Louie Zamperini’s amazing life is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for almost four years (a remarkable feat!), and on Christmas Day the much-anticipated movie adaptation is slated for release. Although it is one of my favorite books, I have to agree with Collin Hansen: “The title is all wrong.” After the war, Louie returned home a broken man.
Louie survived 47 days adrift in a lifeboat after his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He narrowly escaped marauding sharks and strafing from passing Japanese airplanes. And he survived on rainwater, fish, and seabirds until he was picked up by a Japanese patrol boat. After two brutal years as a prisoner of war in Japan, World War II ended, and Louie returned home a hero.
Soon thereafter, he married a beautiful blonde woman named Cynthia. On the outside all seemed well, but hatred for one of his captors metastasized. “A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder,” Hillenbrand writes. Louie’s life spiraled downward as he gave himself over to drunkenness and reckless behavior. Money he had invested in get-rich-quick schemes foundered. Despite appeals and warnings from friends, he made no reform. His wife initiated a divorce.
Conversion Under Billy Graham
In September 1949 a young Billy Graham came to Los Angeles for a three-week campaign to bring the city to Christ. Cynthia attended and received Christ as Savior. She returned home, informed Louie of her new life in Christ, and made clear she would no longer pursue a divorce. Although relieved, Louie wanted no part of this religious awakening. Nevertheless, eventually Louie also attended and, although indignant at first, on the second day he came forward to receive Christ. Here is his account:
I dropped to my knees and for the first time in my life truly humbled myself before the Lord. I asked him to forgive me for not having kept the promises I’d made during the war, and for my sinful life. I made no excuses. I did not rationalize, I did not blame. He had said, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” so I took him at his word, begged for his pardon, and asked Jesus to come into my life.
His new life had begun.
Joy replaced anger in Louie’s heart, and he freely forgave his former captors. Throughout his life he gave testimony of Christ, particularly with troubled youth near his home in Los Angeles. He was a faithful husband until Cynthia died in 2001 of cancer. Louie died earlier this year at 97.
Portrayal of Conversion in Zamperini's Life
The inclusion of the tent meeting and Billy Graham's sermon in Hillenbrand’s Unbroken was an answer to prayer for Louie. “Unbroken is Laura’s book,” Louie later told the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, “so all I could do was pray that she would somehow have the gospel in it.” We should all be thankful that Louie’s conversion was included, even if not explained in robustly theological terms.
Not surprisingly, however, major news outlets have minimized Louie's conversion and offered man-centered interpretations. For example, the New York Times devoted only one sentence to this transformation in its obituary for him: “Mr. Zamperini straightened out his life . . . after hearing a sermon preached by Billy Graham.” According to The Guardian Louie “was overcome and born-again as a Christian.” But perhaps most disappointing was Hillenbrand’s own eulogy:
What made his life transcendent, what made it resonate in millions of hearts, was not the hardship he encountered, but the way in which he greeted it, how he turned it to joy, and what that told the rest of us about the potential that sleeps within ourselves. (emphasis mine)
In a recent profile of the upcoming film (directed by Angelina Jolie) on Louie’s life, the Los Angeles Times indicates that the movie will end with Zamperini’s liberation and will not include his alcoholism, Billy Graham's preaching, or Louie's conversion. This is tragic. Louie was clear that one could not tell his story apart from his new birth in Christ. When CBS wanted to air a documentary of his life in the 1990s, he insisted on including his conversion:
My whole life is serving God. If you want this to be authentic, you have to have my conversion in there. . . . I want you to show a picture of Billy Graham to confirm it. When people hear the name Billy Graham they think of one thing: the gospel.
The first trailer of the film included some small hints of Christianity. We hear Louie addressing God, “If you get me through this, I swear I'll dedicate my whole life to you,” which is a bargain he made at sea while in the raft. At this point, it is too early to tell what will or will not be included, but we can be hopeful that Louie's faith in Christ will be highlighted. Nothing else would honor the memory of Louie.
Broken by Grace
Louie’s life story is not about the innate human power to forgive. In fact, when we consider his life we see the complete opposite: a total inability to overcome sin and the reaping of its disastrous fruit apart from God's grace. Louie’s survivor instincts—those same instincts that kept him alive at sea and in prison—offered no help when he returned home. “(U)nlike the war, when I had faced obstacles and overcome them, this time I did not have the same self-confidence,” he later recounted. “Then I’d taken survival-training courses, knew I was in great physical shape.” He had realized the greatest enemy was not without but within. Although no longer a prisoner of war, he had remained a slave to sin (John 8:34).
Conversion for Louie was not a postscript or an unobtrusive footnote in an otherwise heroic life; no, conversion was the preface that put his entire life in context. The Lord’s sovereign work in saving Louie—in breaking him with a reality of his sin and turning him toward Christ in faith—made sense of all that had gone before and all that followed.
In short, the story of Louie Zamperini is that of a man unbroken by war but broken by grace. And as David reminds us, a broken and contrite heart God does not despise (Ps. 51:17).
Sources: Louis Zamperini and David Rensin, Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II (New York: HarperCollins, 2004); Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010).
To hear Louie in his own words, watch this video of him at the Billy Graham Crusade in 1958 in San Francisco: