His storied life is the stuff of which blockbuster movies and bestselling
books are made — and for Louis Zamperini, his journey has inspired both.
Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is still a world-wide bestseller, four years
after the book’s 2010 release. And, currently in production, an Angelina
Jolie-directed adaptation is set to hit the big screen in late 2014.
Editor's Note: Mr. Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97; he is now with the Lord he knows and loves. We are so honored that he graciously granted us this interview only a couple of months prior to his passing.
The war in the Pacific was fought mostly on — or above — water. In land wars, casualties are usually seen and identified. At sea, when ships went down, there were often other vessels nearby to document the sinking and rescue survivors. But with aircraft, their last-known position could be hundreds of miles from their eventual crash location. Ironically, when Louis’ rickety B-24 went down not far from Hawaii, it was on a rescue mission to fi nd a lost bomber. Only two of his 11 crew members survived the crash, and their two rubber rafts drifted 2,000 miles, washing up on a Japanese-held island.
After the search was called off, and a decent interval allowed for any survivors to turn up, Louis’ mother Louise received an official death notice in the mail. She refused to believe it. Her youngest son had been cheating death since he was a toddler. Before Louie’s second birthday, the family’s house in Olean, New York, caught fire and the little fella didn’t get out with his older brother. Dad Anthony ran back in, but couldn’t find Louie until he saw a little hand moving under a bed. Running out of the house with his son, the front porch collapsed, burning Anthony’s feet. A few weeks later the family was on-board a train pulling out of Grand Central Station, moving to California, when little Louie shook free of his momma’s grasp. He ran the length of the train and jumped out the back of the caboose in the middle of New York City. Amazingly, the train stopped, then backed up … until Louise spotted her boy hopping merrily along the tracks.
How did Louis Silvie Zamperini survive a childhood of juvenile delinquency to make the U.S. Olympic Track team? How did he manage to meet Adolf Hitler? How did he survive the famed air battle over Nauru, the bombing of his air base on Funafuti, the crash of the Green Hornet, 47 days in a rubber raft and over two years of targeted torment by Japanese prison guards? Why did he end up at a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles in 1949? These questions are all answered in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken and in a forthcoming motion picture, produced and directed by Angelina Jolie. Oh, and by the way, Louis is still going strong at 97 years young and living in Hollywood. Gloria Gaither was honored to interview this remarkable hero.
GLORIA: You were saved several times in your life. As an incorrigible teenager, you were “saved” by running. How did running save you back then, and who was instrumental in changing your direction?
LOUIS ZAMPERINI: I was a pretty fast runner back then but I used my speed to get myself out of trouble. My brother Pete, who was also a runner, saw the potential in me to use that speed for something better than outrunning the law. He became my coach and trainer, and really, my savior at that time.
GLORIA: Americans were able to watch every detail of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia this year. But what were the Olympics like in 1936 Germany?
LOUIS: Well of course it was completely different back then and although the ’36 Olympics were the first ever televised, not many people had access to a television. My folks, like everyone else, listened to the radio reports and read the newspaper.
GLORIA: Your sports career and college education were interrupted by a declaration of war. How did you overcome your fear of flying? Can you tell us when that fear turned to the chill and challenge of high altitudes? What were other great fears and how did overcoming them strengthen you for the ultimate challenges you were to later face?
LOUIS: You didn’t think about being fearful, you had a job to do and you sucked it up and did the job. Being with my buddies and knowing we were all doing our best and what was asked of us by our country was what got us through every air battle.
I don’t know about “great fears.” I know that I took a survival course that was offered in Hawaii. It was surprising that there were only a couple of us who took it. But those skills I learned equipped me for much of what we faced on the raft.
GLORIA: There was a friend of yours named Jimmie Sasaki who was accused by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI of being an informant for the Japanese. How did Sasaki figure into your life after you were captured?
LOUIS: I remember being escorted into a room for interrogation and looking at the back of this head. Then the head turned around and what a shock it was to be face to face with Sasaki. I thought of him as a friend from our USC days and spoke to him about the rough treatment we were receiving in prison camp thinking he might be able to help, but instead he reported me and I was severely punished. I felt betrayed.
GLORIA: To what, would you consider, do you owe your ability to survive the torture and torment you experienced at the hand of your captors?
LOUIS: Being an athlete, you learn determination and experience victory. In your mind and heart you want to win. It was the same on the life raft. You want to win. You want to live. Everything is a challenge. That’s when your training comes in.
GLORIA: Do you still have nightmares about those years of your life? What did you feel when you visited Sugamo? What emotions did you have when you saw those who had tortured you like Curley, the Weasel, Kono and Jimmie Sasaki? What happened to the Bird and what did you feel when you learned about his fate?
LOUIS: Once I received Christ as my Savior the nightmares stopped and never returned. When I went to Sugamo I was in God’s will and felt only great peace and forgiveness. Sadly, one of the guards who was kind to us, Kano, was imprisoned with the rest of the guards and did not deserve to be there. He was a really good guy.
The Bird escaped the authorities as soon as the war was declared over. He was never caught and brought to justice. Until my conversion all I could think about was getting back to Japan and getting even. But all of that ended once I accepted Christ as my Savior. I would have liked to have met up with him and talked but that wasn’t in the cards.
GLORIA: Looking back now, which was worse: being lost at sea and the terrifying experiences battling natural hazards or the things you endured at the hands of other human beings?
LOUIS: If I had to choose, and thank God I don’t, I would choose being on the raft. Seeing what human beings are capable of doing to each other works against your humanity. A shark is an animal. A storm is a storm.
GLORIA: What did you learn about God through all of your experiences, and how did you resolve the deep questions of faith that must have plagued you? What would you say to young men and women who are searching for answers in the chaos of life in these times now?
LOUIS: When I look back on the times I nearly died — I mean 48 bullet holes in a tiny raft with three men crammed into it and no one is hit? That’s a miracle. Being pulled down in the plane with all those wires wrapped around me and no way to free myself, blacking out only to find myself floating to the surface? A miracle. I didn’t realize it then, but later after the war and with my conversion, it seemed that God had a plan for me.
I would say to young men and women today to look for contentment in any situation you find yourself in and believe your life has a purpose. Every life has a purpose. Find yours and don’t be afraid to ask for God’s help.
GLORIA: You were working on the set of a movie when you first entered the army before all of the adventures of your story happened. Now you are working on a movie about your story. What do you think about the upcoming film? Have you become friends with the director, Angelina Jolie? Are you still friends with Laura Hillenbrand, who so carefully and skillfully wrote your story in the book Unbroken?
LOUIS: From what I’ve seen so far, the movie looks phenomenal. Angelina is beautiful, brilliant and tough. She read the book twice through and fought to make the movie. She shared with me that she discovered the power of prayer while making the movie and that couldn’t make me happier.
Laura, there’s another fantastic girl. She’s a genius and talk about tough. Here she is, bedridden with chronic fatigue, and she writes Unbroken. I was so impressed with that, I sent her one of my Purple Hearts.
Both women are out of this world and I’m deeply grateful to know them and call them my friends.
GLORIA: Thank you so much for personalizing your amazing story for Homecoming readers. We are eagerly awaiting the unfolding of your life on the big screen. You are an inspiration to us all!
Photos courtesy of Louis Zamperini.