The death last week of evangelist Billy Graham stirs many memories. I can easily recall television broadcasts of his crusades. A snippet in his autobiography stands out concerning a fax pas with President Harry Truman. And then there was Louie.
Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), wrote a biography of Zamperini. The book, entitled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) and published by Random House, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It was named the top nonfiction book of 2010 by Time Magazine.
Angelina Jolie directed the film adaptation of Hillenbrand’s book, which unfortunately stopped a few pages short of telling a great story.
Both film and book did a good job of recounting Zamperini’s Olympic career, troubled youth, and military career. Capture by the Japanese during World War II after 47 days in an open boat following the crash of his B-24 into the Pacific. As a POW, he would be brutally tortured.
Following the war, Zamperini tried several projects and did a lot of speaking on college campuses where he met and married Cynthia Applewhite. A series of business reverses threw Louie into what we now call PTSD. He was self-medicating for depression with booze and life looked pretty rocky for the young couple.
Cynthia managed to convince Zamperini to attend a tent revival on the outskirts of Los Angeles where this new, young evangelist was preaching. While Billy Graham spoke, something stirred within Zamperini, but when the minister gave the altar call, Zamperini ran out the back of the tent.
Somehow Cynthia persuaded Louie to return the next night. As he heard the message, the veteran remembered promising God as he bounced around in the life raft that if the Lord got him out of this mess, he would serve him all the rest of his days. When Graham issued the invitation to come forward, though, Zamperini turned to run again.
That was when Graham stopped Louie in his tracks. “You can walk out while I’m preaching,” Graham announced, “but not during the altar call. If you walk out now, you are walking out on God.”
Zamperini turned and came forward. That night he went home, threw the booze, the dirty magazines and his cigarettes in the trash. Louis and Cynthia founded a camp for troubled boys near LA and did indeed serve God the rest of their days.
It’s a great story and should have been in the movie, but we can still remember Louis Zamperini and Billy Graham.