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Unbroken: War Hero's Story

Biography of war hero delivers powerful spiritual message

By James Breig

There may be no atheists in the foxhole, but the story can be different in POW camps, where the daily drain of man’s inhumanity to man can turn some prisoners against God. For Louis Zamperini, however, prolonged captivity under the Japanese caused him to pray for the first time and dedicate his life to God.

The best-selling book Unbroken is a magnificent and arresting true tale of hope and tragedy, life and loss, war and peace, sports – and something else that is a surprise. It comes at the end of the book and hasn’t received as much notice as the other elements in the book.

Written by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken traces the Zamperini’s life, a remarkable story that could fill many books. A juvenile delinquent in California, he grew up as a pugnacious petty thief. But his brother saw something more: a potential Olympic athlete.

Ironically, the speed that allowed Louis to outrun pursuing policemen also enabled him to outpace rival track athletes in high school and college. Challenging the four-minute mile, Zamperini advanced to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he shook hands with Adolf Hitler.
Falling short of a medal then, he was projected to win in 1940; however, that Olympiad was cancelled when World War II began. Enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Zamperini served as a bombardier. When the plane he was in crashed into the Pacific, he was one of three crewmen to survive.

What followed was a terrifying odyssey on a small raft, as he and his companions floated helplessly, battling starvation, storms and sharks, and wondering about their fates. For Zamperini, it was not only a physical journey; it was also a spiritual one.

Hillenbrand writes this about an early day of the journey: “That night, before he tried to sleep, Louis prayed. He had prayed only once before in his life, in his childhood, when his mother was sick and he had been filled with a rushing fear that he would lose her. That night on the raft,…he pleaded for help.”

As he endured what must have seemed to be an unbearable journey, Zamperini’s experience with prayer deepened. After two weeks, the author notes, “he began to pray aloud. He had no idea how to speak to God, so he recited snippets of prayers that he’d heard in the movies.”

Next, facing what seemed like his certain demise, the former delinquent pronounced a solemn vow: to dedicate his life to God if he were saved. He must have thought there was little chance of that. The men, one of whom would die on the ocean, floated a total of 47 days before reaching land. The terrors of their time on the water were multiplied when the two survivors were captured by Japanese soldiers and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Other POW camps would follow as the Japanese tried, through repeated brutality, to break Zamperini’s will and use him as a propaganda tool. But he stalwartly withstood not only the increasing torture but also the psychological pressure to break his spirit.

All the while, he grew deeper in his spirituality. The boy who had prayed only once was forced to mature into a man who turned more and more to conversation with the Creator in order to maintain his sanity. “Louis spent hour after hour in prayer, begging for God to save him,” Hillenbrand writes. “He prayed ceaselessly for rescue.”

Rescue finally came in August 1945, as the U.S. planes Zamperini had once manned delivered fatal blows to Japan. Resurrected from his Pacific and POW nightmares, Zamperini returned to the United States. However, the man who had vowed to serve God instead devolved into an abusive husband, a neglectful father and failed businessman who drank too much.

And then comes the surprise of Unbroken, which I will not spoil for those who have not read the book yet. I will say this much: Best-selling biographies I have read rarely delve into faith to any depth. Outside of books about religious leaders, nonfiction tends to skirt the regions of prayer, spirituality and conversion. Unbroken breaks that rule, and the effect is powerful.