100: Louis Zamperini

100: Louis Zamperini

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 100 •

WWII hero, Olympic athlete, inspirational speaker; subject of the bestselling biography Unbroken

In 1949, I was married with a family, but I was also an alcoholic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), following my experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. A couple of young people tried to get me to go down and listen to this new evangelist by the name of Billy Graham, who was preaching in Los Angeles, but I wouldn’t go. They took my wife to the crusade, and she made a confession of her faith in Christ. In the meantime she was in the process of filing for a divorce because I couldn’t quit drinking due to PTSD.

After she accepted Christ, she came home and tried to get me down to the next meeting. I again refused, but then she said, “Because of my conversion, I’m not going to get a divorce.” And that made me happy, so then, based on her experience and the fact that she was not going to seek a divorce, I decided to go to the crusade with her. But when Billy got to the invitation part, where Billy Graham calls people to come down and declare themselves for Christ, I got mad and grabbed my wife. I wanted out of there, so we left.

Later she reminded me again that she was not going to get a divorce because of her conversion, and she talked me into going back a second time. That second time Billy Graham was preaching about how, when people come to the end of their rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, they turn to God.

He was right. That’s what had happened on the life raft, where one of my companions and I survived for forty-seven days after being shot down in the Pacific. We had no place else to turn. The same thing happened in prison camp, for thousands and thousands of prisoners. I talked to them. They talked to me. They were all praying the same prayer. “Get me home alive, God, and I’ll seek You and serve You.” Naturally, that’s what they wanted to do — get home to their families.

I realized that God had kept His promise — I got home alive — but I didn’t keep my promise, and that made me feel awful cheap. I knew I was still getting drunk, turning my back on God. So that night at the crusade, I went back to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ — and boom! While I was still on my knees my whole life changed. It was just a real miracle.

That night was the first in two and a half years I didn’t have a nightmare. I had been waking up every night strangling Sergeant Watanabe, the brutal Japanese prison guard. One night I had woken up and I had my hands around my wife’s throat. Boy, that scared us. It was one of the reasons I decided to go to the crusade. But since I accepted Christ on that day in 1949, I haven’t had a single nightmare. Not one.

It was a miracle from God. The Army couldn’t help me. The psychiatrist couldn’t help me. But simply by receiving Christ as my Savior I received the help I needed. “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation,” says the Scripture, and that’s exactly what happened.

That also happened to be a big week for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I was a former Olympic athlete and in addition to my conversion, two other people who were famous at the time also got saved. The first was the radio personality Stuart Hamblen; the second was Jim Voss, who was the wiretapper for the gangster, Mickey Cohen, helping members of his crime syndicate avoid capture by the police. This was big news, and it caught the attention of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate.

Up to that point, the newspapers had ignored Billy Graham’s Los Angeles Crusade. They wouldn’t put his name in the paper. It was just a big “no” against Christianity. But when three famous people were saved in the same week, all that changed. Hearst immediately called Joe Pine, his editor, and said, “Puff Graham.” That meant give him front-page and good news. After that Billy became famous. Before that, nobody knew who he was.

After Jim Voss and Stuart Hamblen got saved, the three of us became buddies. And then Mickey Cohen started to invite my wife and me over to his home because he loved athletes. We’d have lunch together and we finally got enough Scripture into Cohen to whet his appetite, but he didn’t want anybody to lead him to Christ other than Billy Graham. I said, “Well, that’s wrong. When we accept Christ, we’re all servants. We all have the ability to lead another person to Christ.”

Nevertheless, Stuart and Jim called a man in Modesto, California, who had a plane. “Mickey Cohen wants to fly back east to have Billy Graham lead him to Christ,” they said. I said again, “That’s wrong.”

Some while later, the three of us were in a big church in Bakersfield, California, and we had to leave early to meet Mickey Cohen at the Santa Monica Airport in Los Angeles. The guy from Modesto was going to fly down, pick him up, and fly him back to Billy Graham. I said once again that it was wrong, but no one seemed to be listening.

We drove to the Santa Monica Airport, where the night watchman would not turn the lights on. I kept telling these guys, “This is wrong. God’s going to stop it.” I was a new Christian but had enough sense to realize that. I said, “If he wants to accept Christ, I can lead him to Christ, and so can you.”

Well, the plane landed without lights. Fine. Great. Then the pilot saw a line of airplanes, pulled to the left, and decided to park alongside them. Between him and the airplanes was a culvert about six feet wide and four feet deep for drainage. The plane nose-dived into that. I walked over to another airplane and sat on the wing. I didn’t say a word. Even as a new Christian, I just knew that you didn’t have to fly to someone special to lead you to Christ. Anybody could do that for you.

And so Mickey Cohen didn’t get to fly back east because the plane was almost demolished. It was a big thing at the time, and I just kept my mouth shut, but I think they did learn a lesson.

Some of the journalists who covered Billy Graham at the time had a thing or two to learn as well. During the 1950s some people were picking on Billy, questioning whether the conversions that took place at the crusades lasted very long. Some big-name writers were saying, “Okay, I know you had 5,000 come forward here and 2,000 there, and you had 150,000 in the Coliseum and thousands came forward, but how many of them are still sticking to it after ten years? Are they still believers?” So in 1959, ten years after my conversion in 1949, Billy Graham came to the Hollywood Bowl and invited the three of us — Jim Voss, Stuart Hamblen and me — and he had me get up and speak. It was a big thrill to be on the platform with Billy Graham. After that he would invite the three of us to various meetings like the one in Oakland, California.

It was a thrill for us to be with Billy Graham. Everybody knew that he only had one purpose on his mind, and that was a Godled purpose. He was so convincing, and that’s why so many people came forward in these meetings all over the world. God prepared him because of his background, his personality, and his humility. The humility of Billy Graham, that was all people talked about. He never takes credit for anything.

I was recently fortunate to be invited to speak at the Billy Graham Library. While I was there, I met people who were buying Unbroken, the bestselling book that Laura Hillenbrand had written about me. I autographed 734 books! The line was a quarter-mile long. Then I got to spend a couple of hours with Billy at his home with his family, and that was a great thrill. Billy’s younger than me. I was ninety-four at the time; he was ninety-three. I have pictures of us together. The family told me that he rarely smiles now but he was smiling a lot with me, and we had a great time together. More than six decades had passed since that memorable night in Los Angeles in 1949 when Billy had helped changed my life so dramatically.

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