Athletics hero Louis Zamperini is the subject of two outstanding movies. The first, entitled “Unbroken”, was directed by Angelina Jolie in 2014 and told the story of his fight for survival in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. The 2018 sequel “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” tells the rest of the story after he returned home. The movies were based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book of the same name.
Louis was a difficult child who had a tough life after his Italian family, who spoke no English, moved to California. The young Zamperini kid was bullied and often in trouble with the Police until his older brother Pete, who was a top track and field athlete, took Louis under his wing.
When Zamperini reached the final of the 5000 metres in the 1936 Olympic Games at the age of just 19, setting a new lap record in the process, the world witnessed the beginnings of a career that should have been one of the greatest in middle distance running history.
Pete Zamperini, who was already a local star and record-holder in several middle distance events, recognised an even greater talent in his younger brother. Unselfishly, Pete decided to concentrate on training Louis after he took him on a few training runs and watched as the young teenager became hooked.
“Pete told me I had to quit drinking and smoking if I wanted to do well, and that I had to run, run, run. I decided that summer to go all-out; overnight I became fanatical. I wouldn’t even have a milkshake.”
Throughout the last three years of high school he was undefeated. Louis soon started beating his own brother’s records, and in 1934 he set an interscholastic record for the mile, finishing in at 4 minutes, 21.2 seconds at the preliminary meeting to the California state championships. The following week, he won the California State Championships with 4 minutes 27.8, a win that helped him gain a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Despite his prowess at the 1500 metre event, Louis knew that it would be very difficult to qualify for one of the three available places at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He would have had to run against the virtually unbeaten trio of Glenn Cunningham (who won Silver in Berlin), Archie San Romani and Gene Venzke, who were all older, more experienced athletes. So, Louis tried out for the 5000 metres on an exceptionally hot day. Several athletes collapsed in the heat, including one of the favourites Norm Bright. But with a sprint finish at the end, Zamperini came in equal first with American record-holder Don Lash and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Having qualified at age 19 years, 178 days, Zamperini remains the youngest American 5,000 meters qualifier in history.
World War Two
Unfortunately his running career was cut short by World War Two. Louis enlisted in the US Army and was given an officer’s commission as a second lieutenant. In May, 1943 his bomber crashed into the Pacific ocean. Initially three of the crew survived, pilot Russell Phillips, Francis McNamara, and Louis. After 33 days McNamara died. When the Japanese finally picked them up Zamparini and Phillips had been in the sea in a small life raft for an astonishing 47 days. They had survived an attack by a Japanese military plane and numerous attacks by sharks. But the Japanese showed no mercy on the ‘enemy’ airmen and treated them dreadfully. Zamperini was held at the notorious Naoetsu Prisoner of War (POW) camp in northern Japan and was tortured regularly. The food was close to a starvation diet and living conditions were very poor.
When interviewed on CBN in 2003, Louis related how the years he spent as a POW had given him nightmares for years after he was released. When he arrived back in the USA he married his sweetheart Cynthia, but he admits that he did not treat her well at first. Louis had given up his university education and his running career to fight for the nation, but on his return home he found, like many other veterans, that he was not given any favour or respect. In fact, demobbed soldiers were often at the bottom of the list for jobs. He became depressed and turned to drink.
Post War Recovery
However, Louis was saved largely through the efforts of his loving wife. In 1949, Cynthia attended a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade and gave her life to Jesus Christ. After some time she was able to persuade Louis to go along too. As Billy preached, God reminded Louis that he had made a promise to him whilst on the life raft for 47 days in the Pacific Ocean and while he was in the POW camp. Louis was reminded that he promised to serve God for the rest of his life if he would save him. Louis responded and gave his life to Christ. The Holy Spirit filled his heart and he was able to finally forgive his captors and recover from mental anguish. The nightmares stopped and with Billy Graham’s encouragement, Louis began a new life and a new career as a Christian evangelist.
Just a year later in 1950, he was able to visit Sugamo Prison in Tokyo where many of the Japanese war criminals were imprisoned. Louis preached to the prisoners and told him that he forgave them for torturing him. As a result, some of those former cruel captors gave their lives to Christ and repented for their actions during World War Two.
48 Years Later
Just four days before his 81st birthday in 1998, Louis was back in Japan. He ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, which was close to the POW camp where he had been held.
While he was there, Louis attempted to meet with the man who had been nicknamed “the Bird”. Mutsuhiro Watanabe was the most brutal of the POW camp soldiers. Sadly, Watanabe refused to see him. Nonetheless, Zamperini sent him a letter saying that while he had suffered greatly under him, he forgave Watanabe. The former captor did not reply and died 5 years later in 2003. How tragic to think that he likely died without acknowledging his actions and without asking for God’s forgiveness.
In March 2005, Louis visited the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since 1936. By this time he was very well known not only as a former Olympic athlete, but as a war hero and one who changed the lives of many thousands of young people through his evangelistic and social work with young people. Early in 2012, this national hero was invited to talk about his life’s work and experiences on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”, an invitation generally reserved for people with considerable celebrity status. It was a sign that Louis was not just seen as a former athlete who had had some kind of religious experience, but as a man who truly practiced what he preached and was respected in the highest echelons of society. Louis was a man who allowed Jesus Christ not only to affect what he did on a Sunday morning, but to affect his whole life for over seven decades.
The US Government initially recorded Louis Zamperini as ‘killed in action’ in 1944, but this great man lived another 70 years and died peacefully in his bed in July 2012 at the ripe old age of 97 years and six months.
Through his life’s work, though Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, and more recently as a result of the two movies, the story of Louis Zamperini, his promise to God, and his passion to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ has touched millions of lives, changing the majority of them for the better.
Louis Zamperini Athletic Achievements
As a top Middle Distance runner and an Olympic finalist, Zamperini’s achievements are recorded in the annals of athletics history. They are all the more remarkable when we realise that all of these achievements were accomplished while he was still a teenager.
Personal Best Times:
800m 1.52.5 (1938)
1500m 3:52.6 (1939)
1 Mile 4:08.3 (1938 – outdoor)
1 Mile 4:07.6 (1940 – indoor)
5,000m 14:46.8 (1936)
Story by Ralph Burden