Luke Zamperini retired from the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety after thirty years of service. While he’s no longer gainfully employed by the city, he’s fully involved in running the Louie Zamperini Foundation, the renamed Victory Boys camp. While his father rescued troubled boys from correctional facilities for decades, dragging them into the wilds of the Sierras to process their difficulties, the younger Zamperini now alternates his time juggling the foundation, speaking about his father’s life to different organizations, and sharing his thoughts on the films about his father’s life, Unbroken and the new-to-home media Unbroken: Path to Redemption.
Zamperini knows his father would love the new film about the Olympian and World War II prisoner of war, after he was liberated and returned to the United States, a broken man struggling with alcohol, anger, and PTSD. While the elder Zamperini passed away prior to the first film’s release, witnessing only the first half on a laptop that director Angelina Jolie brought to his hospital bed, the second film would have filled him with so much pride over the way his conversion was depicted.
In the film, Samuel Hunt plays Louie, opposite Merritt Patterson as his wife, Cynthia. The younger Zamperini says that he, his sister, and his wife all independently picked Hunt out of the three audition tapes that were shared with them. Hunt looks quite similar to Zamperini, and even emulated his running style. Watching the film unfold, Zamperini saw stories he’d heard for the last sixty-five years play out in motion.
“I’ve known his story my entire life because I went with him to the church and community groups he spoke at,” Luke Zamperini explained. “These were my bedtime stories. There wasn’t much I didn’t know about his story but Laura [Hillenbrand] put Louie’s story into a broader context. She showed that there were thousands of G.I.s who were shot down but only Louie lived, that there were forty-six thousand non-combat fatalities from the kind of plane my dad flew, that they called The Flying Coffin, that he shouldn’t have even been flying.”
In Jolie’s film, audiences saw how the Olympian signed up for the military effort during World War II out of a sense of duty, how he survived for forty-seven days in a life raft after his plane crashed during a rescue mission, and how he endured brutal torture at the hands of Japanese soldiers like The Bird. But that was just part of the Zamperini story, one that Unbroken: Path to Redemption picks up at the moment when Louie Zamperini touched down again on U.S. soil. It shows how he was angry, drunk, and even violent after meeting Cynthia and marrying her within six months.
Cynthia, Luke Zamperini said, was strong-willed and strong-minded. Her determination began to fade as her husband’s depression and PTSD threatened to swallow him whole. Contemplating divorce, a neighbor invited her to the Billy Graham revival; after hearing Graham speak, she was determined to save her marriage and invited Louie to go with her on two separate occasions. After storming out the first night, a miraculous change happened in the elder Zamperini’s heart as he stormed toward the exit for a second time.
“That night, he was broken,” Luke Zamperini shared. “The man who was unbroken by the Japanese had been broken down by his alcoholism and his PTSD. But when he heard Reverend Graham say, ‘When you get to the end of your rope and you have nowhere else to turn, that’s when you turn to God,’ it reminded him of the prayer he prayed in the life raft.”
“He told God, ‘If you get me home, I’ll seek you and serve you with my whole life.’ He’d forgotten all about that promise until that very moment, and he felt terrible because God had fulfilled his part of the bargain but he had not. He ended up at the base of the stage, unsure how he got there, but when he got up off of his knees, he knew he was done drinking and fighting, and he forgave the guards who had mistreated him, especially The Bird.”
In the most miraculous change of all, Zamperini was cured of a nightmare that had had plagued him for five years, of his recurring memories of his torture. He went home that night after accepting God’s forgiveness and never had that nightmare again.
Now, the book Unbroken is being taught in public high schools across the country, even as Unbroken: Path to Redemption releases on home media. Luke Zamperini found that out when teachers started calling and asking him to come teach to their class. One teacher in Texas had been teaching an Unbroken-related curriculum for years, tying it into English, History, and Geography. The school superintendent told Zamperini that the class was leading to heightened empathy, mutual support, and a reduction in school-based bullying. Zamperini realized that the next step in his father’s ministry was sharing the curriculum with teachers across the United States, and the next stage of his life involves making that happen.
Somehow, while Louie Zamperini’s life seemed to end after ninety-seven years, his ministry continues, as his life shows others a path to redemption.