A great story about redemption has a way of capturing the human heart.
That’s probably why Louie Zamperini’s life story has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks – where it is currently ranked No. 2 on the hardcover, non-fiction list.
Universal Studios recently purchased the rights to the story and plans to put it on the big screen. They have asked Zamperini to be a consultant. He agreed, but then jokingly told them to hurry because he is 94 years old.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, written by “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand, chronicles Zamperini’s amazing life. He was an Olympic runner in 1936. He joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier during WWII where he crashed in the Pacific Ocean and was picked up by the Japanese who took him as a POW.
After two harrowing years in the camp, he was freed when the war ended and returned home to California where he got married. But he was directionless and bitter about his war experiences, which led to too much drinking and his life spiraled out of control.
He was consumed with the idea of returning to Japan to get revenge on the Japanese sergeant – whom the prisoners referred as “The Bird” – who inflicted so much pain on him. But in 1949, Zamperini’s wife asked him to go see Billy Graham preach. He did so and the Gospel grabbed his heart and made him new.
“I got off my knees and somehow I knew I was through getting drunk,” Zamperini told the 700 Club. “I knew it. I also knew that I forgave all my guards including ‘The Bird.’ I think proof of that is I had nightmares every night about ‘The Bird’ since the war. The night I made my decision for Christ, I haven’t had a nightmare since – 1949 till now! That is some kind of a miracle.”
A year after he became a Christian, he found himself headed back to Japan – not to seek revenge, but, as his website describes, “to become a missionary to Japan, preaching the gospel of forgiveness to the very guards who had tormented him during the war.”
“I was mad because I was going back to Japan, yet I was thrilled because I was in God’s will,” Zamperini told CBS during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. “I had those two mixed feelings.”
He faced many of the guards who held him captive. They had been arrested, convicted and imprisoned. Through an interpreter, Zamperini told them about the Savior who redeemed his soul. And he told them he forgave them for what they did to him.
Some of the guards became Christians. Most of them accepted a Gideon’s New Testament. And, by the account in Hillenbrand’s book, nearly all of them were stunned by Zamperini’s message. Here’s how Hillenbrand described the scene:
“Before Louie left Sugamo [Prison], the colonel who was attending him asked Louie’s former guards to come forward. In the back of the room, the prisoners stood up and shuffled into the aisle. They moved hesitantly, looking up at Louie with small faces.
“Louie was seized by childlike, giddy exuberance. Before he realized what he was doing, he was bounding down the aisle. In bewilderment, the men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face.”
Zamperini spoke with a Japanese spy that day named James Sasaki, who became a Christian. Zamperini recounts their conversation in his book called Devil at My Heels.
“I don’t understand how you can come back here and forgive us,” Sasaki said. “Your Christianity must be real, but I don’t understand it.”
“It is real,” Zamperini said, “and if you continue in your faith, you will one day understand.”
One guard was missing that day – the Bird. He had not been captured and was thought to be dead, but later it was discovered that he was alive.
Zamperini tried to meet with him one on one at the 1998 Winter Olympics, but Bird refused. CBS commentator Jim Nance asked Zamperini what he would say to the Bird if he had the chance.
“I really wanted to face him and tell him, right to his face, that I forgave him.”
Zamperini never got that chance. But he did write a letter to the Bird saying he forgave him and he hoped he too would turn to Christ. He brought that letter with him to the 1998 Winter Olympics and passed it along to someone who promised to get it to the Bird. It is not known whether the Bird ever received it before he died in 2003.
Zamperini has gone on to create the Victory Boys Camp for troubled youth and all these years later, he’s still going strong. In addition to speaking to schools and youth groups, he also speaks about how to deal with stress, the spirit of the Olympics and the freedom he found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
No word yet on when Universal Studios will release the movie.