Writing: Louie Zamperini

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I wrote this speech for an NCFCA (competitive speaking) tournament. It was such a joy to give it throughout last year’s competitive season! It’s a story that I love, so presenting it (though nerve-wracking at times) was one of the highlights of my last year of NCFCA. I wrote it the day before the tournament (not recommended). But God has grace even for procrastinators.

They were falling.

26-year-old airman Louis Zamperini braced himself for impact as the plane, Green Hornet, rolled onto its left side. The pilot wrestled with the controls, fighting to save the plane as it twisted in a deadly nosedive toward the ocean. In the last, horrible seconds before impact, Louie pulled in a final, deep breath and thought: Nobody’s going to survive this.

From the moment I first encountered Louie’s story as told in the biography Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, I was captivated. Unbroken is the story of a fiery, courageous young man who was by turns a delinquent, Olympian, airman, castaway, prisoner of war, and hero. But the most extraordinary part of his story is what happened in Louie’s heart and mind, when God saved him from an all-consuming hate more deadly than any prison camp. I hope that you will be inspired by his character and courage — but above all, his discovery that only Jesus Christ can bring forgiveness and healing to the darkest reaches of the human heart.

Born in 1917 in Olean, New York, Louis Zamperini, better known as Louie, was a firebrand from the very beginning — a wild boy who fought, smoked, and stole. Years later, he ended most of the stories from his youth with “…and then I ran like mad.

Louie was fast. Desperate to give him an outlet for his energy, his older brother Pete convinced him to join the track team. Though defiant at first, Louie soon fell in love with running and streaked through track season unbeaten, even setting a national high school record. He followed these successes by becoming, at nineteen, the youngest distance runner ever to make the Olympic team.

Though he did not win a medal in the 1936 Olympics, Louie accomplished a feat that earned him worldwide applause. According to Runner’s World, he ran the final lap of his three-mile race in the almost un-heard-of time of 56 seconds.

Louie planned to do even better at the next Olympic Games. But on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States officially entered World War 2. The Olympics were canceled, and Louie enlisted as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps.

Louie joined a crew headed up by pilot Russell Phillips, whom he called ‘Phil.’ They became fast friends. Soon, they were transferred to Oahu, where they took part in several successful bombing runs.  But one day, they were assigned to the plane Green Hornet for a rescue mission. Phil protested that the plane wasn’t airworthy — in fact, its parts were often used to repair other planes. But the crew followed orders and reluctantly set off in the droning aircraft.

High over the ocean, Engine 1 suddenly died. Another engine followed, sending the plane into a leftward spiral, directly toward the water. The men braced themselves, clutching their life jackets as the Green Hornet stabbed into the ocean and blew apart.

Louie came to his senses deep underwater.

Wires coiled around his chest. He thrashed around, desperate to free himself, but blacked out as the plane bore him down. Suddenly, he awoke in total darkness. After realizing that he wasn’t dead, he reached out and found that the wires were gone. Moments later, he was gasping for breath as the surface.

He’d survived.

Out of the eleven men who had gone up in the Green Hornet, only Louie, Phil, and one other man, Mac, ever surfaced. Louie took charge and became captain of their small emergency raft.

But days turned into weeks, and no rescue came. As the men’s bodies wasted away, they tried to subsist on rainwater and the occasional fish. During the long, lonely nights, as sharks circled the raft, Louie began to pray for the first time in his life. He vowed that if God would save them, he’d serve Him forever.

On their 27th day adrift, a plane did come — but it was Japanese, and it came to kill. It passed back and forth over the raft, strafing them with bullets. But when the plane finally left, Louie found that by some miracle, despite bullet holes all around and in between them, none of the men had been hit.

Finally, on their forty-seventh day adrift, the castaways struck land. They were in the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands — they’d drifted over two thousand miles.

The men were captured by Japanese sailors. Louie was separated from the others and soon found himself at a ghastly slave camp outside Tokyo — Omori.

As the new prisoners lined up in front of the camp, a trim, powerful Japanese corporal looked them over. He zeroed in on Louie, who stood tall and straight, eyes blazing.

The man’s name was Mutushiro Watanabe, but the prisoners called him ‘The Bird.’ Of all the camp guards, they feared him the most. He could go from serenity to rage in an instant, even punishing prisoners for disobeying imaginary rules. He hunted those who resisted him with unrelenting cruelty, and as Hillenbrand puts it, “From the moment [he] locked eyes with Louie Zamperini — an inherently defiant man — no one obsessed him more.”

