Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

Miracle on the River Kwai

Captain Ernest Gordon came from Scotland and served with the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War II. Following the fall of Singapore, he was one of the prisoners of war whom the Japanese put to work on a jungle railway and bridge over the Kwai river. The conditions imposed on the prisoners were very harsh and Ernest became seriously ill. He was put in “Death Ward” and was expected to die.

There he was cared for by two very special men, Dusty Miller and ‘Dinty’ Moore. They gave 24-hour care to Ernest, boiling rags to clean and massage his diseased legs every day. To everyone’s surprise Ernest recovered and he also came to faith in Jesus Christ. He had been an agnostic, but Dusty’s simple, firm Christian faith in the face of the cruel treatment he and the other prisoners experienced made a deep impression on him. Ernest survived the war but discovered that, two weeks before the war ended, Dusty had been cruelly executed by a Japanese guard who was angry at his calmness in the face of hardship.

In his book “Miracle on the River Kwai” Ernest tells a remarkable story. Starvation, exhaustion and disease took a terrible toll on the prisoners and many gave way to selfishness, hatred and fear in a desperate attempt to survive. They felt like forsaken men – forsaken by their families, their friends, their government and even by God. Hatred of their Japanese captors became their motivation for living; they would have willingly torn them limb from limb if they had fallen into their hands. In time even hate died and gave way to numb, black despair.

One day the officer in charge said a shovel was missing and demanded that it be returned, or he would kill all the prisoners. No one moved and, then, one man stepped forward. The officer beat him to death. At the next tool check they found that all the shovels were there; there had been a miscount! The prisoners were stunned. An innocent man had been willing to die to save everyone else. Ernest said this man’s actions led men to think about the sufferings of Jesus, who laid down his life to save others, and they began to treat each other with more care and kindness. The change was so significant that when the skeletal captives were finally liberated they could, instead of attacking their captors, say to them, “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”

Eric Lomax – “The Railway Man”

Eric Lomax, “The Railway Man”, served with the British Army during World War II. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 Eric, then aged 22, became a prisoner of war. He worked on the Burma-Siam railway which was known as the “Death Railway.” More than 16,000 men died in the construction of that railway mainly from sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion.

In August 1943, a radio Eric had built was discovered. He and 6 others were severely punished. Two died, but Eric survived, remembering the crack of his own bones snapping and teeth breaking. As the ringleader, he was taken to another camp where he was water boarded and left to die in a small cage. One young officer, Takashi Nagase, stayed in Eric’s mind. He was an interpreter and told Eric, “You will be killed whatever happens.”

After the war Eric suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He married Patti in 1983 and she encouraged him to seek help. Halfway through his counselling sessions, Eric received a letter from a friend with a cutting from a Japanese newspaper. There was a photograph of Takashi Nagase and an article describing Eric’s tortures, and an experience Nagase had had that made him feel he had been forgiven for his sins. Eric was very angry.

Patti, with Eric’s permission, wrote a letter to Takashi asking him how he could possibly think he was forgiven. To her surprise, Nagase replied, expressing deep apologies and asking if he and Eric could meet. After 2 years Eric felt able to do this and, in 1993, went back to Thailand. On the bridge over the River Kwai two grey-haired men met and tentatively shook hands. Nagase bowed and humbly apologized for the suffering he had caused Eric, who simply nodded and said, “Thank you, thank you.” Up to that time Eric had not intended to forgive Nagase, but to kill him. He was still fighting the war and wanted revenge. Eric and Nagase became friends. The final words of Eric’s autobiography, published in 1995, are, “Sometimes the hating has to stop.”

We are all capable of committing evil acts which cause great pain to others. Guilt, anger and bitterness can consume us. In Jesus God, against whom we have sinned, draws near and offers forgiveness and reconciliation. John Newton, who had experienced God’s forgiveness for his wicked life, wrote, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear, it soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drive away his fear.”