A 1936 Olympic runner and WWII bombardier recalls his troubled youth, his horrifying wartime experiences, his postwar decline, and his conversion to Christianity at a 1949 Billy Graham crusade.
Zamperini was a skinny, gawky kid who suffered the derision of his classmates and compensated by fighting, stealing, hopping trains, and flouting authorities. But his older brother, a talented long-distance runner, coaxed Bill into trying track. He did so, and found his gift. Practicing relentlessly, he became a great long-distance runner in high school and college (USC), then one day found himself performing with Jesse Owens on the Olympic track in Berlin—and exchanging a few words with the Führer himself. (No medals, though.) He was among a handful of runners approaching the four-minute mile, but nothing came easily. When war broke out, Zamperini trained as a bombardier and flew a few dangerous missions in the South Pacific. During an attempt to rescue some other downed fliers, his plane was shot down; he and fellow crewmembers survived for 47 days in an open rubber raft by catching rainwater and fish. (They also survived an attack by a great white shark.) The Japanese eventually picked them up, and Zamperini moved from one unsavory site to another, enduring two years of poor diet and physical and psychological abuse. His family back in America presumed he was dead. When the war ended, he became a temporary celebrity, then slipped into a slough of alcoholic despond from which he did not emerge until his wife convinced him to go hear Billy Graham. A conversion to Christianity ensued, and Zamperini thereafter lived an exemplary life, delivering countless testimonies at gatherings of the faithful. He has published his story once before in 1955 (same title, different ghost writer, foreword by Graham) and here deviates little from the I-was-a-no-good-backsliding-slob-until-I-found-Jesus tale so common in the Christian conversion genre.
As Kirkus said 47 years ago: “For that Reader’s Digest reader who finds this type of personal examination and regeneration rewarding.” (1 map, b&w photos)