A mania seemed to possess the Bird. Daily, he almost beat Louie into unconsciousness. But when Louie was beaten, he got back up. When the Bird tried to knock him down, he resisted. A battle of wills had begun.

One day, Louie was ordered to lift a heavy wooden beam, about six feet long. Despite his emaciated frame, Louie managed to hoist it over his head. The Bird threatened to beat him if he lowered his arms, so Louie resolved that he would not. Five minutes passed, then ten. Everything began to swim around him, but he held on to a single thought: He cannot break me.

Finally, in frustration, the Bird knocked Louie to the ground, where he lay unconscious. But when he awoke, the other men were crouched beside him, faces lit with awe. He’d held the beam for thirty-seven minutes.

Though Louie outwardly held his ground, the Bird began to loom over him even in his dreams, and he knew that his disease-ravaged body would soon give out. He spent hours in prayer, begging God to save him, and held on to hope that the war would end before the Bird killed him.

The prisoners began to hear bombs falling at night. Whispered rumors passed though the camp that a new weapon had leveled an entire city. Finally, on August 20th, 1945, the camp commander announced that the war was over. The Allies had won.

The men went mad with joy. Louie stood still, only one thought running through his weary mind.

I’m free.

When he finally arrived back home, Louie’s family was surprised. He seemed fine, acted cheerful, and spoke briefly and calmly of the war.

But four years after the war, Louie was no hero.

The Olympic champion who had braved the war and conquered his captivity could not win the battle against himself. He was tormented by dreams of the Bird, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Rage consumed him. Loud noises made him dive for cover under tables. He became obsessed with killing the Bird, and finally satisfying his revenge. Desperate, Louie flung himself into a downward spiral, leaving his new wife, Cynthia, each night to drink himself senseless. He and Cynthia fought bitterly, and she planned a divorce.

But one night, she came home with a new light in her eyes. She’d gone to hear a young minister named Billy Graham, who was preaching in town. She told Louie that she’d been saved, and pestered him to go until, finally, he agreed.

He sat under the huge tent in sullen silence, ignoring the sermon, until Graham said something that caught his attention. “God does not stay silent while good men suffer. He speaks in creation. God works miracles one after another…He says, ‘If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.’”

Louie shook in his seat as memories swept over him — the wires wrapped around him had vanished. Bullets had strafed their raft but left them unscathed. He’d survived the Bird’s unthinkable cruelty.

Spooked, Louie jumped up and made for the exit. But suddenly, he was back on the raft, drifting, dying, as he whispered through parched lips, “If You save me, I’ll serve you forever.” As Louie faltered back to reality, he knew that he’d made a promise. He turned toward the stage and started walking.

As he later told The Atlantic, “That night…I asked God to forgive me. While I was still on my knees, I knew there was a change. I felt a perfect peace.” Louie thought back to the war and “…the divine love [that] had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken…man that the Bird had tried to make of him. [Louie] was a new creation.”

A year later, Louie was standing inside Japan’s Sugamo Prison, where the guards who had once tortured him were now imprisoned for their crimes. The only one missing was the Bird. Puzzled, he inquired after him, and was told that the despairing corporal had committed suicide and perished miserably.

Instead of a monster gone to a fitting end, Louie saw a man, a life – irreparably lost.

At that moment, as Hillenbrand tells us, “Something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.”

His battle won, Louie went on to live a long and happy life, cherishing his wife and children, reuniting with Phil, and remaining adventurous and unstoppable until his death at age 97.

Louie battled his way through near insurmountable odds with courage, hope, and determination. The experiences he went through make him a hero in their own right. But I admire him most for his surrender — for the way his life was transformed when he finally admitted to God that he was helpless to save himself. As the Lord tells us in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Louie’s life proves that God is in the business of renewing this world, ransoming his beloved creation from our own twisted paths, and replacing our sorrow with joy.

Hillenbrand closes Unbroken’s story with a transformed and triumphant Louie.

“On January 2nd, 1998, snow sifted gently over Naoetsu, Japan. Louis Zamperini extended his hand, and in it was placed the Olympic torch. Louie began running — through the place where cages had once held him, where a black-eyed man had crawled inside him. But the cages were long gone, and so was the Bird. There was no trace of them here amid the falling snow, and the old and joyful man, running.”

I hope you enjoyed reading my (very condensed) version of Louie’s life! If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (my main source for this speech) to learn even more about what an amazing man and hero he was. Thank you for reading!


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