Zamperini: I wouldn’t have a life. I think I’d be dead. I was going downhill, fast. But Billy Graham came to town.
Meroney: What did he say that got your attention?
Zamperini: The one thing he said that shook me up was, “When people come to the end of their rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, they turn to God.” I thought, That’s what I did on the raft. All I did was pray to God, every day. In prison camp, the main prayer was, “Get me home alive, God, and I’ll seek you and serve you.” I came home, got wrapped up in the celebration, and forgot about the hundreds of promises I’d made to God.
Meroney: After the war, you had nightmares about being a prisoner of war. Hillenbrand discloses that these dreams were so extreme, you almost strangled your pregnant wife to death in your sleep thinking she was the “Bird,” the man who tortured you.
Zamperini: Those nightmares came every night. I looked good, had my weight back, but I had nightmares. I’d always wake up wringing wet. I thought I was strangling the Bird. I honestly wanted to go back to Japan and secretly find and kill him before I’d be satisfied.
Meroney: And your life was never the same after Billy Graham.
Zamperini: Well, that night I went back to his prayer room and made my profession of faith in Christ. I asked God to forgive me for not being conscious that He answered my prayer requests. While I was still on my knees, I knew there was a change. It happened within seconds.
Meroney: What was it?
Zamperini: I felt this perfect calm, a peace. The Bible calls it the peace that passeth all understanding. I knew then that I was through getting drunk, smoking, and chasing around. I also knew I’d forgiven all my prison guards, including the Bird. Boy, that’s something. So I got up, went home, and that was the first night in four years that I didn’t have a nightmare. And I haven’t had one since.
Meroney: How did forgiving your captors change your life?
Zamperini: Well, when you hate somebody, you don’t hurt them in the least. All you’re doing is hurting yourself. But if you can forgive—and if it’s true—you’ll feel good. It’s chemical. White corpuscles flood your immune system, and that’s a secret to good health.
Meroney: What kind of response are you receiving from Unbroken?
Zamperini: Ninety percent of the letters I get are from people who’ve been hurting, and they contact me for advice or counseling. I had one this morning—a woman with three little children, divorced. She goes to church, says she’s a Christian. She can’t forgive her former husband. She said, “I read your book and what it says about forgiveness and I broke down and cried.” I quoted Mark Twain for her: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Meroney: What else did you tell her?
Zamperini: That forgiveness has to be complete. If you hate somebody, it’s like a boomerang that misses its target and comes back and hits you in the head. The one who hates is the one who hurts. I talked to girls at a school in Palos Verdes and I said, “If you want to age quickly, then hate somebody.” After that, I got a letter from one of them, she was probably 15. “I went to a girl whom I’d hated for two years and I asked her to forgive me,” she wrote. “Now we’re the best of friends.” So forgiving someone is healing. To hate somebody hurts you physically, mentally, and spiritually.