I f you attended worship at my church Peachtree on Sunday, January 27, 2013, you experienced a rare treat. Louis Zamperini, 96 year old Olympian, Word War II Prisoner of War and the subject of NY Times bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, paid a visit.
We rolled out the red carpet, with altered services times, live simulcast online to multiple worship venues, a specially-configured sanctuary set, and over $100,000 of technology upgrades to accommodate the occasion.
In return, the almost 6000 people who attended got to experience what our senior pastor Vic Pentz called “the most electric Sunday” in his 40 years of ministry.
A 34-minute, award winning CBS documentary, originally produced for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, created a palpable energy and set up a spectacular reveal as Zamperini entered the sanctuary.
After an extended standing ovation, Zamperini offered backstory and cutting room floor scenes of his life, including his repatriation to the United States following the war. He spoke with insight, deprecation and humor.
One of the highlights was the retelling of his experience at the 1949 Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles crusade was a milestone for Graham and propelled him to the national stage as an evangelist. It was also the site of Zamperini’s newfound peace in Jesus Christ and freedom from the ongoing trauma of wartime suffering.
Zamperini shared his untold life as a believer in the decades since his conversion, including the act of forgiving his tormentors, life as a national figure, and the daily disciplines and activities of his life as a believer.
Louis Zamperini was a troubled youth who discovered a life direction through running. Gifted with a natural ability, he received much acclaim running track at the University of Southern California, and was selected for the 1936 United States Olympic team that competed in Berlin, Germany. His roommate was the legendary Jesse Owens. While he did not medal in Merlin, he ran the final lap of the 5000 meter race in 56 seconds, at the time a world record and worthy of attention from German chancellor Adolf Hitler, whom he met personally.
Preparations for the 1940 Games were interrupted by war. Zamperini was drafted into the Army Air Corps, eventually becoming a B-24 bombardier. In May 1943, while on a search and rescue mission, Zamperini and his fellow crewmen crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Louis and the pilot drifted 2,000 miles over 47 days, eventually making landfall on the Japanese controlled “Execution Island.” At the time of their capture, each man weighed 80 pounds, half of Louis’ Olympic weight.
Zamperini spent the next two years incarcerated at various POW camps, mostly at the mercy of a sadistic Japanese sergeant. He and his fellow prisoners endured unspeakable pain and suffering. A man of considerable will, Louis refused to succumb to the relentless abuse, deplorable living conditions and near-starvation to which he and his imprisoned comrades were subjected.
At the end of the war, American troops liberated Zamperini and his fellow POWs. Louis was repatriated and recognized as a true national hero. He returned to his hometown, married and attempted to move on. But the horrors of his war-time experiences haunted him. He began to drink heavily, and his marriage suffered.
When a young Billy Graham set up a tent in Los Angeles in 1949 and led his first major revival meeting, Zamperini’s wife attended. She gave Louis an ultimatum: attend that night’s revival or face a life alone. With reservation, Zamperini joined his bride, and encountered a surprising result: Zamperini turned his life over to Jesus Christ. As Zamperini described the experience, “From that point forward, my nightmares ceased.” He would experience a complete spiritual and personal renewal.
Ever since, Louis Zamperini has lived and told a powerful story of faith. He continues to speak to groups of all ages, encouraging them to face and triumph over the challenges of life. Zamperini celebrated his 96th birthday on the plan to Atlanta to visit Peachtree.
Having been a celebrity most of his life, Louis handles his fame with aplomb, using it to further the story of Christ. I was starstruck.
Mr. Zamperini’s life story has been chronicled in the biographical novel Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption (Random House) by celebrated author, Laura Hillenbrand. Ms. Hillenbrand’s previous literary triumph, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, became an international best seller and the basis for an Academy Award nominated film. Unbroken is in development for major release through Universal Studios, with Angelina Jolie slated to direct. It’s supposed to come out in 2015.