Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand is a memorable story about a forgotten hero, Louis Zamperini. Many people, like me, may never have heard of Louis, but his story is unforgettable. Some say heroes are made not born, but in Louis’ case I think a hero was born. His story reminds me that God has created each of us for a purpose.
If he was born a hero no one would ever have known it. At age two while suffering from pneumonia he climbed naked out his bedroom window and ran in the street. He started smoking discarded cigarettes at age five and began drinking at age eight. When bullied by older kids he refused to cry. Instead of running or crying he took the abuse, began lifting weights and using a punching bag, and began fighting back.
Over time his behavior worsened. The police often came to Louis’ home. He was always fighting, stealing, rebelling, while opposed to and resisting authority. His father gave him forceful spankings. His mother was unable to change him. His behavior was so bad parents forbade their children from playing with him.
Louis idolized his brother Pete and only Pete could help him. Pete would graduate with ten varsity letters in high school but track was his favorite sport. He began training Louis who hated running because he felt running to be another restraint, but loved the applause he received.
Some say heroes are made not born, but in Louis’ case I think a hero was born.
One day he got into an argument with his father and ran away from Torrance, California to Los Angeles. He hopped a freight train north. The trip was so bad he went back home to surrender to his brother. God had used a running track to get Louis off his delinquency track.
On May 19, 1934 the best milers in Southern California assembled at the Los Angeles Coliseum. At the coliseum Louis finished in first place and broke the World’s Interscholastic Mile record which held for eighteen years. Two weeks later he entered another race at the coliseum, a 1500 meter race, this time against college men. He won that race also beating the reigning champion by twenty yards.
After his graduation Louis set his sights on the Olympics. Earning an invitation to the Olympic tryouts at Randalls Island, New York, He won the 1500 meter race and qualified for the Olympic team. He failed to win any medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin but did meet with Hitler and General Werner Von Fritsch, commander-in-chief of the German Army. Then he set his eyes on the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.
In June 1938 Louis arrived in Minneapolis to compete in NCAA Championships. He expected to break the four minute mile and bragged to the other competitors about his training and his ability. Half way through the race several runners boxed him in deliberately stomping on his foot with spikes, kicking his shins and elbowing him in the chest until he received a broken rib. For a lap and a half he tried to break free from the cluster of men who boxed him in. Nearing the end of the race he found an opening and despite his pain won the race with a time of 4:08.3. That time was the fastest NCAA mile in history. His record stood for fifteen years. A few weeks later Japan withdrew from holding the Olympics so the games were transferred to Helsinki. During 1939 Louis won every race he entered.
In April 1940 Louis found out the Olympics were canceled due to war in Europe. In 1941 Louis joined the Army Air Corps. He washed out of the Air Corps but was later drafted. In November 1941 he was sent to Ellington Field in Houston, Texas for training as a bombardier. In December Japan attacked Hawaii.
From Ellington Field, Louis went on to graduate from Midland Army Flying School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Louis was assigned to a B-24 crew, sometimes called a flying coffin. Pilot and navigator error, mechanical failure, and bad luck were killing trainees before they ever saw combat. In the Army Air Force 14,903 personnel died in 52,651 accidents occurring stateside.
Louis’ crew and their plane, nicknamed Superman, found themselves stationed at Oahu’s Hickam Field. Louis’s crew had successful missions over Wake Island and Nauru. During a mission to Nauru Superman had been shot 594 times but was still able to complete its mission and return, although some of the crew had severe injuries.
After the mission over Nauru Louis’ crew was assigned to a B-24 called Green Hornet. On May 27, 1943 Green Hornet was ordered on a search and rescue mission for a plane that had disappeared the previous day. Ironically, while searching for a missing plane and crew, Green Hornet crashed at sea killing everyone on board except Louis, his pilot, and one crew member. During the crash Louis felt several wires wrap around his legs making it impossible to escape. He blacked out. Later when he recovered, the wires were off him and he was still alive. He never knew how he had been set free. Could God have intervened?
For days the three men floated on the Pacific Ocean, drifting westward. Search parties did not see them. Fighting dehydration, sunburn, hunger, thirst, and sharks, the three men floated. On the thirty-third day the crew member died, leaving Louis and his pilot on the raft. They learned how to catch fish to eat and trap rain water to drink. They escaped sharks by hitting them with their oars. One time they saw a plane approaching and shot off a rescue flare. To their horror it was an enemy plane and it strafed them several times. Even though the raft had 48 holes in it, neither man was hit.
On their fortieth day of floating Louis heard singing. When he looked up he saw what looked like angels in the clouds. His pilot saw and heard nothing. A few days after he heard the singing Louis went through a typhoon. On the forty-seventh day they found an island. Before they could make it to the island they were taken prisoner by an enemy boat and crew. Louis was sent from one POW camp to another where he was starved, beaten, humiliated, and tortured day after day. Near death many times Louis somehow found the strength to continue to resist the enemy. Of 34,648 American POWs held by the Japanese, 12,935 died. When Japan surrendered in September 1945, Louis and the rest of the POWs were liberated.
Returning to the United Stated Louis was still a POW mentally. His guards would constantly invade his dreams. His behavior became violent as he resorted to drinking and brawling. One night he awoke finding himself strangling his wife but in his dream he was strangling one of his guards. His wife planned to leave him but in the second week of September 1949 she went to a Billy Graham tent meeting and gave her life to Jesus. She urged Louis to attend. Refusing at first, he finally agreed to go with her. Then he went with her a second night. As he was walking out of the meeting he heard Billy Graham say he could not leave yet. That night he gave his life to Jesus. He forgave the Japanese, quit drinking, and quit smoking. Suddenly the POW guards left him alone at night. He was free.
Beginning as an Olympic hero, and then becoming a war hero, Louis lived the rest of his life as God’s hero. According to Louis we cannot convert anyone, all we can do is plant seeds and let God water them and get the harvest. He founded the non-profit Victory Boys’ Camp to help boys who behaved as he did. In January 1998 for his 81st birthday, in the village where he had once been a POW, Louis received the Olympic torch and began running. In April and May 2011 he received Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Azusa Pacific University and Bryant University respectively. He still makes public appearances, one time making twelve talks in one day. On June 7, 2012 Louis appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
He teaches that we will never be anything in life unless we commit to a goal. He never quit finding new goals. Today, in his nineties, he is licensed, accomplished, or an expert in eighty-four fields including Scuba diving, skiing, lifeguarding, and flying.
I think we should begin using a new verb, “Zamp”. It means to be prepared mentally, physically, and spiritually for whatever comes our way. Whether we win at the Olympics, survive forty-seven days in a life raft, two years as a POW, or live life, when we win, it will be no surprise.
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