ATLANTA -- He survived a plane crash, then 47 days on a raft in the pacific being attacked by Japanese pilots and hungry sharks-with no fresh water and a chocolate bar for food. At the end of that ordeal, Louis Zamperini was captured and tortured as a prisoner of war. Again, he survived, only to fight Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he returned home years after being declared dead.
"I mean if it were fiction, you wouldn't believe it," said Zamperini's son Luke. "It's just a remarkable story and people gravitate to it."
Hundreds came to hear Zamperini speak at Peachtree Presbyterian in Buckhead Sunday. The Californian spoke of persevering through his ordeals and being saved by Billy Graham himself. Because of his newfound Christianity, he said his PTSD was cured, and he returned back to Japan and forgave his torturers.
"And I looked at that and said that's the most Christian message you could possibly provide," said Peachtree Presbyterian pastor Vic Pentz.
Zamperini's story became the subject of the bestselling book "Unbroken," and a major studio has signed on to direct the movie version. Zamperini partly credits his athletic training with giving him the burning desire to survive.
"Your mind is set on one thing, to win, to win. I think that's important in a survivor's life. Because a lot of people give up," Zamperini said.
He was a hero long before he even went to war. As a track star, he broke world records in high school and made it to the 1936 Olympics. His final lap in the 5000 was the fastest ever clocked at that time, and many expected him to be the first to break the five minute mile mark in 1940. Instead, Hitler invaded Europe, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the next two Olympics were called off.
By the time Zamperini was ready to try again, his abuse as a POW had destroyed his calf muscle. His career was over. He went on to carry the Olympic torch and talk about his experiences all over the world.
When asked about modern athletes and so many performance enhancing drug scandals, Zamperini said sports had been corrupted by money.
"After I broke a world record in high school, they couldn't find me," Zamperini said of reporters at the event. "'Where's Louis? Well he went and took a shower.' Today [the athlete] would be out parading, bowing every 50 feet, you see it all the time."