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'We had adversities'

Louis Zamperini's long life has seen great highs, terrifying lows, and a "miracle of transformation." A new biography tells his remarkable story

'We had adversities'

(Associated Press/Photo by John Marshall Mantell)

Former Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini turns 94 in January. He claims to remain fit "even though I have been busted up a lot in my life."

Busted up? More like manhandled.

Zamperini turned a rough-and-tumble boyhood of defiance in California into a shot at a medal for running during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn't finish in the top three. But his youth and fast final lap had observers predicting that he would be a favorite in the 1940 Games scheduled for Tokyo, Japan.

Then the war came, canceling the Olympics. Zamperini would still end up in Japan, but by another-much more horrifying-way.

When mechanical failure sent his Army Air Force bomber into the Pacific Ocean in 1943, Zamperini found himself floating in a life raft with two other survivors. The perseverance he had learned in sports was about to be put to the test.

Zamperini spent 47 days drifting on that raft. He fended off sharks and dodged bullets from enemy planes. He caught rainwater to drink and birds to eat.

When the raft hit land, joy turned to horror as Zamperini discovered that he was in enemy territory. Soon he was on his way to a Japanese prison camp. There the cruelest of tortures, like enduring 220 punches a beating, awaited.

"People have asked, 'Didn't you ever think of dying out there?'" Zamperini told me in a phone interview. "I always say, no, I was too busy trying to stay alive to think about dying."

His ordeal is detailed in Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken (Random House, 2010). Each chapter of the book packs in enough adventure and hardship to last several lifetimes. But it all happens to one person. Zamperini says the theme of his life is the tenacity of the human spirit.

"My generation was not so much the greatest, but it was the hardiest generation. How do you become hardy? By overcoming adversities . . . and we had adversities."

Zamperini is most excited about the book's postwar chapters. It is here that Hillenbrand details how Zamperini became a Christian.

Given a Bible early in the war, Zamperini ignored it. Still, one of his companions on the life raft, the son of a minister, led the survivors in hymns to keep their minds occupied. During the next two-plus years, Zamperini found himself repeatedly praying for God's protection. He even promised that he would serve God forever if he somehow got out alive.

But he returned from the war plagued by nightmares. Feeling humiliated and powerless, he hungered for vengeance. He turned to alcohol.

As Zamperini's life decayed, a young evangelist named Billy Graham began packing a tent with crowds in Los Angeles. A reluctant Zamperini ended up hearing Graham preach twice.

He recalls Graham saying that when people reach the end of their ropes they turn to God. Zamperini thought that's exactly what he did during the war. He had made thousands of promises to seek God but hadn't kept a single one.

"So that did it," Zamperini said. "I went back to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ. Even before I got off my knees the miracle of transformation took place."

When Hillenbrand started interviewing him for the book, Zamperini began praying that she would include his conversion. The author eventually tracked down the actual sermon that changed Zamperini.

"When that happened I thought, 'Oh boy, the Lord is going to bless this book,'" he said. "To me the whole book is the message of salvation."

It is also about forgiveness.

Zamperini has visited every state in the nation, telling his story to thousands of clubs, churches, and schools. He's given his testimony in other nations-including Japan.

In 1950, he returned there and spoke to 850 prisoners being held for war crimes. About half of them received Christ. After hearing his testimony, eight former prison guards, now prisoners themselves, who knew Zamperini, came forward. Zamperini said he forgave them.

Zamperini has also spoken to 18,000 people at an auditorium in Tokyo and had his testimony reprinted at least twice in Japan's largest newspaper. In 1998, he carried the torch for the Nagano Winter Olympics. His relay route took him past one of his former prison camps. Millions more heard his story through the Olympics' television broadcast.

"My whole life is a ministry," he told me. "Let's face it. That is what we are here for. All we are, are voices for the gospel. I'll be here for as long as the Lord can use me."

Edward Lee Pitts

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.