By Franklin Graham, December 24, 2014
Actor and director Angelina Jolie has done an incredible job in following the remarkable story of Olympian and World War II POW Louis Zamperini, as told in the book “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.
Unfortunately, Jolie’s movie, by the same title, stops before Louie’s real battle begins. He was broken by his own memories of anger, fear, alcoholism and the abandoned promise he had made to God while adrift at sea in 1943.
I met this incredible man in Long Beach, California in 1998 where I was hosting an Operation Christmas Child (OCC) airlift of shoe box gifts for children in developing countries. I was impressed, as anyone would be, with this gentle but powerful individual.
Returning to life in California after World War II revealed what the Japanese couldn’t do to Louie Zamperini; they couldn’t break this hero. But Louie’s real battle was still ahead.
For a time he enjoyed the celebrity of heroism and hob-knobbing with Hollywood. He met and married a beautiful woman named Cynthia Applewhite and life was good. But when all the glitz and glamour faded and reality set in, reoccurring nightmares of war and memories of Louie’s torture by his enemies tormented him.
To escape these horrors, Louie turned to alcohol. Pent-up anger overcame him.
His wife who genuinely loved him felt she had no choice but to divorce him. The man who had endured horrific physical and mental abuse, and emerged unbroken from the ravages of war, had succumbed to an enemy that would not let go — himself.
Meanwhile on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street in Los Angeles, my father Billy Graham and his team had erected a 480-foot tent in a vacant parking lot to embark on a three-week evangelistic campaign in September of 1949; it was extended to eight weeks because of the massive response.
It was under that tent that Stuart Hamblen, a cowboy and West Coast radio personality and Jim Vaus, an electronics wizard and mob-connected wire tapper, discovered God and turned their lives around. And so did the Zamperinis.
When they were invited by neighbors to hear Billy Graham preach, Louie walked away. But Cynthia walked into what became known as the “Canvas Cathedral.”
When my father invited people to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ, she responded by accepting Him as her Lord and Savior. That night Cynthia informed Louie that because of this decision she had made, she would not divorce him.
Louie was thrilled. Though he was skeptical of her religious experience, he began to see changes in her.
Cynthia begged Louie to go with her to the meetings but he refused. As Cynthia and her neighbors prayed, Louie relented and finally agreed to attend.
Sitting under the big tent, Louie shifted in his chair as my father said, “There’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning boy or girl lost in the sea of life.”
Louie grew angry and bolted out of the tent vowing to never return.
For days Cynthia begged him to go back. He finally agreed but made her promise that when Billy Graham asked for, “every head bowed and every eye closed,” they would leave.
When the invitation came, he recalled the broken promise he had made to God as he was kept alive while drifting on the Pacific, “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”
Louie struggled between the urge to get out of the tent in haste or respond to my father’s call to follow Christ. As Louie edged toward the aisle and stepped out beyond the row of chairs bent on rushing for the exit, he went the opposite direction — toward my father. It was this life-changing moment that blotted out the nightmares and years of torment.
Jesus Christ has the power not only to save souls but to change lives. Louie Zamperini is an example of a life that changed instantly.
When he returned home from the meeting he poured his liquor down the drain, dumped his girlie magazines in the trash, and crumpled up his cigarettes and disposed of them.
He found a Bible that had been issued by the air corps and began reading. For the first time God’s Word began to make sense to him.
This former prisoner of war had discovered the joy of freedom found in Christ and desired to pass it on to others.
He opened Victory Boys Camp to help troubled boys, many who were renewed and reformed, enabling them to live productive lives.
While Jolie’s movie offers us a glimpse into much of Louie Zamperini’s life, only eternity will reveal “the rest of the story.”
Franklin Graham has devoted his life to meeting the needs of people around the world and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The eldest son of Billy and Ruth Bell Graham, he serves as President and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Under his leadership, Samaritan’s Purse has met the needs of poor, sick, and suffering people in more than 100 countries. As an evangelist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he has led crusades around the world.