Cynthia Zamperini. Frank Tinker

Cynthia pleaded with Louie to stop drinking. It did no good.


The further Louie fell, the less he could hide it. Ric Applewhite noticed that he was manically germophobic, washing his hands over and over again, and each time, scouring the faucet and handles on the sink. Some of Louie’s friends spoke to him about his drinking, but their words had no impact. When Payton Jordan saw Louie, he recognized that he was in trouble, but couldn’t get him to talk about it. Pete, too, was worried about Louie, but knew only of his financial woes. He had no idea that Louie had slid into alcoholism, or that he had hatched a wild scheme to kill a man.

Cynthia was distraught over what her husband had become. In public, his behavior was frightening and embarrassing. In private, he was often prickly and harsh with her. She did her best to soothe him, to no avail. Once, while Louie was out, she painted their dreary kitchen with elaborate illustrations of vines and animals, hoping to surprise him. He didn’t notice.

Wounded and worried, Cynthia couldn’t bring Louie back. Her pain became anger, and she and Louie had bitter fights. She slapped him and threw dishes at him; he grabbed her so forcefully that he left her bruised. Once he came home to find that she had run through a room, hurling everything breakable onto the floor. While Cynthia cooked dinner during a party on a friend’s docked yacht, Louie was so snide to her, right in front of their friends, that she walked off the boat. He chased her down and grabbed her by the neck. She slapped his face, and he let her go. She fled to his parents’ house, and he went home alone.

Cynthia eventually came back, and the two struggled on together. His money gone, Louie had to tap a friend for a $1,000 loan, staking his Chevy convertible as collateral. The money ran out, another investment foundered, the loan came due, and Louie had to turn over his keys.

When Louie was a small child, he had tripped and fallen on a flight of stairs while hurrying to school. He had gotten up, only to stumble and fall a second time, then a third. He had risen convinced that God himself was tripping him. Now the same thought dwelt in him. God, he believed, was toying with him. When he heard preaching on the radio, he angrily turned it off. He forbade Cynthia from going to church.

In the spring of 1948, Cynthia told Louie that she was pregnant. Louie was excited, but the prospect of more responsibility filled him with guilt and despair. In London that summer, Sweden’s Henry Eriksson won the Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 meters. In Hollywood, Louie drank ever harder.

No one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home. In prison camp, he’d been beaten into dehumanized obedience to a world order in which the Bird was absolute sovereign, and it was under this world order that he still lived. The Bird had taken his dignity and left him feeling humiliated, ashamed, and powerless, and Louie believed that only the Bird could restore him, by suffering and dying in the grip of his hands. A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder.

The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant. During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.


One night in late 1948, Louie lay in bed with Cynthia beside him. He descended into a dream, and the Bird rose up over him. The belt unfurled, and Louie felt the buckle cracking into his head, pain like lightning over his temple. Around and around the belt whirled, lashing Louie’s skull. Louie raised his hands to the Bird’s throat, his hands clenching around it. Now Louie was on top of the Bird, and the two thrashed.

Louie, after the war. Frank Tinker

There was a scream, perhaps Louie’s, perhaps the Bird’s. Louie fought on, trying to crush the life out of the Bird. Then everything began to alter. Louie, on his knees with the Bird under him, looked down. The Bird’s shape shifted.

Louie was straddling Cynthia’s chest, his hands locked around her neck. Through her closing throat, she was screaming. Louie was strangling his pregnant wife.

He let go and leapt off Cynthia. She recoiled, gasping, crying out. He sat in the dark beside her, horrified, his nightclothes heavy with sweat. The sheets were twisted into ropes around him.


Little Cynthia Zamperini, nicknamed Cissy, was born two weeks after Christmas. Louie was so enraptured that he wouldn’t let anyone else hold her, and did all the diapering himself. But she couldn’t cleave him from alcoholism or his murderous obsession. In the sleepless stress of caring for a newborn, Louie and Cynthia fought constantly and furiously. When Cynthia’s mother came to help, she wept at the sight of the apartment. Louie drank without restraint.

One day Cynthia came home to find Louie gripping a squalling Cissy in his hands, shaking her. With a shriek, she pulled the baby away. Appalled at himself, Louie went on bender after bender. Cynthia had had enough. She called her father, and he sent her the money to go back to Miami Beach. She decided to file for divorce.

Cynthia packed her things, took the baby, and walked out. Louie was alone. All he had left was his alcohol and his resentment, the emotion that, Jean Améry would write, “nails every one of us onto the cross of his ruined past.”


On the other side of the world, early one evening in the fading days of 1948, Shizuka Watanabe sat on the lower floor of a two-story restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Outside, the street was lively with shoppers and diners. Shizuka faced the door, watching the blur of faces drifting past.

It was there that she saw him. Just outside the door, gazing in at her amid the passersby, was her dead son.


