Walk the “Sawdust Trail” With Peace Through Forgiveness

“For I know the plans I have for you,” Says the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

Billy Graham and Louis Zamperini

When Reverend Graham retired from public life after seven decades of preaching, more than three million souls had heard his sermons and signed commitment cards pledging their faith. Louis Zamperini, the World War II hero and the subject of the movie Unbroken, was one of those people whose life changed after walking the “Sawdust Trail” inside the evangelist’s tent.

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

Although downplayed in the movie (but not in the book), the influence of Billy Graham’s ministry on Mr. Zamperini’s life is noteworthy.

After enlisting in the Air Force in 1941, bombardier Zamperini crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Adrift for 47 days, he was then captured by the Japanese and spent over two years at prisoner-of-war camps — malnourished, abused, and tortured.

Once home, life got worse. He experienced nightmares, alcoholism, and severe post-traumatic stress. Obsessively, he dreamed of taking revenge on his Japanese guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka the Bird). Mr. Zamperini’s wife, desperate to save their marriage and his life, implored Louis to go with her to Billy Graham’s 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles. “I was resentful,” says Mr. Zamperini. “I’d always been poisoned against such tent meetings since I was a youngster.” But with his life out of control and nowhere else to turn, he agreed.

It was the pivotal moment — a miracle. “That night when I got home from the Crusade, it was unbelievable. I didn’t have a nightmare, and I haven’t had one since,” he said. In his 2003 memoir, Devil at My Heels, he thanked Billy Graham “for his message that caused me to turn my life around.”

…It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Later, Reverend Graham helped Mr. Zamperini launch a career as a Christian inspirational speaker. One of his recurring themes was “forgiveness”. In 1950 at the Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, Mr. Zamperini expressed forgiveness and embraced those who stepped forward to acknowledge that they recognized him. He told the Christian Broadcasting Network that some even became Christians in response to his gesture of forgiveness.

Louis Zamperini survived the war, the ocean, the prisons, the pain, the nightmares, and the brutality. And he forgave all those along the way who had abused him — including Mutsuhiro Watanabe.

Sadly, Mr. Watanabe never answered Mr. Zamperini’s alter call. The Bird missed his opportunity to break free of his past. Thankfully, that night in 1949 Mr. Zamperini stood up, stepped out, and walked the “Sawdust Trail”, boldly moving forward in life and into heaven with peace through forgiveness. He passed away in 2014.

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)