Louis Zamperini: How he came to Christ through Billy Graham in L.A.

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By Mark Ellis

Louie and Cynthia
Louie and Cynthia

He ran for his country in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. During WWII, his B-24 crashed in the Pacific and he barely survived 47 days adrift on a raft. Picked up by the Japanese, he spent the remainder of the war in a P.O.W camp, where he endured horrible abuse at the hands of a prison guard nicknamed “The Bird.”

After the war, he met and married the girl of his dreams, but post-traumatic stress disorder threatened to destroy his marriage. All the while, he dreamed of a return to Japan to hunt down and kill the former guard who tormented him.

“I had nightmares every night,” says Louis Zamperini, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book “Unbroken.” The nightmares followed Zamperini home like a crazed hound from hell. “No one knew about it, because I looked perfectly normal,” he says. “I covered it up by drinking.”

His wife Cynthia suspected something was terribly wrong, because Zamperini often woke up in a cold sweat, shouting. One night he dreamed he was strangling The Bird. In fact, he was on top of his pregnant wife with his hands around her neck, choking the life out of her. “I woke up and couldn’t believe it,” he says.

His life spiraled downward as he began to chase other women at local bars, where he and his Olympic buddies often got free drinks. “I began to fall apart,” Zamperini recalls. “My wife decided she wanted a divorce.”

About that time, a new couple in their apartment building talked about a young evangelist preaching in a large tent in downtown Los Angeles. “In those days ‘evangelist’ was a dirty word because there were so many crooked ones,” Zamperini notes.

The young evangelist preaching in a tent

The young evangelist was Billy Graham, the object of William Randolph Hearst’s famous order to his news editors — “Puff Graham” – that led to 10,000 people jamming the tent each night. Cynthia went with the couple to hear Graham, but Louis refused to go. When Cynthia returned home after the event, Louis immediately noticed something was different.

“She started speaking of a peace and joy in her heart,” he recalls. Still, Louis stubbornly resisted her invitation to hear Graham. “She knew that to save our marriage I would have to be converted.”

Despite her appeals, Louis continued to dig in his heels. “I wanted no part of it.”

But then Cynthia said something that got his attention. “Because of my conversion I’m not going to get a divorce,” she announced.

The next day Cynthia was all over Louis again, and this time he relented. “Ok, Ok, I’ll go,” he said. “But when that fella says, ‘Every head bowed and every eye closed,’ we’re getting out of there.”

That night, Graham spoke from the eighth chapter of John about the woman caught in adultery. “He began to preach and quote scripture that reminded me of my life,” Louis notes. Still, his heart was hardened. At the end of the message when Graham asked people to bow their heads, Louis grabbed his wife’s arm and bolted from the tent.

As they got in their car, he said, “Don’t ever get me back in a place like that again.”

Louis suffered a fitful night’s sleep that night, with more nightmares about The Bird. The next morning, Cynthia was just as firm in her resolve that a change in Louis’s heart was the only possible way to save their marriage. She went after Louis again and convinced him to go back a second time to hear Graham. Louis warned his wife, “If he says ‘every head bowed and every eye closed,’ we’re out of there.”

This time, Graham spoke about why Christians suffer and why God seemed to allow communism to flourish. At the end of the message, when Graham asked people to bow their heads, Louis got up to leave. As he moved to the end of their row and stood in the aisle, he hesitated and stopped.

Something Graham said about people “at the end of their rope” who turned to God triggered a flood of memories. He thought about his ordeal in the Japanese P.O.W. camp, when he and the other men prayed daily. He promised God then ‘If you get me home alive I’ll seek you and serve you.’

Likewise, his mind returned to his suffering on the raft. “On the raft we were at the mercy of the elements on the ocean. I came back alive. God kept his promise,” he realized, but he had not kept his part.

“What a heel I’ve been,” he muttered to himself.

A softened heart

Instead of heading for the exit door, Louis turned and walked toward the prayer room. There, he fell to his knees and gave his life to Christ. “The Holy Spirit came into my heart and I became a member of the true church, the Body of Christ.”

Something unusual happened as he knelt humbly before God. “When I was still on my knees I forgave all my guards, and I knew I was through smoking, drinking and chasing women.”

That night his nightmares stopped abruptly. “The miracle that happened,” he says, “it was the first time in years I never had a nightmare. I haven’t had one since.

Zamperini rummaged through their apartment the next day. He tossed out all the liquor, cigarettes and girlie magazines hidden in various places. He dug out his WWII Bible, walked to a local park and began to read. “I got to the crucifixion and I started crying like a baby.”

He left the park and hurried back to see Cynthia. “A miracle has happened in my life,” he said excitedly.

“The same miracle happened to me,” she said. “That’s the miracle of conversion — it happens the moment you believe!”

Louie with Billy Graham
Louie with Billy Graham

The following day Louis found Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows and told them about the marvelous change that happened. “I was bubbling over with joy,” he recalls. Louis insisted, however, they would never get him up on a platform talking about his faith.

But God had other plans. “The next day Cliff Barrows gave me a train ticket to Modesto.” Zamperini boarded the train and headed for his first participatory Graham event, where he shared about his newfound faith. “I only knew two or three scriptures,” he admits. “Since then I’ve been on platforms all over the world.”

Zamperini notes that one of the reviewers of “Unbroken” faulted the book in one respect: “He couldn’t understand how someone with post-traumatic stress disorder could get over it in a moment.”

“The reviewer didn’t know the scripture,” ‘If any man be in Christ he is a new creation. Old things have passed away and all things become new.’”

 

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I read Unbroken, I shared it with a friend and her husband, maybe they can have a conversion experience too like Cynthia and Louis Zamperini Jr did. I liked your review it broght back memories when I read it the book four or so months ago. GB your ministry…Amen in JC

  2. I first saw a small article in a magazine about Mr. Zamperini, I then saw him on the Jay Leno, however I had heard about the book and rented it at the library. I counldn’t put it down, in part of the book I cried it was so heartbreaking how much our men sufferered. I, too am a Christian and know the power to forgive, I can understand it when he forgave all the guards, including the “Bird”. I respect and love ALL Our Veternan. I also support the Gidons Bible Distrubtion which gives out bibles.God Bless Louis .When he gets to heaven the Lord will say, welcome, my good and faithful servant.

  3. A powerful story of God’s persistent grace and power. I was given this book as a gift and will now gift many others with it. God is great and His love endures forever. Keep praying, not only for your loved ones but for your enemies also – God may not love what they are doing but, He does love them too. Remember : “Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

  4. I loved this story and have just seen an interview on Fox news probably just before he died July2 2014

  5. I loved the book Unbroken and could hardly put it down until I came to the part where he gave his life to Christ, and I sobbed loudly and had to put it down for awhile to gather my emotions of pure joy.

  6. I just saw a report on Mr. Zamperini on Fox news. It is in reference to the movie. It brought back thoughts of my own conversion. In 1970 I was a young wife and mother. I was watching Billy Graham on TV conducting a crusade. I do not remember what he said, but whatever it was, I asked Christ into my heart. It was at least another year before I realized what I had actually done. Thank you to a community church where the truth of salvation was preached, I realized what had happened that night over a year ago. It would be hard to guess how many people have been brought to Christ though the work of Billy Graham. He would not accept any praise I am sure. He would give all the glory to God. I am so thankful for the book and movie. Perhaps others will be brought to the truth of Christ.

  7. Dear Sir, I would like to publish a translation in French of this article onto my blog.
    I am a French pastor and the movie “unbroken” has just been released in France.

    May I ?

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