“If you save me, I will serve you forever.” That is the desperate plea that Louis Zamperini cried out to God; a promise made that Louis was to forget in the painful years of physical and mental torment that was to follow. It was June, 1943, and Louis, a bombardier in the U.S. Navy, was set adrift in a slowly disintegrating lifeboat with two fellow servicemen. Their B-24 aircraft, The Green Hornet, had crashed in the vast expanse of the Pacific, and no one knew where they were or whether they were alive. The chances of them being rescued were slim.
They spent weeks tormented by thirst, hunger, sores, sunburn and the ever present circling of huge sharks. They were able to catch a few small birds and fish, which they ate raw. On a couple of occasions, they caught and ate an albatross. On three occasions, when they had been out of water for days, they prayed for rain, and the sky had opened up. Even so, they withered away. One of the servicemen died, while the others barely clung to life.
Once, on one of the endless days at sea, Louis heard a choir singing. He looked up and saw figures in the clouds, singing the most beautiful song he had ever heard. Astonished, he asked his raft mate if he saw or heard anything. No, he hadn’t; this experience was for Louis alone. This was apparently heaven’s way of preparing Louis for the road ahead.
On the 47th day, the two starving men were picked up by the Japanese. They had drifted 2,000 miles into enemy territory. Louis and his raft mate were funneled through several prisoner of war camps. Their captors’ treatment of the POWs was appalling. Starvation, beatings and backbreaking work were an everyday occurrence.
At first, Louis was treated as every other POW, but when they were sent to a particular camp, Louis met up with the man who would single him out for unending torment, a guard that the prisoners dubbed, “The Bird.” Most of the guards were cruel; the Bird was unhinged, and seemed to derive sexual release from beating and torturing the POWs. The Bird took an instant dislike to Louis, perhaps based upon jealousy. You see, Louis wasn’t an ordinary serviceman; he was famous. He had been an Olympic track star, and would have likely been the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier had it not been for the war.
Each day, the Bird would seek Louis out and beat, humiliate and otherwise torment him. The guard kept Louis off balance. For instance, the sadistic guard kept changing the rules. He beat Louis for not looking him in the eye. When Louis would then look the Bird in the eye, the Bird would shout, “ No look in the eye!” and then start beating Louis until he was unconscious.
Somehow, against all odds, without any rational explanation other than supernatural assistance, Louis survived until liberation. This came shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945.
When Louis returned to America, he tried to resume a normal life, but could not. He met and married a lovely woman, but Louis had demons chasing him, and happiness eluded the couple. It wasn’t long before Louis had flashbacks and horrible nightmares. Each night, the Bird would come to him and beat him while he lay helpless. Louis turned more and more to alcohol to deaden his pain. Soon he was a full blown alcoholic. As his wife was getting ready to leave Louis, a wonderful thing happened — Billy Graham, then a young evangelist preacher, came to town to hold a series of revivals. Louis’s wife attended a meeting, which transformed her. She announced that she would not leave Louis, but he must go with her to the Billy Graham revival.
Louis allowed himself to be dragged to the meeting, where he sat angry and bitter, with his arms crossed. Louis didn’t want any part of this God business. When Graham asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads, Louis got up, ready to run out — feeling that he was about to explode. All of a sudden, the crowds vanished, and Louis was back on the raft adrift in the Pacific, burnt up with sun, fever and thirst. It was the last flashback he was ever to have. He remembered the promise that he had made to God, a promise that he had willed himself to forget — “If you save me, I will serve you forever.”
And at that moment, under a tent and under a cloudless sky, Louis once again felt the rain upon his face. He turned and walked up the aisle to Billy Graham. Louis’ life would be forever changed. The Bird had left him; he would never come again.
To learn more about this amazing man and his incredible story, read Laura Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken.”
Robin Barrett is a parishioner at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Insight is sponsored by the Tanana Valley Christian Conference.