Exclusive Interview: Son of 'Unbroken' Hero Louis Zamperini Shares Details of His Father's Life And Courageous Faith

( [email protected] ) Mar 26, 2015 01:43 PM EDT
Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini seen in a photo released by the Pasadena Tournament of Roses.

The amazing story of American hero Louis Zamperini and his indomitable courage is known around the world, thanks in part to his best-selling biography,"Unbroken," and an Oscar-nominated film of the same name.

"Unbroken" tells the story of Zamperini's childhood, Olympic career, military service, survival on a raft adrift for five weeks on the Pacific, and his suffering of unspeakable cruelty in Japanese prison camps. Then, the film briefly references Zamperini's conversion and subsequent forgiveness of his former captors.

However, his story was far from over.

In an exclusive interview with The Gospel Herald, Louis Zamperini's son, Luke, gave an inside look into his father's story, and how the grace of God drastically transformed his life.

What are the details of the Louis Zamperini story that didn't make it into the book or film "Unbroken"?

The film was faithful to mention the faith of my father, although briefly. In the life-raft scene, during a horrendous storm, he is shown praying to God and saying, 'Take me home alive and I will seek You and serve You my entire life." At the end of the film, there is a tile that says, "Louie made good on his promise to serve God and went back and forgave all of his captors." That actually tells the story in a couple of sentences. However, a motion picture is a three-act play told in about two hours, and Louie Zamperini's life was a six-act play--the filmmakers simply didn't have time to dramatize everything.

After the Japanese picked my dad up out of the ocean, they kept him 27 months in a prison camp. Their intention was to keep him away for a year and then try to use him for propaganda purposes. They brought him to Tokyo and tried to force him to read some propaganda, but of course, he refused. So they sent him back to the prison camp. In the camp there was a guard known as "The Bird" whose job it was to break Louie Zamperini; to make him want to go do the radio broadcast with the hope that he would have a better life than he was having in the prison camp. Immediately after he encountered The Bird, the beatings started. Immediately, Louie began to have nightmares about The Bird attacking him; he would dream that The Bird was hitting him with a kendo stick, or with his belt. But my dad knew that if he reacted the way he wanted to, they would kill him.

These dreams continued throughout the entire last year of his imprisonment, and he brought it with him when he came home to the United States. By then, he had what we know today to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but they didn't know what that was back then, and they didn't know how to treat it.

He eventually met my mom, and they got married--it seemed like life was getting better for him. However, he was unable to get back in world-class shape to compete for the Olympics, and the nightmares continued. So, he began to self-medicate with alcohol and began to get in fights at the drop of a hat. His life was falling apart. In 1949, my mother told him that she wanted a divorce because it was not working out. And of course, it was very disappointing, but then something amazing occurred.

There was a young couple that had moved into the apartment building near my parents, and they invited my parents to come see a young preacher at a camp in downtown Los Angeles. My dad, of course, didn't want to go, but my mom did. When she came home that evening, she said she had a new-found joy in her heart, and because of it, she had decided not to divorce my dad. However, she told him, 'You need to go with me to see this guy preach tomorrow night." It took quite a bit of convincing, but he finally said, 'Ok, I'll go, but when he gets to the point that he's telling us we're all sinners, I don't need to hear that. I already know I'm a sinner, I don't need anyone to tell me that.'

When they came to the tent, there was a picture of the evangelist on the outside. My dad thought to himself, "That guy doesn't look like your typical revival preacher--he's tall, good looking, athletic looking." His name was Billy Graham.

Before long, Billy started talking about sin. Sure enough, my dad grabbed my mom's hand and headed down the aisle and out of the tent. Once he got home, he said, 'Don't you ever take me to a place like that again." And she said, "I just want to remind, you, Louie, that because of this joy in my heart that I am not going to divorce you." Although he agreed to go back, Louie repeated his earlier sentiment: 'Once the preacher gets to the point when he tells me I'm a sinner, I'm out of there.'

