“It was all in His hands now – as it had always been.” -Louie Zamperini, Devil At My Heels
Louie Zamperini was which of the following:
a) Juvenile delinquent
b) Record-breaking Olympian
c) Bombardier during WWII
d) Record-breaking survivor of an inflated raft without food or water
e) Japanese POW for two years
f) Alcoholic who turned to Christ in a Billy Graham crusade tent
g) All of the above
The answer is all of the above!
Louis Zamperini was born in 1917 to loving Italian immigrants in New York. At the age of two, his family moved to California. Louie had two older sisters and an older brother and mentor, Pete. Since he spoke no English, he was an easy target for bullies. As a child, he was infamous for beating up kids, smoking and drinking at a young age, stealing, running away, and never listening to his parents.
When Louie found out his house key worked on his school gym, he and a few friends decided to start sneaking into games. The principal, police, and his parents were at their breaking point. Louie’s punishment? No school sports his freshman year in high school.
Louie nearly laughed – he never did anything like that anyway! His older brother Pete, a star-miler, urged Louie to begin running for sport. With Pete as his coach and mentor, Louie broke records no one thought he would. He set a world interscholastic record in 1934, running a mile in 4 minutes and 21 seconds. His next goal was the 5000 meters in the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
Louie qualified for the Olympics by tying with word-record holder Don Lash. At 19 years of age, he was the youngest US qualifier ever in the 5000 meters.
Although he finished eighth at the Olympics, his last lap was enough to catch the eye and earn a compliment from Adolf Hitler. “You’re the boy with the fast finish.” was all Hitler said when he met Louie. In 1941, Louie enlisted in the US Air Force and became a Second Lieutenant. On a rescue mission in May 1943, Louie and his crew crashed in the Pacific Ocean.
There were only three survivors from the crew of ten – Louie, pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, and tail gunner Francis “Mac” McNamara. On two rafts, they had six bars of special chocolate and eight half-pints of water. The chocolate bars, packed with vitamins, minerals and protein, were meant to last a week, taking only one bar each day. Optimistically, Louie figured it wouldn’t matter because a search-and-rescue would find them soon.
That night, Mac, in a panic, ate all of the chocolate. The three men managed to catch and eat a shark. Louie, at the time not really religious, promised God that if God would allow him to survive, Louie would glorify Him the rest of his life. Louie would not fulfill this promise until many years later.
On one particular day, the men saw a plane in the distance. All of a sudden, the plane started shooting at them. The plane, unfortunately, was Japanese. On one of the shooting incidents, Louie went under the raft, only to come face-to-face with a shark!
Mac died on the on the 33rd day, but Louie and Phil managed to survive. This episode of Louie and Phil’s life was chronicled in the Shark Week 2012 episode Adrift: 47 Days With Sharks.
On the 47th day, Louie and Phil landed on the Marshall Islands and were immediately held POW. With half their original weight lost, they were taken to a place known as Execution Island.
Louie was taken tp the prison camp Ofuna were he was interrogated. Unfortunately, prisoners at Ofuna were not registered as POW and Louie was declared dead by the US government. Louie’s mother, Louise, was given Louie’s death certificate and his $10,000 life insurance policy. Refusing to believe her son was dead, she put all of it in the bank for Louie to spend when he got home.
Louie reunited with his mother after the war.
One guard who was particularly cruel to Louie, Matsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird”. On one occasion, The Bird put Louie in charge of a deathly sick goat. “Goat die, you die.” The Bird said. Well, the goat died. Louie’s punishment was to hold a thick, six-foot long beam.
He cannot break me, Louie thought, defiantly holding the beam while staring The Bird in the eyes. The Bird, extremely upset at Louie’s defiance, jammed him in the stomach. The beam dropped, knocking Louie out. A friend had timed the incident – Louie had managed to hold the beam for 37 minutes. Keep in mind, prisoners at Ofuna were only given about 500 calories a day.
Louie hated The Bird and he and a few friends were planning to kill him. In the mean time, however, the atomic bomb was made, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, and the war was won. Louie and Phil both survived the war.
Louie married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946. Louie invested and lost a lot of money, and after the birth of their daughter in 1949, his mood swings and nightmares began to get worse and he became an alcoholic.
On one night in September 1949, the young couple were on the brink of divorce. Cynthia heard of a young preacher in town, Billy Graham. He set up a huge tent, and Cynthia, curious at the fuss the town was making, went. When she came home one night, Louie was drunk as usual, but he noticed a change in her.
She had accepted Christ into her heart and wanted Louie to come with her to meet Billy Graham. Louie bluntly refused. His nightmares continued to get worse, and Cynthia would not stop asking Louie to come. Desperate not to end his marriage, Louie finally went.
“What kind of life are you living? Are you satisfied with your life?” Billy Graham asked the crowd. Louie was upset – he knew his life was not working out well. Louie grabbed Cynthia’s hand and began dragging her out. Something changed in Louie for a moment. He remembered his promise to God on the raft and he accepted Christ into his life.
Louie quit drinking and threw away the alcohol in his home. Louie still hated Japan and he never wanted to forgive the Japanese. However, through a string of God’s miracles, Louie went back to Japan in 1950. He met and forgave several of the camp guards, who were now imprisoned for war crimes. Some even became Christians.
Louie never met the Bird after the war. He had escaped and died sometime in 2003. In 1998, he ran the torch in the Nagano Winter Olympics in Japan and attempted to meet with The Bird, however the Bird declined at the last minute. You can see Louie reading his forgiveness letter to the Bird here.
Louie’s memoir Devil At My Heels was published in 2004 and he was the subject of the bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I have read both books and LOVED them! Devil At My Heels included more about Louie’s life before and after his POW years, and Unbroken is beautifully written with lots of research put into it.
Louie and Cynthia were married for 55 years; she died in 2001. They had two children, Cynthia “Cissy” and Luke. Louie Zamperini is currently 96 years old, and currently living in California. “God has given me so much.” he says. “He expects so much out of me.”
To learn more about Louie, I would recommend the bestseller Unbroken to bookworms, and I would recommend Devil At My Heels for Christians or those who don’t read much!
Louie has held the Olympic flame three times, he picked up skateboarding in his 70s, and only gave up snowboarding when he was in his 90s. He helped troubled youth, spoke to millions, and lived for Christ. On July 2 2014, Louie Zamperini passed away.