The Atlantic.com, Washington, DC – Louis Zamperini waged one of the most astonishing personal battles of World War II as an Army Air Corpsman. Despite being officially listed as “killed in action” by the U.S. Government and surviving two years of torture in a Japanese prison, Zamperini survived to tell his story and to forgive.
In May 1943, Zamperini’s B-24 crashed into the Pacific. For 47 days, he floated on a raft in the ocean. He was then captured by the Japanese, who held him prisoner until August 1945. These experiences tormented Zamperini’s postwar life leading to constant nightmares, drinking binges, and general carousing.
But in 1949 things began to turn around for Zamperini. After hearing a talk by a young Rev. Billy Graham, he forgave the men who held him prisoner, including the sadistic Japanese corporal, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known as the “Bird,” who tortured him daily. Without that forgiveness, Zamperini says, “I wouldn’t have a life. I think I’d be dead.”
This saga is chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The award-winning book has remained on the bestseller lists since it was published in 2010, and in December, Universal Studios released a film adaptation directed by Angelina Jolie.
Before his death in July at age 97, Zamperini was interviewed by author John Meroney who knew him when Zamperini was an Olympic athlete before entering the Army. Here are excerpts from one of those interviews:
Meroney: After the war, you had nightmares about being a prisoner of war. Hillenbrand discloses that these dreams were so extreme, you almost strangled your pregnant wife to death in your sleep thinking she was the “Bird,” the man who tortured you.
Zamperini: Those nightmares came every night. I’d always wake up wringing wet. I thought I was strangling the Bird. I honestly wanted to go back to Japan and secretly find and kill him before I’d be satisfied.
Meroney: And your life was never the same after Billy Graham.
Zamperini: Well, that night I went back to his prayer room and made my profession of faith in Christ. I asked God to forgive me for not being conscious that He answered my prayer requests. While I was still on my knees, I knew there was a change. It happened within seconds.
Zamperini: I felt this perfect calm, a peace. I knew then that I was through getting drunk, smoking, and chasing around. I also knew I’d forgiven all my prison guards, including the Bird. Boy, that’s something. So I got up, went home, and that was the first night in four years that I didn’t have a nightmare. And I haven’t had one since.
Meroney: How did forgiving your captors change your life?
Zamperini: Well, when you hate somebody, you don’t hurt them in the least. All you’re doing is hurting yourself. But if you can forgive—and if it’s true—you’ll feel good. It’s chemical. White corpuscles flood your immune system, and that’s a secret to good health.
Forgiveness has to be complete. If you hate somebody, it’s like a boomerang that misses its target and comes back and hits you in the head. The one who hates is the one who hurts. So forgiving someone is healing.
Read the full story: ‘World War II Isn’t Over’: Talking to Unbroken Veteran Louis Zamperini and watch the official Universal Studios movie trailer.