Once again, Billy got to the point in his sermon which agitated my dad. He told my mom, "Ok, we're out of here." He got up, and started heading to the aisle. But before he got down the the aisle, he heard Billy talking how when people get to the end of their rope, and have nowhere else to turn, that's they turn to God to save them from the situation they're in.

Those words suddenly made Louie remember the prayer he had on that raft, in the storm, where he told God, "If You get me home alive I'll serve you forever." Billy's words reminded him of the time he'd made that promise several times on the raft, and the countless times he'd made it in the prison camp. And I remember he told me, 'I felt so awful, because I knew that God had taken care of His part of the bargain, but Louie Zamperini had not.'

Instead of turning left and going down the aisle, he turned to the right, went down by the stage, got down on his knees, and went through the sinner's prayer. He told me that when he got off his knees, that he knew he was done getting drunk, and he knew was done fighting, and he knew deep in his heart that he forgave his prison guards--every one of them, including The Bird. He went home that night, and it was the first night in virtually five years that he didn't have that recurring nightmare, and he never had it again the rest of his life. And he lived to be 97 years old.

He opened his Bible, and for the first time in his life, it started making sense to him. He started getting involved with churches and Christian organizations, and began sharing his story. Eventually, people giving him money to travel back to Japan on a mission trip.

Of course, that was the last place he wanted to go, because in his heart of hearts, before he became a Christian, all he wanted to do was find The Bird and finish him off. But, in 1950, he found himself flying to Tokyo, knowing that he needed to go see his guards face to face and forgive them. When he got there, all of his former guards, now considered war criminals, were in cells in Sugamo prison. Still, my father was able to get in the prison and to tell the guards his story and tell them he forgave them. He also gave them the opportunity to become Christians themselves. A number of them raised their hands, and of course, he qualified his invitation by saying, 'This will in no way reduce the sentence that you're under'--and a good many of the hands went down. A good many of them stayed up, as well.

But he recognized the faces in the audience; he even had names for some of them. He went down the row and shook their hands and looked them in the eye and told them that he forgave them. And it really was a real turning point for him, because he knew his faith was real at that point.

After coming back from Japan, my dad tried several different ways to make money, and he finally decided to put his efforts into helping other people. So, in 1953 he established Victory Boys Camp, which is a nonprofit organization in which my dad would take troubled teens and try to get through to them by teaching them survival skills. A former troubled teen himself, my dad knew the problem wasn't a lack of self-esteem, but self-respect, which he eventually learned through his athletic accomplishments. So, applying those same principles at his boy's camp, my dad would take these kids to the mountains, and the first thing he would do was throw a rope around a tree on top of a 60 foot granite edifice, and then repel down the cliff. He'd come back up and tell the kids, 'Before the week is out, every one of you is going to be doing this.' He gave these kids a chance to accomplish something every day,whether it was climbing, fishing, boating, skiing, or skateboarding. When they had that sense of accomplishment, they started to have a sense of self-respect. Did it work? Yeah, it did. Not always immediate results---although some kids did confess their sins in the camp itself, but years my dad was speaking on a cruise ship, and when he got to the question and answer part, a 60 year old man in the audience stood up and said, 'Mr. Zamperini, I don't know if you remember me, but I was in your camp program in 1957, and what you told me then stuck with me even though it didn't change my life until several years later, I became a Christian. Now, I'm a happily married man with a family and I have a successful business, and I just wanted to let you know that it was the time you took with me that made all the difference in my life.' As soon as that guy sat down, another one stood up and said, 'Sir, I was in your program in 1961 and had a similar story to tell.' So, clearly it was working.

As my dad got older it became harder to handle a dozen kids at a time, so it eventually got down to a one-on-one kind of situation. We thought we'd let the boys camp go when my dad passed away, but something miraculous happened: one kid made his way to us, a 20 year old boy who was strung out on heroin. He came from a good family, but was at the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't have the willpower to get over his drug addiction. The boys camp was able to finance him to be able to get to the place in Australia that could help him, it was called Youth With A Ministry--YWAM. After going on several mission trips, he came home a changed man, just in time for my dad to pass away. So my family and I decided that we were going to keep the camp going. My son, Clay, Louie's only grandchild, is now the CEO of Victory Boys Camp, and he's trying to revive it and rebrand it. We're going to change the name to the "Louie Zamperini Foundation," but right now you can find it if you go to victoryboyscamp.org.

