So following on from my previous post about having a calling, I want to talk about someone that I’ve never met but I’ve greatly admired. His name is Louis Zamperini, and he is famous for many things including: Olympic records, surviving World War Two and becoming a great Christian leader.
So to give a basic overview of Zamperini’s life he came from a good Christian family, of Italian origin, who took him to Church every Sunday. Sadly Zamperini never really took to Church at that stage and spent the rest of his time, sneakily drinking alcohol, smoking and getting arrested due to being bullied because of his Italian background. His older brother Pete, already a star runner, didn’t like the road that his brother was taking and got him motivated to start running in the school team. The training that Pete put him through was harsh, but Louis pushed himself hard, and at the end of his Freshman year finished 5th in the City C division 600m. After training hard throughout the summer of 1932, he started his first cross country race and for the last 3 years of High School was undefeated, even managing to break Pete’s previous records and in 1934 ran a mile in 4 minutes 21.2 seconds.
In 1936, Louis decided to try out for the Berlin Olympics in the 5000m. In the qualifier he had a dead heat with the American record holder, and qualified. At the Olympics, Louis finished 8th (after putting on 5Kg of weight on the boat over to Berlin), but ran the final lap in 56 seconds (in comparison Mo Farah runs a final lap in 52.6 seconds). This got him the personal attention of Adolf Hitler, who asked for a personal meeting.
In 1941, Louis joined the US Air Force as a bomb aimer. One day his aircraft crash landed in the Pacific Ocean, and Louis with two other survivors were left floating in the ocean for 47 days, at the end of which they were captured by the Japanese Navy. They were beaten, put in terrible conditions, abused and starved until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
When he returned to America he met his wife-to-be and married in 1946. Louis, fell on rough times and tried to drink away his experiences from Japan, which almost led to the failure of his marriage. Three years later, his wife attended a Church Service led by the pastor Billy Graham, and became a ‘Born-again Christian’. She tried to convince Louis to go as Graham was moving on to another town soon, but Louis refused to go. On the last night, he went and listened to Billy Graham talking. He left part way through taking his wife with him. After much arguing, he returned the next night, as long as he could leave whenever he wanted. When listening to Billy Graham, he felt the inkling that there was something more to life, yet when Graham invited people to go forward and give their lives to Christ, he couldn’t. He started walking along the row to leave the tent where the meeting was taking place, reached the aisle and faced the choice.
Finally, I got to the aisle. I stepped onto the sawdust path and knew it was the crossroads of decision. I fought against it, perhaps harder than I’d ever fought, but in the end I made my decision, turned right, toward Billy Graham
Louis Zamperini- Devil at my Heels
Following this, Louis forgave his captors, and even visited them in Japan. Although many claim that what Louis expressed most was forgiveness, I want to play on this a little bit. Because I find the story about how he got to Japan absolutely amazing.
After listening to a preach by Bob Pierce, who asked why there were no missionary teams going to Japan, Louis decided that he had no wish to return to Japan, because as he had forgiven his captors he didn’t see the need.
When Pierce finished I snuck out before anyone could talk to me. Yet walking back, I could not escape the conviction that until I had actually faced the Japanese again and seen the reflection of my supposedly new self in their eyes, I would never know for sure whether or not I had dispelled the past. So I got the idea that i should come face-to-face with some of my former captors interned at Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison, and forgive them. Only then would I be complete.
Louis the prayed to God saying: ‘Being a new Christian, Lord, I’ll need a good swift kick in the pants to understand your will’.
On the way to my room I walked by a conference room just emptying. A young minister, a complete stranger, stopped me. ‘My name is Eric Folsom,’ he said ‘I’m an evangelist from Tucson. I heard you speak. Perhaps you’d tell your story at my church?’
‘Certainly,’ I replied, handing him my card. ‘Write to me when you get back and let me know when its convenient and we’ll work it out.’
‘By the way,’ he said, ‘Did you hear that challenge on Japan?’
‘I did. But I’ve got to get to my room and-‘
‘It thrilled me to hear Bob Pierce’s message.’
‘Me as well,’ I said. ‘Anyway I’ve got to get to bed…’
Folsom put his hand on my arm. ‘Just a minute, Louis.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘As we’ve been talking, God has burdened my heart to give you $500 to start your way back to Japan.’
Louis Zamperini- Devil at my Heels
So to cut a long story short, Louis returned to Japan as a missionary and met some of his former captors and in an incredible show of grace, forgave them of their sins. But to get there he had to listen to God and he prayed for a sign to get him there. Eric Folson was that sign, he sold his car to get Louis to Japan.
However the man that Louis hated most, a guard nicknamed ‘The Bird’, was not in the prison, having escaped and stayed in hiding until after an amnesty was declared. He wanted to meet Louis, but his family wouldn’t allow him to do so. Not that it worried Louis, he had forgiven The Bird years before.
Louis Zamperini died on 2nd July 2014 at the age of 97. I believe that he was an instrument of God to show the world how powerful grace and forgiveness can be if you follow Gods calling. The prayer he prayed while he was waiting to be rescued after crashing was:
If you will save me,
I will serve you forever.
I think we can all agree that he did that.