been Louis Zamperini’s battle cry. From pain to gain. From test to testimony. This is a story of a hero.
Are you going through a fiery ordeal? Like Lou, you, too, can overcome “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
The apostle Paul exhorts: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). So let us run the race with endurance. (Hebrews 12:1-2)