Christians and Culture by Dr. Tim Woodroof
I just devoured Laura Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken—706 pages in under three days! I could not put the book down. As an avid reader of World War II history, I expected to hear the story of a soldier. As a disciple of Jesus, I was delighted to discover the story of a believer.
The book chronicles the life—and particularly the war experiences—of Louis Zamperini, the second son of Italian immigrants. Louis was raised in Torrance, California and wasted much of his youth in thievery and fighting, fleeing home, and failing at school.
Running saved Louis. Encouraged by his older brother, Louis joined his high-school track team. By the end of his senior year, Louis was the fastest miler of his age in the country. They called him the Torrance Tornado.
Louis went to college on a track scholarship. He traveled to Berlin to run the 5,000 meter event in the 1936 Olympics and met Adolf Hitler. People in the track and field world tagged Louis Zamperini as the man most likely to break the four-minute mile.
Then came Pearl Harbor. The world began to burn and running fast around oval tracks did not seem nearly so important. Louis joined the Army Air Corps, training as a bombardier. Assigned to the Pacific theater, he flew several harrowing missions and watched crewmates die.
Louis Zamperini’s B24 bomber went down in the Pacific Ocean on May 27, 1943. Louis and two other survivors floated in a flimsy life raft for 47 days, fighting off sharks and slowly starving to death. They were strafed by a Japanese plane. They weathered storms and the constant, killing sun.
Louis and his companions drifted 2,000 miles, finally washing up on an island controlled by the Japanese. They’d lost half their body weight when captured as prisoners of war.
But the suffering had only begun.
Transported to Japan, Louis was interred in a series of primitive POW camps, guarded by increasingly cruel guards, and subjected to tortures aimed at breaking body and soul. He was beaten, starved, and humiliated. One guard—Mutsuhiro Watanabe—reveled in brutality. He subjected Louis to long hours of punching and kicking, pushed him into latrine pits, and promised each day that tomorrow Louis would die.
Louis began by fearing Watanabe. He came to resent him bitterly. In the end, he hated Watanabe so violently that the last months of the war were consumed with obsessive thoughts of torturing and killing the man who was torturing and killing him.
When the war ended, Watanabe melted into the chaos of post-war Japan and Louis returned to the States. He married and attempted a string of doomed moneymaking ventures. He began to drink, and then to drink heavily. His dreams were haunted by violent visions of his former captor. Louis’ hatred consumed him. His temper was a blind, raging thing. His marriage was coming apart. And his drinking grew steadily worse. He planned a trip back to Japan to find and murder Watanabe.
Watching her husband disintegrate, Louis’ wife begged him to come hear a young evangelist. The wavy-haired, rock jawed Baptist was turning Los Angeles upside down with his preaching. Louis resisted angrily. His hatred could not be healed with a sermon.
Louis finally relented and went with his wife to hear Billy Graham. Memories of childhood faith, of prayers muttered in a life raft, swept over him. He thought of the miracle of his own survival. He remembered promises made to God as he pled for life. He walked down the aisle and felt his awful burden lift.
That night, Louis threw out his liquor and cigarettes and reconciled with his wife. He forgave Watanabe and slept peacefully for the first time in years. The haunting dreams never returned. He traveled across the country, telling the story of his life and healing. He started a camp for boys as lost as he had been.
And he traveled back to Japan to meet with former camp guards and offer his forgiveness. He wrote a letter to Watanabe, asking to meet and reconcile in person. Watanabe never responded.
Louis Zamperini spent the rest of his life serving the Lord who had set him free.
I finished the book and praised God.
Dr. Tim Woodroof is a freelance writer and speaker. He and his wife Julie make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. www.timwoodroof.com