Earlier this summer, I came across a news article announcing the death of Louis Zamperini on July 2. I had never heard of Zamperini, an Olympian and World War II hero, but the short narrative of his life sounded interesting, so I started looking into it. Specifically, I began to read “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Zamperini. It is an amazing book, winning Time Magazine's award for top non-fiction book of 2010. Even though it is non-fiction, it reads like fiction because Zamperini's life was so incredible.
Growing up a ruffian in Torrance, Calif., Zamperini found his stride as a runner. He went on to set numerous school-boy and NCAA track records and competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Though he didn't win his event, his performance caught the eye of Adolph Hitler and Zamperini was invited to a personal meeting with the Fuhrer.
But that was just the beginning of Zamperini's story. At the outbreak of WWII, Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Force as a bombardier. Surviving several harrowing combat sorties, Zamperini finally crashed while on a search and rescue for another lost plane. He and another crewmember survived in the shark-infested Pacific for 47 days with minimal water and no food. When they were finally discovered Zamperini and his crewmate were captured by the Japanese and settled in the brutal Ofuna prison where they were tortured brutally for the duration of the war.
As I read the account of Zamperini's survival and imprisonment I was struck not only by his courage, of which there was plenty, but also by his deep sense of virtue in other aspects of his life, including truth-telling and compassion in the most chaotic and brutal of environments. Of course, there have been many other POW's from numerous wars who have displayed similar courage and conviction – people whose names have been forgotten by nearly everyone except their families. However, I'm glad the Zamperini story has gained such exposure as a book, and come December, as a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, for it reminds us of important aspects of the human experience:
• All of life is a training ground for the critical moments of existence. No doubt Zamperini's Olympic training shaped his body and mind for the even greater trial of surviving on the open ocean. Choosing to do the hard things when we can equips us to do them when we must.
• Human dignity is worth its weight in food. While imprisoned, Zamperini lived off of 500 calories or less per day, all the while doing heavy enforced labor. Yet far more precious to him than food was the diary he kept of his experiences. It was one of the things that helped him keep some control of his life in an out-of-control world.
• If something isn't worth dying for it probably isn't worth living for. The Ofuna prison was specifically set up as a place of brutal interrogation. Zamperini refused to capitulate to his captors even though doing so heighted his suffering and chances of death. He was prepared to die for his country and therefore he was enabled to live.
I haven't reached the end of the book yet, but when Zamperini was finally released at the end of WWII, his nascent faith found full-blown expression when he gave his life to Christ at a 1949 Billy Graham Crusade. This born again experience translated into immediate action and in 1950 he returned to Tokyo to speak to his former captors — now imprisoned themselves — on the subject of forgiveness, and embraced them warmly and personally. Yet another expression of courage and character!
I highly recommend the book, but if reading isn't quite your thing the movie is coming out on Dec. 25. Hmm... Seems like there was someone else who has something to do with that date who also demonstrated great courage, character, and forgiveness...