When 94-year-old Louis Zamperini opened his mailbox a few months ago, he found a letter he will always treasure.
“Dear Louis,” wrote Billy Graham, “My associate read me parts of the new book about you yesterday. What a life you have lived. What a description you have in the book of your conversion to Christ in 1949, and the great part that [your wife] Cynthia played in it, which I was aware of, but not in such detail. I had tears in my eyes and praise in my heart for what God has done through you.”
Mr. Graham’s letter is one of thousands that have poured into Zamperini’s mailbox since the release of the New York Times No. 1 bestseller “Unbroken.” The story about Zamperini’s remarkable journey from Olympic runner to World War II hero has been hailed by TIME magazine as the best nonfiction book of the year.
And Billy Graham isn’t just a consumer of “Unbroken,” he plays a pivotal role in the book.
As his letter said, the year was 1949. The city: Los Angeles. Louis Zamperini was adrift and struggling with alcoholism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following savage abuse as a prisoner of war in Japan. Cynthia was ready to saddle him with divorce papers.
It was around this time that neighbors convinced the young woman to listen to the bold evangelist preaching in a big tent outside downtown Los Angeles. Cynthia accepted Christ that night, and she told her husband that because of her conversion, she wouldn’t file for divorce. She asked Louis if he would accompany her to the Crusade. After a week of arguing, she finally persuaded him to go.
“I was resentful,” he says. “I’d always been poisoned against such tent meetings since I was a youngster.”
An Answer to Prayer
Hillenbrand paints a vivid picture of what happened when Zamperini actually walked into the Billy Graham Crusade, including portions of the sermon he heard, which concluded with a clear presentation of the Gospel. That chapter in the book is an answer to prayer.
“‘Unbroken’ is Laura’s book,” says Zamperini, “so all I could do was pray that she would somehow have the Gospel in it. Then she called me and told me she had talked to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. She wanted to include the sermon I heard, and they sent it to her.”
He describes how the two joined forces to share the story of “Unbroken.” When Hillenbrand was researching her book about the thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit, she found an interesting quote from a 1938 Los Angeles Times article. A reporter had called Zamperini’s coach and said, “Louie hasn’t lost a mile race in four years. If he loses this year, who do you think will beat him?” Zamperini’s coach answered, “Seabiscuit.”
The newspaper writer loved that quote–and so did Hillenbrand. She proceeded to call Zamperini and said she wanted to write a book about his life. “I told her I had just finished my own book, ‘Devil at My Heels,’ and that I had milked the story dry.”
Hillenbrand recognized that Zamperini’s story was worth waiting for. “We became close friends, and after about a year, she asked again. She said this: ‘I must do it.’”
Zamperini is thankful for Hillenbrand’s persistence and thoroughness. He describes her as an amazing researcher. “She has such depth in her writing, and she confirms every single thing. The woman is historically accurate on every word. She won’t print a word unless she has confirmation.”
The book is really a history book, says Zamperini. “I get calls from World War II veterans, and they say, ‘I have just finished ‘Unbroken.’ Finally someone has written the truth about the war in the Pacific.’”
Hillenbrand’s graphic descriptions elicited difficult memories for Zamperini. “I found myself back in prison camp when I was reading the book, and had to stop and look away to be sure I was still here. I almost had a nightmare.”
Old Things are Gone
Zamperini did have nightmares in prison and nightmares at home until he received Christ at the Billy Graham Crusade. “That night when I got home from the Crusade, it was unbelievable. I didn’t have a nightmare, and I haven’t had one since,” he says.
One critic of the book found that hard to swallow. “I can’t understand how someone with severe PTSD could get over it in one night,” he wrote.
“The fellow obviously doesn’t know his Bible,” Zamperini says with a laugh. “When you accept Christ, you become a new creation. Old things are gone.”
While secular audiences are eating up Hillenbrand’s captivating descriptions of Zamperini’s track career, World War II experience, and the horrifying prisoner of war account, Christians are finding fresh inspiration in the pages of “Unbroken.”
“I get so many letters from Christians,” says Zamperini, “and some of them are having a tough time. I write back and share Scripture with them.”
He describes a letter he received recently from a man who had been fired from his job. “This man was a Christian and forgave everyone else in his life, but he had a hard time forgiving the boss who fired him. He hated the man. But then he read in ‘Unbroken’ how I forgave the POW prison guard.” Now this man has not only forgiven his boss, he is praying for him.
“‘Unbroken’ has had a tremendous influence, and it has turned into a God-given opportunity to share the Gospel,” Zamperini adds. “The book has yielded an unbelievable ministry.”