Louis Zamperini died yesterday at age 97.
Here was a man who lived several lives compressed into one.
Louis Zamperini could have relied on his athletic abilities to keep him out of World War Two, but when war came, he enlisted and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the Army Air Corps where he became bombardier on a B-24 in the pacific.
Ofuna prison camp that also held Americans such as Richard O'Kane and Gregory "Pappy" Boyington.
Zamperini was held for two years, until the end of the war, enduring torture and starvation sufficient to prevent him from ever returning to running or flying. His return to America came as a shock to everyone as the Japanese had never admitted to holding him, therefore he'd been declared Killed in Action a year after the crash. Suffering from PTSD, his post-war life was rocky until 1949, when he met evangelist Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and with Graham's help, he began a new career ad a Christian inspirational speaker. He quickly became convinced that forgiveness was an essential requirement for his own salvation as well as that of others, and he set off to locate and forgive those Japanese prison guards who'd treated him so malevolently. He met with most of them in a prison camp where they were being held as war criminals and his sincerity in forgiving them and testifying to them won many of them over to Christianity. The only one that he was never able to reach was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the worst guard in the camp. Watanabe was so bad that General MacArthur his him as #23 on his list of the 40 worst war criminals, but due to family and friends hiding him, Watanabe managed to avoid ever being arrested or punished for his crimes until the prosecution of Japanese war criminals ceased in 1956, at which time he simply rejoined society and became a wealthy man. Lousi Zamperini continued trying to meet with Watanabe without success even as late as 1988 when Zaperini, then 81 years old, was honored by being part of the Olympic Torch Relay in Japan of all places. Watanabe was publicly invited to meet with Zamperini with the world media watching but he again refused and slunk away. Watanabe died in 2003, unrepentant.
He was quite a man, and the sun shines a little dimmer this morning with his passing.
I first learned his story a few years ago when my father gave me a copy of Laura Hillenbrand's wonderful book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. (Available here at Barnes and Noble.)