This real-life accout of Olympic runner and POW Louis Zamperini delivers on what the book’s subtitle bills as a story of survival, resilience, and redemption. Louie’s WWII tour of duty included living through his plane being shot down in the Pacific Ocean, floating on a small raft surrounded by aggressive sharks. After weeks of bobbing on the water, out of drinking water, with no food, sunburned and exhausted, Louie began to pray aloud for the first time in his life. “He had no idea how to speak to God, so he recited snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies.”
Rescue finally came — but from the enemy. Louie spent the next two and a half years in one Japanese prison camp after another. He suffered abuse that’s difficult to read about, even all these decades later. His dreams would be haunted for years by one inhuman captor, The Bird.
Riveting recounting of the plane crash and appalling treatment in the POW camps make this a mesmerizing read. The final section holds its own fascination, though, as Louie returns to the US and deals with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread, and enduring. . . . Nearly forty years after the war, more than 85 percent of former Pacific POWs in one study suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” The bloody beatings Louie suffered left marks for all to see; the mental toll, while invisible, manifested in flashbacks, nightmares, a feeling that lice and fleas still crawled on his skin. To cope, he turned to alcohol.
Unbroken by the war itself, Louie was nearly undone postwar. His wife Cynthia, desperate to help him, dragged him to a Billy Graham meeting. Louie listened to Graham’s words about faith in God and recalled for the first time his prayer on the raft. He had told God, “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” Louie went home and dumped all his liquor down the kitchen sink. “In the morning, he woke feeling cleansed. For the first time in five years, the Bird hadn’t come into his dreams. The Bird would never come again.”
Louie traded humiliation and fear for peace. “He found a spot under a tree . . . . Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation.”
Today, 94-year-old Louie travels and tells his story. He survived harrowing experiences, yes. He displayed resilience day after day. He showed leadership, initiative, character. He emerged alive from the worst war can bring. But his story resolved only when he found redemption.