"Through war, and in peace, Louis Zamperini found his faith."
- Senator John McCain
Many people thought Louis Zamperini would not live long beyond his formative years, and on many occasions, they were almost right. As a child of immigrants, he was often in trouble with the authorities, until a police officer suggested that he use his fleet feet for sport instead of mischief.
By the end of High School, Mr. Zamperini had become a world-class runner, setting a world high school record in the mile. He qualified to run on the 1936 Olympic team by tying the world record holder in the 5000-meter run. At the Olympic Games in Berlin, he was America's top finisher in the event, covering the final lap in an astounding 56 seconds.
Following the Games, Louis Zamperini enrolled and competed for the University of Southern California (USC) as a part of many national record-breaking teams. Many claim he would have broken the four-minute mile had he not elected to retire from the sport and join the U.S. Air Corps as a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II.
On a routine reconnaissance run, his aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean, and Mr. Zamperini and another crewmember survived in a life raft for 47 days, drifting 2000 miles, into Japanese controlled waters. "When you reach the end of your rope and there's nowhere else to turn" says Louis, "…you're gonna turn and look up. So that's all we did on the raft was pray morning, noon and night."
Louis Zamperini's rescuers were also his torturers, as the Japanese put him into a series of prison camps. One particular guard wanted to make an example of the eternally optimistic Olympic runner, and for two years, the guard tried to break his spirit with verbal and physical cruelty.
Mr. Zamperini outlasted the guard, and when the war ended, he returned to Torrance, California to a hero's welcome. He partied with celebrities and married a debutante, but his life was spinning out of control due to a lack of direction. He was plagued by nightmares. It was a chance meeting of the young evangelist, Billy Graham, inside a revival tent that changed his life for good. "He talked about one person only, the person of Jesus Christ, for 30 minutes" says Louis. "He read the Scriptures. I started having a flashback to the life raft and prison camp, all those thousands and thousands of prayers—God spare my life through the war, and I'll seek You and serve You. I kept thinking I came back from the war alive, and I never even thought about those prayers. That night I made my decision for Christ, I haven't had a nightmare since 1949 till now! That is some kind of a miracle."
Louis Zamperini decided to become a missionary to Japan, preaching the gospel of forgiveness to the very guards who had tormented him during the war. His book, Devil at My Heels was an astounding record of his life.
Upon his return to the States, Mr. Zamperini created the Victory Boys Camp for wayward youth, where he taught other juvenile delinquents the skills to succeed in life, while he and his wife raised two children of their own.
In 1998, the Olympic Winter Games were held in Nagano, Japan, just outside the town where Louis Zamperini had been held captive. The people of Nagano asked him to carry the Olympic flame as part of the torch relay, and the host broadcaster (CBS) created a 45-minute feature about his life, that aired during the telecast of the Closing Ceremony.
This story reignited interest in Mr. Zamperini's life, eventually leading Laura Hillenbrand (the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Seabiscuit) to document his life in her latest book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Today, at 93 years of age, Louis Zamperini is still spry and full of life. He lectures audiences across the globe, on how to deal with stress, the meaning of Olympism, and the freedom he found through a personal relationship with God.
"I'm a great believer, and I believe it with all of my heart that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and who are called according to His purpose. Christ told us in the Scripture, "I am the way, I am the truth and I am the life." Christ is the way to God, the way is the truth. People are always seeking truth; the truth is Christ, and He's the life. But I think our eternal life starts now by faith in Jesus Christ. That is the strength we live by, and death no longer has a sting… not to the Christian."
- Louis Zamperini
Watch a video about Louis Zamperini.