A Beckoning Whistle

FOR SHIZUKA WATANABE, THE MOMENT WHEN SHE SAW HER son must have answered a desperate hope. Two years earlier, she’d been driven up a mountain to see a dead man who looked just like Mutsuhiro. Everyone, even her relatives, had believed it was he, and the newspapers had announced Mutsuhiro’s suicide. But Shizuka had felt a trace of doubt. Perhaps she’d registered the same sensation that Louise Zamperini had felt when Louie was missing, a maternal murmur that told her that her son was still alive. She apparently said nothing of her doubts in public, but in secret, she clung to a promise that Mutsuhiro had made when he had last seen her, in Tokyo in the summer of ’46: On October 1, 1948, at seven P.M., he’d try to meet her at a restaurant in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

While she waited for that day, others began to question whether Mutsuhiro was really dead. Someone looked up the serial number on his army sidearm and found that it was different from that of the gun found beside the body. Mutsuhiro could easily have used another weapon, but an examination of the body had also found some features that seemed different from those of the fugitive. The detectives couldn’t rule out Watanabe as the dead man, but they couldn’t confirm definitively that it was he. The search for him resumed, and the police descended again on the Watanabes.

Tailed almost everywhere she went, her mail searched, her friends and family interrogated, Shizuka endured intense scrutiny for two years. When October 1, 1948, came, she went to the restaurant, apparently eluding her pursuers. There was her son, a living ghost.

The sight of him brought as much fear as joy. She knew that in appearing in public, standing in full view of crowds of people who had surely all heard of the manhunt for him, he was taking a huge risk. She spoke to him for only a few minutes, standing very close to him, trying to restrain the excitement in her voice. Mutsuhiro, his face grave, questioned her about the police’s tactics. He told her nothing about where he was living or what he was doing. Concerned that they would attract attention, mother and son decided to part. Mutsuhiro said that he’d see her again in two years, then slipped out the door.

The police didn’t know of the meeting, and continued to stalk Shizuka and her children. Everyone who visited them was tailed and investigated. Each time Shizuka ran errands, detectives trailed behind her. After she left each business, they went in to question those who had dealt with her. Shizuka was frequently interrogated, but she answered questions about her son’s whereabouts by referring to the suicides on Mount Mitsumine.

More than a year passed. Shizuka heard nothing from her son, and the detectives found nothing. Everywhere there were rumors about his fate. In one, he had fled across the China Sea and disappeared in Manchuria. One had him shot by American GIs; another had him being struck and killed by a train after an American soldier tied him to the track. But the most persistent stories ended in his suicide, by gunshot, by hara-kiri in front of the emperor’s palace, by a leap into a volcano. For nearly everyone who had known him, there was only one plausible conclusion to draw from the failure of the massive search.

Whether Shizuka believed these rumors is unknown. But in his last meeting with her, Mutsuhiro had given her one very troubling clue: I will meet you in two years, he had said, if I am alive.


In the second week of September 1949, an angular young man climbed down from a transcontinental train and stepped into Los Angeles. His remarkably tall blond hair fluttered on the summit of a remarkably tall head, which in turn topped a remarkably tall body. He had a direct gaze, a stern jawline, and a southern sway in his voice, the product of a childhood spent on a North Carolina dairy farm. His name was Billy Graham.

At thirty-one, Graham was the youngest college president in America, manning the helm at Northwestern Schools, a small Christian Bible school, liberal arts college, and seminary in Minneapolis. He was also the vice president of Youth for Christ International, an evangelical organization. He’d been crisscrossing the world for years, plugging his faith. The results had been mixed. His last campaign, in the Pennsylvania town of Altoona, had met with heckling, meager attendance, and a hollering, deranged choir member who had had to be thrown out of his services, only to return repeatedly, like a fly to spilled jelly.

That September, in a vacant parking lot on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street in Los Angeles, Graham and his small team threw up a 480-foot-long circus tent, set out sixty-five hundred folding chairs, poured down acres of sawdust, hammered together a stage the size of a fairly spacious backyard, and stood an enormous replica of an open Bible in front of it. They held a press conference to announce a three-week campaign to bring Los Angelenos to Christ. Not a single newspaper story followed.

At first, Graham preached to a half-empty tent. But his blunt, emphatic sermons got people talking. By October 16, the day on which he had intended to close the campaign, attendance was high and growing. Graham and his team decided to keep it going. Then newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst reportedly issued a two-word order to his editors: “Puff Graham.” Overnight, Graham had adoring press coverage and ten thousand people packing into his tent every night. Organizers expanded the tent and piled in several thousand more chairs, but it was still so overcrowded that hundreds of people had to stand in the street, straining to hear Graham over the traffic. Film moguls, seeing leading-man material, offered Graham a movie contract. Graham burst out laughing and told them he wouldn’t do it for a million bucks a month. In a city that wasn’t bashful about sinning, Graham had kicked off a religious revival.

