By Mark Ellis
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!”
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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