Louis Zamperini: A life transformed by … Billy Graham?

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Louis Zamperini had an amazing, amazing life.

Actually, he had two of them since — pardon my French — he was a born-again Christian.

You can get the amazing details of his first life in all of obituaries that are running in major news publications. However, if you want to know much about how this amazing man made sense of all of the pain and suffering in his life, how he was healed (in several senses of that word) and then moved on, well, good luck with that.

Here is the top of the almost fine obit in the pages of secular holy writ, The New York Times:

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97. A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.

Mr. Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the War gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Mr. Zamperini.

The details of his ordeal must be read to be believed. Yes, please read them. Yes, he shook the hand of Adolph Hitler.

It is perfectly understandable that this kind of trauma and, at one point, daily torture left scars. The news coverage of Zamperini’s death has handled that angle, sort of. Here is the Times, again:

When he returned to the United States after the war and his ordeals at sea and as a prisoner, he fell into alcoholism and nearly ended up divorced from his wife, Cynthia. They remained married, however, for a total of 54 years until her death in 2001. His survivors include a son, Luke; a daughter, Cynthia Garris, and a grandchild.

Mr. Zamperini straightened out his life, he said, after hearing a sermon preached by Billy Graham. For years afterward, he worked in commercial real estate and remained physically active into his 90s, skiing, running, mountain climbing and skateboarding. He was prominent on the lecture circuit.

He also returned to Japan as a missionary and went back again to run a leg of the Olympic torch relay at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. The route took him past Naoetsu, a snowy, mountainous region where he had been imprisoned.

Wait a minute. What was that part about Graham, again? And Zamperini went to Japan as a missionary? Holy St. Patrick, he went back to work as a missionary to the people who tortured him?

There must be an amazing story there, one that goes way, way, way deeper than merely walking the aisle at a Graham crusade. And by the way, he simply heard a sermon by Graham and that alone changed his life? This is all about Billy? Did that, perhaps, have something to do with gaining or regaining Christian faith? Did he join a church? How did his faith shape the rest of this life?

Well, apparently the name for this game is don’t ask, don’t tell.

Surely other papers did better. Take the Washington Post, for example:

After the war, Mr. Zamperini was reunited with his family in California and, in 1946, married Cynthia Applewhite. He struggled with alcohol and was haunted by painful memories until his wife took him to a revival meeting led by evangelist Billy Graham in 1949.

“It was the first night in two years and a half that I didn’t have a nightmare,” Mr. Zamperini told CBS News in 2012, “and I haven’t had one since.”

He quit drinking and smoking and became a devout follower of Graham’s.

A devout follower of Graham? Is that how Zamperini would have stated that? Wait a minute: Is that how Billy Graham would state that transformation in a man’s life?

Come on, journalists, did anyone get this right? Did anyone state the obvious clearly and in a way that dealt with the details of this man’s second life?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • fredx2

    The rule seems to be that the media must exclude all mention of religion when it is found to be a positive in our culture. However, when it can be blamed for something, untold column inches will be spent exploring that angle.

  • Julia B

    Such a profound development certainly deserves more than ONE sentence.

  • deann47

    I’d never heard of him til CBS ran a fantastic documentary on his life at the end of the Nagano Olympics in 1998 that told the story without purging the pivotal moment from Zamperini’s life, or the life change that occurred afterward. What a difference 16 years makes in purging Christ from the nation’s awareness. I can’t find the whole video [it was 60-90 minutes long, can't remember] but here are some excerpts: http://bit.ly/1lLdPtr . What I remembered was how he not only forgave The Bird but tried to reach his torturer and make amends. Had he been given access, he certainly wouldn’t have told the man about Billy Graham but about Jesus.


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