Last year, my friend and colleague Eric Metaxas released a book entitled “7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness.” It’s a compelling look at seven men, including Chuck Colson, who made a difference in their generations.
My only quibble with Eric about this book is that he didn’t include a chapter on a World War II hero and former Olympian who died on July 2 at the ripe old age of 97—Louis Zamperini.
Of course, I can understand why. Eric did include famous Olympian Eric Liddell, who died in a Japanese concentration camp at the end of the Second World War.
But he could have called the book “8 Men” and included a chapter on the indomitable Louis Zamperini… His story really is that good. Here's an outline:
Bullied as a youngster because of his Italian heritage, the athletic Zamperini began, as he said, “beating the tar out of every one” of his tormentors. He admitted, “I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.” So his parents got him into track and field to provide an outlet for his aggressiveness. As a high school track star in 1934, Zamperini set a world interscholastic record in the mile. In 1936, he made the U.S. Olympic team, even rooming with Jesse Owens.
Though Louis didn’t “medal” in his event, the 5,000 meters, he earned a meeting with Adolf Hitler after running the final lap in an amazing 56 seconds. Hitler shook his hand, remarking, “That boy with the fast finish.”
By 1943, he was at war in the Pacific as a bombardier. Lieutenant Zamperini crashed in the Pacific when his B-24 developed mechanical problems. Of the 11 crew members, only Louis and one companion survived--enduring 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters before being captured by Japanese forces, and subsequently sent to a prison camp for two years, where he was tortured. One Japanese camp sergeant, nicknamed “the Bird,” beat Louis over and over in a psychotic fury. But Louis would later say, “Pain never bothered me. Destroying my dignity stuck with me.” The U.S. military had even declared him dead.
Somehow though, Louis survived. He married Cynthia in 1946, but struggled with rage, nightmares, and depression. One night he even woke up to find his hands around his wife’s neck. Something had to change.
In 1949, Cynthia went to the Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade. And she urged Louis to go, too. He initially refused, but then he relented and went, where he heard the Good News of forgiveness in Christ, trusted in the Lord and began a personal journey of forgiveness that has touched the world.
In his autobiography, “Devil at My Heels,” Louis said, “I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate someone, you’re not hurting the person you hate, you’re hurting yourself.” So in 1950 he went back to Japan and preached a message of forgiveness and love to imprisoned war criminals who had hurt him, and even threw his arms around them. What a picture of doing good to one’s persecutors! But he wasn’t finished.
When Louis was 81, in 1998, he ran part of the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Games in Nagano. While there he sought out “the Bird” to offer forgiveness, but tragically, the old prison guard—who had somehow avoided prosecution as a war criminal—refused to even see him. But at least Louis tried.
The best-selling biography of Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken,” was released in 2010. And next year, Angelina Jolie will release a major motion picture based on his life. Speaking about Louis’s death, Jolie said, “It is a loss impossible to describe. We are so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly.”
Let’s pray that the Christian secrets of Zamperini’s greatness don’t get left on the cutting room floor! And as we’re praying with thanksgiving for his life and impact, let’s remember anew how stories like Zamperini’s can point a wayward culture to grace and truth.
You can find Zamperini’s amazing biography “Unbroken,” at the BreakPoint.org online store.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: July 11, 2014