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The Story of Louis Zamperini: Part II

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | October 27, 2012

“The man with courage is a majority.”
Thomas Jefferson

Last week I shared part of the story of Louis Zamperini as presented in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010).  There I summarized his life from his birth in Olean, NY to his famous track career in high school, the Olympics and at the University of Southern California. 

Our story last week ended with Zamperini and his fellow-soldier surviving an epic 47 days in a raft out in the Pacific Ocean battling food and water shortages, constant shark attacks and even multiple strafing by a Japanese bomber.

At last they made it to the Marshall Islands where they were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy.  My sigh of relief for them was short-lived as this indescribable story continued.  It was not long before both Zamperini and Phillips wished their struggles were only food and water and sharks.

For over three years these two men joined other World War II prisoners of war in some of the most horrifying treatments which could ever be inflicted on human beings by other human beings.  The mental and physical treatment that they endured could not begin to be described in this short column.

Zamperini was held in the Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Ofuna for captives who were not registered as prisoners of war.  He was especially tormented by sadistic prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (who the prisoners nicknamed “The Bird”).  “The Bird” knew of Zamperini’s Olympic fame and it seemed to make him all the more intent of breaking this well-known athlete.

Later, General Douglas MacArthur included “The Bird” on his list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.  After Zamperini faced unbearable treatment by “The Bird”, “The Bird” was finally transferred to another prison.  How grateful Zamperini was only to find out later that he was moved to that very prison. Just like before, “The Bird” resumed his incredibly inhumane treatment to this young soldier.

As the war ended, Zamperini and Phillip, along with many American POWs, were rescued and able to return home.  For Zamperini’s family, they had heard he was first declared missing at sea and then, a year and a day after his disappearance, killed in action.  When he eventually returned home, he received a hero’s welcome.

In 1946 he married Cynthia Applewhite to whom he remained married until she died in 2001.  After the war, however, Zamperini suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  Between nightmares where he relived the beatings at the hands of “The Bird” and his effort to drown his misery with alcohol, his life and marriage were in a desperate and destructive tailspin.

Just as he was about to cross the point of no return, his wife Cynthia persuaded him to attend the Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles where he invited God into his life and he became a born again Christian.  That night he slept through the night without one nightmare and they never returned.

Perhaps the most amazing part of Zamperini’s story took place in October 1950 when he returned to Japan.  While there he visited a prison which held many of the war criminals who had committed the worst atrocities at the prison where Zamperini had been held.  As he shared his story and how God had changed his life, many of his former guards came forward to meet him.  To their amazement, he threw his arms around them with genuine affection and forgiveness.  Years later he tried to do the same with “The Bird” but his former tormentor refused to meet with him.

Unbroken is an incredible story of the capacity of the human spirit to endure indescribable adversity and then, with God’s help, to emerge with remarkable wholeness.

And the next time the circumstances in my life are less than ideal, I will remember Louis Zamperini.  How could I ever forget him?

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
Responses can be emailed to president@vfcc.edu
Official page:  Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer