CHARLOTTE, N.C.—When I met Louis Zamperini at the Billy Graham Library here in Charlotte on a hot June morning in 2011, dozens of eager fans had already formed a long line outside, clutching water bottles and copies of the book that had made the World War II veteran famous.
The decorated war hero—who died yesterday at age 97—was in town to sign copies of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling account of his extraordinary life. Unbroken had already topped the New York Times bestseller list, and it remains on the list today, ranking No. 4. According to Hillenbrand’s website, only four other nonfiction books in history have remained on the list longer.
The book sketches the remarkable tale of Zamperini’s experiences as an Olympic runner and a World War II soldier who courageously survived a plane crash, 47 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean, and two years of brutality in Japanese prison camps.
But in a small meeting room near the back of the Billy Graham Library’s barn-shaped building on that June morning in 2011, Zamperini mostly talked about other people.
Sitting at the end of a long conference table, wearing his trademark navy Olympic jacket and his red University of Southern California hat, Zamperini first talked about Hillenbrand. The author of the bestseller Seabiscuit had spent seven years painstakingly piecing together an account of Zamperini’s life while combating a debilitating case of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Extreme weakness and vertigo confined Hillenbrand to her home, and she never met Zamperini in person while she worked on the book. Instead, she spent hundreds of hours interviewing Zamperini and others by phone, and researching archive materials and official documents via the internet and mail. The pair became friends without meeting, and Hillenbrand once called Zamperini “a virtuoso of joy.”
When the subject of resilience came up, Zamperini talked about Hillenbrand that June morning: “Now that’s a courageous lady.” He was so struck by her perseverance through her illness, Zamperini did what seemed most logical to him: “I sent her one of my Purple Hearts.”
When Hillenbrand, then 43, didn’t have strength to travel for a book tour, Zamperini took on the job for her. The then-94-year-old embarked on a book-signing excursion that took him to stops all over the country, where he spent hours giving media interviews and meeting admiring fans.
Next, Zamperini talked about Billy Graham. The veteran’s appearance at the Billy Graham Library that morning carried special significance for Zamperini: He became a Christian during a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1949.
A huge, black-and-white photo of a young Graham preaching to thousands hung on the wall as Zamperini remembered his conversion to Christianity. He had returned from the war traumatized and depressed from the extreme abuse he endured, and he had turned to alcohol for relief. He initially resisted his wife’s suggestions that the pair attend Graham’s tent meeting, but he eventually relented.
Hillenbrand located the sermon Graham preached that October evening in 1949, and included the scene in Unbroken. As Zamperini battled anger and bitter memories of the hellish ordeal of war, Graham preached: “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is out lost in the sea of life.”
The next night, Zamperini returned to the tent, and Graham again preached the gospel of salvation from sin through faith in Christ. This time Zamperini responded. He and his wife both embraced Christ.
Zamperini said he was thankful for Graham’s ministry, and thrilled that Hillenbrand included the account in her book. (Hopefully the forthcoming Angelina Jolie–directed film based on the book will do likewise.) Shortly after the release of Unbroken, Zamperini found a letter in his mailbox from Graham. “Dear Louis,” it began. “My associate read me parts of the new book about you yesterday. What a life you have lived. What a description you have in the book of your conversion to Christ in 1949, and the great part that [your wife] Cynthia played in it. … I had tears in my eyes and praise in my heart for what God has done through you.”
I asked Zamperini—who maintained a devout Christian faith and service throughout the rest of his life—how important it was for the story of his conversion and faith to make it into the book. His reply was simple: “There wouldn’t be a book without it.”
Zamperini saw his conversion as the hinge for all that went before it, and all that followed in his long life. He wanted as many other people as possible to hear about salvation through Christ through his own story: “That’s the message of the book.”
Indeed, when Zamperini reflected on the best day of his life, he didn’t mention the day he was liberated from a Japanese war camp. Instead, he said, “It was the day I came to Christ.”
It seems fitting that Zamperini died during the week that America celebrates its independence from tyranny. But for Zamperini, Christ’s triumph over the tyranny of sin, darkness, and eternal death was the greatest victory of all.
Before I left that morning, I asked Zamperini to sign my own copy of Unbroken that I had brought along. It sits open on my desk today, bearing Zamperini’s strong signature, and the same message he must have written in hundreds of other books that day: “Be Hardy.”
Listen to Steve Coleman’s report on the life of Louis Zamperini from The World and Everything in It: