KERRY HUBARTT: Remembering Billy Graham, who got to the heart of the story

Kerry Hubartt

Many Billy Graham stories are being told since “America’s pastor” died on Feb. 21. One of my favorites dates back to Graham’s historic 1949 evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles.

Actually, the story climaxed at the L.A. crusade, which was Graham’s first great evangelistic campaign. When singer-actor-radio host Stuart Hamblen became one of the early converts at the tent meetings, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst sent a directive to his newspaper editors: “Puff Graham.” And within a few days, the evangelist from North Carolina was getting national coverage, and his three-week crusade was extended to eight weeks, Sept. 15-Nov. 20, with an outreach to 350,000 people and a reported 3,000 conversions to Christ.

The story I’m recounting is about a man named Louis Zamperini, whom I wrote about in this column three years ago after reading his biography “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. His story took him from California to Berlin in the 1936 Olympics, where he competed in the 5,000-meter run. The book then recounts his experiences in the U.S. Army Air Corps beginning in 1941.

Zamperini and only two others of the 11 on board their B-24 survived a crash in the South Pacific. They floated on a pair of rubber life rafts strapped together. One of the three died after 33 days. Louis and his pilot friend Allen “Phil” Phillips had to fight off sharks, dodge endless strafing from a Japanese bomber and survive a typhoon before landing on one of the Marshall Islands after 47 days at sea. They were immediately captured by the Japanese navy, beaten, starved, abused and degraded until the end of the war in August 1945.

The story of Louis Zamperini went from book to film with the same title, “Unbroken,” released in December 2014, just months after the war hero’s death. While the film concluded with his welcome home in the U.S. in 1946, the book continued with Louis’ resumption of civilian life, including getting married. But he was tormented mentally by his POW experience. He lost control, tried to drown his nightmares with alcohol and was on the verge of divorce.

That’s where the Billy Graham crusade comes in.

Zamperini’s wife attended the L.A. crusade in 1949 and became a born-again Christian at one of the nightly tent meetings. She pressured Louis to attend against his wishes, and on his second visit to hear the evangelist speak, he, too, gave his life to God, and everything changed.

The liquor no longer controlled him. Years of nightmares immediately stopped. And Louis resumed his remarkable life.

Following Zamperini’s death, another film was released on a 30-minute DVD called “Captured by Grace,” produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which took the war hero’s story beyond where “Unbroken” had left off.

Zamperini returned to Japan to share his faith with hundreds of Japanese troops, some of whom had abused him in prison camp. Many accepted Christ. Zamperini went on to speak at several Billy Graham Crusades, telling his story across the country and eventually directing a camp for wayward boys.

He and Graham remained friends until Zamperini’s death on July 2, 2014. He was 97.

“Thank God for Billy Graham,” Zamperini said in the “Captured by Grace” DVD. “He’s indelible in my heart and mind. The heart of this story is when I found Christ as my Savior. That’s the heart of my whole life.”

Kerry Hubartt is the former editor of The News-Sentinel.