Louis Zamperini’s incredible journey took him from…
- Torrance High School to…
- The University of Southern California to…
- The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games to…
- The Pacific Theater of World War II to…
- A Japanese concentration camp to…
- Home as an American hero!
After those formative years in Torrance, California, Louis moved from one life-changing event to the next. But the most significant event of all occurred when he walked into a big circus tent in Los Angeles one October night in 1949.
Louis listened to a young evangelist, Billy Graham, and he accepted the preacher’s challenge to receive the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. After a deep internal battle that evening, Louis knelt down in that tent and gave his heart to Jesus.
The anger, hate and self-loathing that had been fighting after the war all came to a radical end, dissipating into the night air like a vapor. The transformation filled him with love and hope and compassion—a true rebirth of the spirit. His drinking and the nightmares stopped, never to return again. His marriage was not only saved, but it endured as a happy, winsome partnership for the remainder of their lives.
My childhood was one to be envied. I was blessed with loving, caring parents. Of course, if my dad had refused to go with my mom to hear Dr. Graham that night, my life would have been much different. Come to think of it, I may not have even existed.
The world knows Louis Zamperini as a survivor and war hero. I knew him as my dad. Growing up, we all reveled in his friendship with Billy Graham. My mother spoke fondly of that life-altering night when my dad committed his life to Christ in that big tent in Los Angeles.
But my dad still had some personal work to do.
The words of Jesus to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” hit him like a lightning bolt from Heaven. He reveled in God’s forgiveness, which was also offered him by his beloved Cynthia. She had been more than ready to walk out: the excessive drinking, the contempt, the verbal abuse—it all drove her to seek escape from a relationship that went from intense, giddy romance to deep anguish and dark despair.
My mom forgave my dad, forgave him for all of that and more. She believed in the sincerity of his commitment. And she had faith in the gospel message that changed him.
Now, Louis Zamperini was challenged to “love your enemies.” How does that work when your enemies were as vile as his had been?
He thought about those prison guards and what might happen if they encountered the same offer of life and forgiveness that he found in that Los Angeles circus tent. He felt God’s call to travel to Japan to speak to his captors.
In 1950, he went back to Sugamo Prison. It was a stunning moment in time. There they were, seated quietly in rows on the floor; a gathering of the same guards who stood as sentries during Louis’ imprisonment.
My dad asked specifically that “The Bird,” Mutsuhiro Watanabe, be present. He was told that his tormentor was dead—he had committed suicide (Harakiri, a Samurai honor ritual). Instead, Watanabe had escaped into hiding. By the time of my dad’s visit to Japan, “The Bird” was nowhere to be found.
Louis Zamperini stood before scores of guards in a bleak, hot room on the prison grounds where he had been beaten, starved, openly humiliated and threatened with beheading over and over again. All of that frightful emotion overwhelmed him like a rising tide.
But at the same time, an inexplicable peace that passes understanding filled him with compassion. He knew those men had been caught in an ugly war under a savage, sadistic regime. They were prisoners too. Now they had to live with the memories, just like Louis. Add to that, they also lived with that blinding guilt and shame.
Louis came knowing first-hand the power of forgiveness. He shared it with the men. As he did, the beauty of reconciliation filled the room. Tears flowed. Later, my dad wrote a letter to The Bird.
“…The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love has replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, ‘Forgive your enemies and pray for them.’
“[I met with the prison guards at Sugamo Prison]… At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.”
Discover the rest of Louis Zamperini’s story in the new movie UNBROKEN: PATH TO REDEMPTION, opening in theaters September 14. Learn more at UnbrokenFilm.com.