Louis Zamperini Was Broken Before He Met Jesus

The recent movie about Louis Zamperini by Angelina Jolie has brought even more attention to his incredible life story. Zamperini was a fascinating man, but the movie doesn't tell the full story. I'm honored to have Will Graham share how his grandfather, Billy Graham, was used by God to point Zamperini to the Source of his strength, Jesus Christ. Will Graham will be with us next month at our Wheaton Conference in Chicago, and we look forward to seeing all that God will do.


Several decades ago, an Olympian-turned-soldier survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, journeyed at sea in a small raft for 47 days, and was finally thrown into a Japanese prison camp—a place where he probably should have died of starvation and constant torture.

This man—Louis Zamperini—beat the odds and made it home. His incredible tale of determination, bravery and survival is excellently portrayed in the feature film Unbroken which opened in theaters on Christmas Day.

There’s an interesting challenge when it comes to movies, though. There are only so many minutes to go around, and you can’t tell everything about a man’s life in the space allowed, especially someone like Louis who lived through so many incredible experiences.

Unbroken Hero Was Broken

The name Unbroken definitely fits for the hero who returned victoriously from war, but something happened to Louis when he was back in the U.S.—something that isn’t shown in the film.

You see, he survived, but Louis was not unbroken when he came home. Rather, by his own admission, he struggled with alcoholism as he attempted to overcome the memories of his experiences. He was inflicted with horrible nightmares of “The Bird,” the brutal guard who mercilessly antagonized and beat him in the prison camp. At one point Louis woke in the middle of the night from a vivid dream to find himself strangling his wife, envisioning her as his captor.

Louis’ world was spiraling out of control, and his marriage and life were falling apart. He was, indeed, broken. If this was the end of the story, it would likely be a grim one, but something else happened. 

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Turning Point: 1949 Los Angeles Crusade

In 1949, a young evangelist named Billy Graham—my grandfather—held a Crusade in a tent at the corners of Washington and Hill streets in the city of Los Angeles.

Louis’ wife went to one of the meetings and committed her life to Christ. She returned home and told her husband that she was no longer planning to divorce him because of the decision she had just made to follow Jesus. She asked him to come with her to hear Billy Graham the next night.

Louis did go to hear my grandfather and ultimately remembered the promise he’d made to God when he was adrift in the ocean, when he promised to serve Him if allowed to survive.

Louis walked forward, committed his life to Christ, and allowed Him to mend the broken pieces of his life. The nightmares and the thirst for alcohol were gone. His marriage was restored. He was even able to forgive “The Bird.”

Is Your Life Broken?

Perhaps you aren’t a war hero. You are likely not an Olympian. In remembering Louis, however, I’d like to ask you, the reader, a question. Is your life broken, like Louis’ was when he returned from war? Are you battling against things that are out of your control, captive to sin and pain? If so, I believe that Jesus can do for you what He did for Louis some 65 years ago. He can set you free, and make you unbroken! 

More on the Special Documentary

On Christmas Day, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association released a half-hour documentary telling the rest of Louis Zamperini’s story, the part that is left untold in the major Hollywood production of Unbroken. You can watch the program now at BillyGraham.tv.


Will Graham is the Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. He and his wife, Kendra, live near Asheville, N.C. and have three young children. You can connect with Will on facebook and twitter. More at BillyGraham.org.