The day my dad died he was still cognizant, and I said, 'Dad you're going home to the Lord today, you're not beating this one, but your work here is not done. Your work here is going to affect people for generations to come." And it has and it will--through the book and through the movie, and through his latest book that he finished just days before going into the hospital, which is called "Don't Give Up, Don't Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life." It's much like the other material written and includes many of the same events, but it has what he learned from those events. In a sense, it's the guidebook for how we're going to continue the Louie Zamperini Foundation, the boy's camp.

Do you remember your dad's final words before his passing?

The night before he had to be intubated, Angelina Jolie came to the hospital to see him. She brought her laptop with her and climbed on his bed and showed him the 'Unbroken' movie, which was still in raw form. She played it for him up to and including the ordeal at sea. But she stopped before going to the prison camp, because she didn't want to take him back there. But she's the one who heard his last words. And it was something to the effect, of, "Hey, you got that right, I wore black when I ran!" and she'd reply, " No wait, that's in the next scene, we have you in this uniform first, and then you go into the black uniform." And so, the way she described their conversation, I knew he loved the film almost as much as he loved having Angie sit on the bed with him--they really had a special relationship.

His last words to all of us were, "Don't give up, don't give in, there's a reason for everything." And that's the theme of his latest book. Those are really his last words to all of us.

Louis Zamperini
''My dad and Angelina Jolie had a special relationship...she's the one who heard his last words'' (AP/Universal Pictures)

What are some of the greatest life lessons you learned from your dad?

Well, of course the greatest life lesson of all is salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. But my dad also taught me to cook, how to sew, how to take care of myself--he taught me contingency planning, to always be prepared for any eventuality. That's how he survived--he was prepared when his plane crashed in the ocean.

When the Japanese plane was shooting at him from the life raft--he was prepared, because as a boy scout, he knew that bullets would lose their velocity in about three or four feet of water. Studying physiology in college, he knew that the mind is a muscle, and it will get atrophy if you don't use it. So he needed to keep his mind active on the raft, and that's why he recited all those recipes and recited songs and facts, etc. He had taken a survival class in Honolulu before the crash on how to deal with sharks in the water. So, when he was forced to hide from the Japanese under the raft, he encountered two sharks who had been following him for weeks. He told me, 'The first thing I did when the shark came at me was show the whites of my eyes and teeth and tried to scare him away, but of course that didn't work.' Finally, his only defense was to reach out and push against the shark's nose and push his mouth away from him. That worked, so he continued to do that for the next thirty minutes while the plane continued to attack the raft.

When came out of the water, he was convinced that his raft mates were dead, because he could see 48 bullet holes going right through where his mates were laying. Miraculously, no one had a single injury; no one was even grazed.

I remember asking, 'Dad, weren't you afraid of dying?' and he said, 'Are you kidding? I was too busy trying to stay alive to even think about dying!'

Do you recall any instances where someone came to faith as a result of your father's Christian witness and story?

Well, for one, there was me. I knew what my dad went through, and he never stopped talking about his faith because he was so excited over His savior, and that was infectious. That got me when I was 7 year old; I realized that Jesus wasn't a fairy tale like King Arthur or these other things--He was a real person, and there was salvation through Him. I made the decision as a kid, but I grew up in Hollywood in the 1960's. So I got out of highschool, and it was all rock n' roll and a wild lifestyle. I was kind of the prodigal son. After many years of living like an non-Christian, I finally realized that I needed to turn my life around. In my late 20's I turned my back on the music industry, got away from the drugs, and alcohol and partying, and gave my life to Christ.

There were some from the prison camps, and many kids from the boy's camp who turned their lives around. I went to countless meetings with my dad at churches, rotary clubs-you name it, where he told his story, and if there was an altar call at the end, you would see people's hands go up, or they'd walk the aisle and give their lives to Christ. I could really see the difference in people's lives, just having met him and heard his story.