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An interview to remember: Louis Zamperini

by Carla Hinton Published: July 7, 2014
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I was saddened to learn of the recent death of  Louis Zamperini, the Olympic athlete and WWII veteran with an amazing story of endurance and faith. Zamperini died July 3. He was 97. 

I had an opportunity to meet Zamperini in 2011 when he was guest speaker at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid.

With everything we had to talk about — how he survived as a POW and returned to Japan years later  and extended forgivness to his captors, how he had lived life on the edge as a self-described juvenile delinquent growing up in Torrance, Calif., until he found he had abilities as a distance runner and how he came to know Christ one unforgettable night at a Billy Graham faith event.

But what I got a kick out of was Zamperini’s evident passion for running. He found out that my son had been a cross country runner in high school and ran the 400 and 800 in college and we talked about that for at least 30 minutes! Luckily, I had a little knowledge of what he was saying as a track mom. Nevertheless, he was full of tips and advice.

Talking to him about how the sport of running literally may have saved his life (by giving him something to focus on besides a life of crime) and his  time on the Olympic team with track & field great Jesse Owen was truly surreal.

I said that Zamperini was passionate about running, but there was something else that excited him even more: the night he gave his heart to Christ.

He seemed to recall that night and that exact moment vividly. Zamperini told me he was at a Billy Graham faith event when his life changed forever. He said he’d gone there with little enthusiasm; he only knew that he needed to go because he was on the brink of divorce and he wanted to try and salvage his marriage.

He said he found something unexpected: the news that God loved him, had in fact been waiting for him with so much  love and grace that he couldn’t quite fathom it.

Zamporini, who was 94 at the time, transported me back with him to that moment as we talked.

All in all, it was an interview I will never forget.

I’m looking forward to the movie based on “Unbroken,” author Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of Zamperini. It’s set to premiere in theaters on Christmas Day.

 

Here’s my story that ran in 2011:

 

 

Once adrift, man recalls his journey of faith
PROFILE
LOUIS ZAMPERINI‘S LIFE STORY IS TOLD IN THE BEST-SELLER ‘UNBROKEN’
By Carla Hinton
Religion Editor

Saturday, September 3, 2011
Edition: DRIVE, Section: LIFE, Page 1D
Dateline: ENID

ENID — Adrift in the Pacific Ocean on an inflatable life raft for 47 days, Louis Zamperini prayed to God to save his life.

Beat down by the sun and weak from lack of nourishing food, Zamperini thought he wouldn’t live much longer.

He already had led an amazing life: He’d gone from being a street thug to a celebrated high school mid-distance runner. He’d been an Olympic runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, rooming with Olympic great Jesse Owens and gaining admiration from Adolf Hitler for his running feats. He’d broken collegiate distance running records and become renowned for his speed.

He didn’t want it all to come to an abrupt end on that raft.

Zamperini, now 94, said God spared his life, and he lived to tell the story of his days lost at sea during World War II.

He didn’t turn his life to God right away, but on that raft, God “answered my prayers,” Zamperini said.

Zamperini visited Enid Aug. 28 and told how he heard a young evangelist named Billy Graham, came to know Christ and how his life story has become one of the most fascinating and inspirational true tales of courage, forgiveness and redemption. It’s also the subject of “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand’s latest book, “Unbroken.”

His presentation was part of the 50th anniversary festivities at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 2505 W Garriott Road, in Enid.

Zamperini, dressed in pants, a navy blue Olympics jacket and a red University of Southern California ball cap, talked about the popularity of Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, which chronicles his life.

In an interview with The Oklahoman, Zamperini said both he and Hillenbrand had been warned that the book wouldn’t do well because it features his introduction to Christianity and subsequent journey of faith. He said his transformation from a hard-living, unforgiving individual to a man touched by God’s grace was a “real miracle.”

But, Zamperini said, Hillenbrand insisted that the Gospel message was present in the book. He said the book’s success atop the charts of The New York Times best-sellers list is a testimony to the author’s wisdom.

Early journey

Zamperini said he never thought he’d come to know the Lord as he does these days.

He said he ran the streets growing up in Torrance, Calif., “a rotten kid, a juvenile delinquent and gang member,” often getting into fights and stealing beer. The police were regularly in pursuit, and one day they caught the rebellious teenager.

Zamperini said his older brother, Pete, was with him when the police decided to give him a reality check of sorts. “They took me to the police station and said, ‘See those two people behind the bars? They’ve lost the most precious thing in life — freedom. Someday you’ll end up behind bars, and you won’t be able to go anywhere,’” Zamperini said.

