Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The son also rises.  Louis Zamperini died of pneumonia on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97 — just about 70 years after he was originally classified as Killed in Action when his place was shot down over the Pacific in 1943. His legacy lives on  through Unbroken which hits theaters on Christmas day and through his progeny.  I just spoke with Luke Zamperini, one of his two children, whose love and admiration for his father clearly remains unbroken.

JWK: Did your father see the film version of Unbroken?

LUKE ZAMPERINI: Yes, he did. He didn’t see the entire film in its final cut or anything. He went into the hospital in May. (Director) Angelina (Jolie) had just gotten back  from the production in Australia (where) she was doing some editing. When we let her know that he was in the hospital, she came over one night. She brought her laptop that had the rough cut of the film on it. She climbed on his hospital bed with him and they watched it together. It was really something. I don’t know if he was more excited watching the film or having Angelina sitting on his bed with him. 

JWK: What was his reaction to the film?

LZ: Well, interestingly enough, the very next day he went into intensive care where he had his final six weeks of battle to try and save his life. He was incubated, so he was unable to talk. Of course, they had a medically-induced coma as well. I had to depend on asking Angelina how (the viewing) went). She told me that he enjoyed the film, that he was pointing out little details here and there that he wasn’t quite sure of. She assured him that in the very next scene that  his running outfit would turn from white to black — or whatever the detail was…She told me “I showed it to him up to the point of the prison camp. I didn’t want him to see the prison camp stuff while he was in the hospital fighting for his life.” But, what he saw, he really enjoyed.

JWK: What was his relationship like with Angelina Jolie?

LZ: Just an amazing thing to behold. When we first met Angelina, she came over with her husband-to-be Brad. We sat down and we talked with them. She arrived with a basketful of Italian delicacies to give to her hero — which was my father. She had read the book Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand) twice in preparation to do the film and she just fell in love with him. He is her guy. So, she loved him like a father and he loved her like she’s Angelina Jolie! He was just smitten by her, as well. They had this fabulous relationship. She’d call and talk to him (about) things that were not related to the film and he enjoyed talking with her. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful relationship.

JWK:  How old are you?

LZ: I’m 61.

JWK: Tell me about your relationship with your father.

LZ: First of all, he was my hero because he was my dad. He was just a great father to have. I was born in ’53 which was after the events that were covered in Unbroken. But I just had this wonderful father. He was around me all the time. He was a happy, joyful person. He was a great cook. He taught me how to sew, how to iron and take care of myself because he took great pleasure in all of that, as well. My mom got quite a break because he loved to cook and he was a good tailor. He also taught me how to ski, how to drive automobiles. He taught me how to be a good person. And, most importantly, he led me to a relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was just wonderful having him for a father.

I spent as much time as I could with him. Particularly in the last ten or fifteen years, we did a lot of things together. He was always on all of our family vacations with my son and his friends. He was like my best friend. I’m going to miss him dearly. I miss him already, to tell you the truth.

JWK: How many siblings do you have?

LZ: I have a sister.  She’s older than I. She was born the same year that dad became a Christian. So, it was just the two of us. I have his only grandchild, my son Clay (who appears as Olympic torchbearer in Unbroken).

JWK: How old is your son?

LZ: He’s 28.

JWK: What do you do for a living?

LZ: I’m a chief building inspector for the city of Los Angeles Department of Buildings and Safety.

JWK: What was your own reaction, first to the book Unbroken, and then to seeing the film?

LZ: Reading the book was just amazing. When Laura Hillenbrand had said that she wanted to write his biography, I went out and got (her previous book) Seabiscuit and read it. I thought “Oh, she should do a really good job.” I had no idea that she would create this masterpiece.  I couldn’t put the book down. I read it in two days, something like 500 pages.

And I’m absolutely in love with the film. It is so wonderfully done. I gotta tell you (from) the director (through) the cast and the crew, you could tell this was a labor of love for all of them. Angelina had brought over all the key actors to meet my dad, listen to his stories and get his insights about the characters that they were playing. They were just all dedicated to doing the very best job they could — not just for their careers but for Louie.

JWK: Did your father tell you about his wartime experiences growing up — or was much of this part of his life new to you?

LZ: I knew my father’s story from as early as I can remember. He spoke about it. This was what made him different than a lot of guys who came back from World War II. He actually spoke about his experiences. And, to tell you the truth, these were my bedtime stories growing up. I’d ask him to tell me a little part of his adventure on the life raft or what it was like running in the Olympics or what it was like in the prison camp.

Plus, his autobiography Devil at My Heels was first published in 1956. So, I had that to refer to. Plus, he had a 16-page color comic book that told his story. It was geared for young people…So, I was very aware of what his experience was.

JWK: What was the greatest thing he taught you on an emotional level?

LZ: He taught me how to be resourceful. He taught me how to be a good person and, most importantly, he led me to faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

JWK: So, faith was very important in your family’s life.

LZ: Oh, yeah, very much so. You know, he would tell his story to whoever would listen because, inevitably, the facts of what he suffered and being able to forgive his captors through faith in Jesus Christ gives people an opportunity to understand that it’s just not a story or a theory, this Christianity, but it’s actually a faith that can be lived out.

JWK: So, he forgave his captors.

LZ: Oh, yeah. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, nobody knew what that was back in the 1940’s. Every night he had a recurring nightmare of being beaten by the Bird, his most sadistic captor. In his dreams, he would be throttling the Bird trying to choke the life out of him. And, indeed, in his waking hours, he would be trying to figure out how he could get enough money together to go back to Japan and find this guy and finish him off.

Frankly, this was the self-medicating with alcohol…which was destroying him. It wasn’t until he found himself in a tent meeting in downtown Los Angeles in 1949 with a young preacher named Billy Graham that he was actually able to deal with this. He was reminded during that sermon of all the promises that he made God on the life raft and in the prison camp — that, if God would get him home alive, he would seek Him and serve Him all of his life. He realized at that point what a heel he had been for not making good on his part of the bargain. And he went to the backstage area, found a counselor and got down on his knees.

When he got up off his knees, he told me that he had realized at that moment that he was done getting drunk, he was done fighting and that he had forgiven his prison guards, including the Bird. He went home that night and it was the first night in five years (that) he did not have that nightmare. He never had it again the rest of his life.

JWK: Tell me about the Bird.

LZ: The prisoners would have liked to have named him something else more appropriate — but he spoke English. So, they picked the Bird, basically, because of his hawk-like gaze.

JWK: What did your father do for a living when he came back from the war, particularly after his experience with Billy Graham?

LZ: He talked about his story a lot. He lived on honorariums.

JWK: So, he was in demand as a speaker.

LZ: Yes. He made his living as a speaker and then, later on, around 1960 or so, he….did a lot of commercial real estate deals in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles. Eventually, he went to work on a federally-funded senior citizens program that he ran in Hollywood, California. And then, the honorariums were revived again after the book Unbroken came out. I accompanied him on just tons of speaking engagements. He was suddenly in demand again at the end of his life.

JWK: Finally, what do you hope people take from this film?

LZ: I think what people will take from this film is the power of the human spirit to survive and to be resilient. And the power of forgiveness to change someone’s life.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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