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.”

The power of forgiveness

When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.

Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.

He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.

After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.

Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”