When his brother said he thought sports might keep his younger sibling off the streets, one of the police leaders made a recommendation that was to prove fortuitous.

“The chief said, ‘May I suggest running? We’ve been chasing him all over town for a long time,’” Zamperini said, grinning.

Zamperini said he joined the track program at his high school, and he found he didn’t like running at all. That is, until he heard the cheers from the crowd at his first track meet.

“Coming down the home stretch, I didn’t try,” he said.

“I didn’t care until I heard the students from my school hollering, ‘Come on, Louie!’ I didn’t know anybody knew my name. I thought it sounded good.”

That night, Zamperini told his brother that he planned to embrace the sport of running.

His enthusiasm and prowess earned him a national reputation for distance running and, at 18, he became the youngest distance runner on America’s 1936 Olympic team.

Zamperini said the games were held in Berlin, where he roomed with Olympic great Jesse Owens and was quite aware of the political controversy surrounding the Olympics and Hitler’s well-known contempt for black athletes such as Owens. Ironically, Zamperini said the German leader received a mandatory ovation from the Germans, but the crowd gave Owens a much more enthusiastic greeting.

Hitler apparently was impressed with Zamperini and personally congratulated the young man known as the “Torrance Tornado” after his Olympic run. Zamperini was later to tell a reporter that he was not impressed with Hitler at all, seeing him as the dictator he was.

War wounds

After the Olympics, Zamperini became a scholarship athlete at the University of Southern California. He broke numerous distance/track records and became one of the most successful and celebrated athletes in the school’s history.

During World War II, Zamperini became a master bombardier, deployed to Hawaii.

In 1943, he was part of an 11-man crew in a B-24 plane that succumbed to engine trouble and plunged into the sea. Zamperini said he thought he was going to die, but he survived for 47 days on an inflatable life raft. One of the two soldiers on the raft with Zamperini died, while Zamperini and the other survivor were picked up by the Japanese.

Zamperini endured torture, malnourishment and beatings as a prisoner of war. One prison leader, Matsuhiro Watanabe, known as “The Bird,” was particularly sadistic and cruel.

In September 1945, Zamperini was liberated and returned to the United States.

Memories of the torturous hell of prison camp returned with him.

Zamperini said he wrote his life story in a memoir called “Devil at My Heels.”

He said Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” is much more detailed — so detailed and involved that he had to put it down for a few days before continuing because it disturbed him.

“I had to look outside to make sure I was home” and not in the Japanese prison.

Zamperini said he recalls the days after he returned to the states as a time of extreme restlessness. He said he suffered from post-traumatic stress and horrific nightmares of the prison camp. He began drinking, and his behavior drove his wife to file for divorce.

Keeping promises

One night, he and his wife were invited to hear Billy Graham, who was visiting Los Angeles. The couple decided to attend Graham’s crusade meeting, but Zamperini said he got angry and left after Graham quoted Scripture saying that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

“I knew I was a sinner. I didn’t need him to tell me,” Zamperini said.

He said his wife stayed and gave her life to Christ. When she arrived home and told him she had decided to stop the divorce proceedings, Zamperini said he was elated. However, he was less excited when she encouraged him to attend another Graham crusade gathering the following night. Zamperini said he agreed to go again, but he told her he would be leaving as soon as the message was over.

Graham said something that night that changed Zamperini‘s life.

“At the end of the sermon, he said something like, ‘When people come to the end of their rope and have no where else to turn, they turn to God.’ I thought, that’s what happened on the raft.

“We prayed every day: ‘God save my life; get me home, and I’ll seek you and serve you.’ This went on not only on the raft but in prison camp. We all prayed the same way because the Japanese were killing people right and left,” Zamperini said.

“I came home alive, but I didn’t keep my promise, so when he (Graham) quoted that Scripture, I realized that God had answered my prayers but I didn’t keep my promise.”

Zamperini said he knelt and prayed.

He knew through God’s grace that something was different.

“That was the first night in four years that I didn’t have a nightmare, and I haven’t had one since.

“It was amazing, a real miracle.”

Zamperini said sharing the Gospel, whether through “Unbroken” or speaking engagements, is one of the greatest thrills of his life. In a sense, it is as if his adventures have continued on.

“The Bible says to go into the world and preach to every living creature, so this is my calling, and I’m thrilled to death with it,” he said.

“These are young people, old people coming to hear a Christian message, so this is the thrill of my life.”

Carla Hinton

Religion Editor

 

by Carla Hinton
Religion Editor
Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide...
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