“I was too busy staying alive to think about dying,” World War II veteran Louis Zamperini told his son about his ordeal lost at sea and then locked up in a prisoner of war camp.
The famous runner’s real tests of endurance came the decade after his experience competing in the 5000 meters at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, when he floated at sea for a month-and-a-half and subsequently endured vicious beatings by a sadistic guard nicknamed “the Bird” during two years in Japanese captivity. Luke Zamperini tells Breitbart Sports, “These were my bedtime stories growing up.”
Luke Zamperini’s bedtime stories become everybody’s silver-screen stories on Christmas Day through Angelina Jolie’s cinematic adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. The Zamp, owner of a record 4:08 mile as a collegian, retained exquisite timing long after he had hung up his track shoes. The Christian immortalized as a celluloid hero on Christmas, like the patriot passing days before this past Fourth of July, shows that death doesn’t kill a man’s timing.
It often replaces the substance of a man with a symbol. But the symbolism of a Christmas Day release of Unbroken makes it hard to miss the substance of Louis Zamperini. He ran the 5000 meters in the Olympics for a few minutes in the mid-1930s and suffered in a POW camp for a couple of years as Americans assumed him dead during the mid-1940s. He spread Jesus Christ’s gospel for more than six decades.
Like Christ, Zamperini lived past his obituary and figured prominently in a bestselling book. The comparisons don’t go much further for the life celebrated in the pews on Thursday and the one celebrated in the movie-house aisles. The former juvenile delinquent drank with zeal, hastily scheduled barroom boxing matches with unwitting, conscripted opponents, and projected the bitterness in his soul upon the world immediately following the Second World War.
“He was a vengeful man,” Luke Zamperini informs. “The Bird beat him mercilessly for over two years. My dad suffered from what’s today referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. He was having nightmares of the Bird beating him that inevitably ended with him strangling the life out of the Bird.” Zamperini longed to return to Japan “to finish him off,” concedes his son.
Instead of squeezing the life out of the Bird, Billy Graham infused new life into Zamperini. “Hearing Reverend Graham speak reminded him of the promises on the life raft and in the prison camp that he had made to God,” Luke Zamperini tells Breitbart Sports of the violent and boozed-out postwar version of his dad. “He felt he hadn’t lived up to his side of the bargain.”
“His hatred for the Bird wasn’t hurting the Bird one bit,” son says of father. “It was destroying Louis Zamperini.” The bitter veteran put down the bottle and picked up the Bible. The sleep that followed the Olympian’s close encounter of the Billy Graham kind, his son explains, resulted in “the first night he did not have that nightmare and he did not have that nightmare for the rest of his life.”
Whereas others might have wished not to revisit the painful events, Zamperini used them for inspiration to start an outdoorsman camp for boys and to speak to groups about the force that saved his life. “He made a living talking about it,” Luke Zamperini notes. “He was a famous American athlete who seemingly came back from the dead. He was given the key to every city.” Holding in his war story didn’t work for Zamperini. Letting it out did.
Zamperini’s saga includes the highs of running in the Olympics and the lows of cleaning a pig sty with his bare hands. It’s an amazing tale of survival, evading strafing Japanese planes and capturing food on the raft with the primitive hunting tools available at the end of his arms. It’s more importantly a story, like the story whose beginnings Christians celebrate today, of redemption. In a life of service to his savior, Zamperini embodied the central message of his faith.
Louis Zamperini enjoyed a Hollywood ending. It emanated from enjoying a Christian life. Readers and now viewers of Unbroken marvel at the better-than-fiction quality to the miler’s tale of superhuman endurance. The story’s greatness surely stems from the protagonist’s awareness of the greatest story ever told.