When I was visiting the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte a few months ago a book displayed in the gift shop captured my attention. Unbroken, written by Laura Hillenbrand, has become a New York Times Bestseller. It recounts the life of Louis Zamperini.
Before he joined the Army Air Corps and became a lieutenant, Zamperini had competed in the Berlin Olympics as a distance runner. Unbroken tells about Zamperini’s struggle to live. First, at sea – after his plane was downed during World War II – and then of his survival after being in several Japanese prison camps.
The book is a testament to the resilience of Zamperini’s mind, body and spirit. It’s also a book about the toll that severe chronic stress can have on one’s behavior and overall health.
The first part of her book describes Zamperini’s life as an athlete and distant runner. As a former competitive long distance runner, I really enjoyed reading this part of the book. I could relate to the training regimens that were described and also enjoyed how the author detailed Zamperini’s approach to distance running and preparing for important races.
Hillenbrand also describes, with painstaking detail, aspects of Zamperini’s lengthy time surviving at sea. As well, she writes about the extreme conditions and challenges that Zamperini dealt with in prison camps. The description of the brutality of some of the prison guards was painful to read.
From a mind, body, spirit perspective Hillenbrand writes about the postwar lives of the Pacific POWs. She captured the insidious nature of the emotional injuries that they received. She writes that, 40 years after the war, up to 85% of the POWs were experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hillenbrand sites about how Zamperini personally coped with the stress of war. He turned to drinking alcohol. He became an alcoholic. His relationship with alcohol almost wrecked his marriage.
But her book closes on a positive note, as I suspected it would. I knew there was a reason that the Billy Graham Library was carrying the book for sale. Hillenbrand describes how Zamperini, at the urging of his wife, attended a crusade led by Billy Graham in Los Angeles. And she writes how Zamperini accepted Jesus as his Savior. Maybe the most beautiful words that Hillenbrand writes are these:
Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history he thought of the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird (one of his POW guards) had striven to make of him. In a single silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he had became a new creation. Softly he wept.
To many, the best part about Unbroken may be the detailed nature of her accounts of Zamperini’s challenges at sea and in the POW camps. For me, it was reading about the impact that God’s presence made in his life after Zamperini asked Him to enter his heart in a personal way.
Louis Zamperini died on July 2, 2014 at age 97. The movie Unbroken is to be released in theaters on December 25, 2014. I’ll be sure to see it!
Short Video Clip – Zamperini’s recent visit to the Billy Graham Library