Louie knew nothing of Graham. Four years after returning from the war, he was still in the Hollywood apartment, lost in alcohol and plans to murder the Bird. Cynthia had returned from Florida, but was staying only until she could arrange a divorce. The two lived on in grim coexistence, each one out of answers.

One day that October, Cynthia and Louie were walking down a hallway in their building when a new tenant and his girlfriend came out of an apartment. The two couples began chatting, and it was at first a pleasant conversation. Then the man mentioned that an evangelist named Billy Graham was preaching downtown. Louie turned abruptly and walked away.

Cynthia stayed in the hall, listening to the neighbor. When she returned to the apartment, she told Louie that she wanted him to take her to hear Graham speak. Louie refused.

Cynthia went alone. She came home alight. She found Louie and told him that she wasn’t going to divorce him. The news filled Louie with relief, but when Cynthia said that she’d experienced a religious awakening, he was appalled.

Louie and Cynthia went to a dinner at Sylvia and Harvey’s house. In the kitchen after the meal, Cynthia spoke of her experience in Graham’s tent, and said that she wanted Louie to go listen to him. Louie soured and said he absolutely wouldn’t go. The argument continued through the evening and into the next day. Cynthia recruited the new neighbor, and together they badgered Louie. For several days, Louie kept refusing, and began trying to dodge his wife and the neighbor, until Graham left town. Then Graham’s run was extended, and Cynthia leavened her entreaties with a lie. Louie was fascinated with science, so she told him that Graham’s sermons discussed science at length. It was just enough incentive to tip the balance. Louie gave in.


Billy Graham was wearing out. For many hours a day, seven days a week, he preached to vast throngs, and each sermon was a workout, delivered in a booming voice, punctuated with broad gestures of the hands, arms, and body. He got up as early as five, and he stayed in the tent late into the night, counseling troubled souls.

Graham’s weight was dropping, and dark semicircles shadowed his eyes. At times he felt that if he stopped moving, his legs would buckle, so he took to pacing his pulpit to keep himself from keeling over. Once, someone brought a baby to him, and he asked whose child she was. He’d been away from home for so long that he didn’t recognize his own daughter. He longed to end the campaign, but the success of it made him sure that Providence had other wishes.

When Louie and Cynthia entered the tent, Louie refused to go farther forward than the back rows. He sat down, sullen. He would wait out this sermon, go home, and be done with it.

The tent was hushed. From someplace outside came a high, beckoning sound. Louie had known that sound since his boyhood, when he’d lain awake beside Pete, yearning to escape. It was the whistle of a train.


When Graham appeared, Louie was surprised. He’d expected the sort of frothy, holy-rolling charlatan that he’d seen preaching near Torrance when he was a boy. What he saw instead was a brisk, neatly groomed man two years younger than himself. Though he was nursing a sore throat and asked that his amplifier be turned up to save his voice, Graham showed no other sign of his fatigue. He asked his listeners to open their Bibles to the eighth chapter of John.

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw no one but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.*

Louie was suddenly wide awake. Describing Jesus rising from his knees after a night of prayer, Graham asked his listeners how long it had been since they’d prayed in earnest. Then he focused on Jesus bending down, his finger tracing words in the sand at the Pharisees’ feet, sending the men scattering in fear.

“What did they see Jesus write?” Graham asked. Inside himself, Louie felt something twisting.

“Darkness doesn’t hide the eyes of God,” Graham said. “God takes down your life from the time you were born to the time you die. And when you stand before God on the great judgment day, you’re going to say, ‘Lord I wasn’t such a bad fellow,’ and they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going through your mind every minute of the day, every second of the minute, and you’re going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day. And God is going to say, ‘Depart from me.’ ” *

Louie felt indignant rage flaring in him, a struck match. I am a good man, he thought. I am a good man.

Even as he had this thought, he felt the lie in it. He knew what he had become. Somewhere under his anger, there was a lurking, nameless uneasiness, the shudder of sharks rasping their backs along the bottom of the raft. There was a thought he must not think, a memory he must not see. With the urgency of a bolting animal, he wanted to run.

Graham looked out over his audience. “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning man, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is out lost in the sea of life.” He told of hell and salvation, men saved and men lost, always coming back to the stooped figure drawing letters in the sand. Louie grew more and more angry and more and more spooked.

“Every head bowed and every eye closed,” said Graham, offering a traditional invitation to repentance, a declaration of faith, and absolution. Louie grabbed Cynthia’s arm, stood up, and bulled his way from the tent.

Somewhere in the city, a siren began a low wail. The sound, rising and falling slowly, carried through the tent, picked up by the microphone that was recording the sermon.

That night, Louie lay helpless as the belt whipped his head. The body that hunched over him was that of the Bird. The face was that of the devil.


Louie rose from his nightmares to find Cynthia there. All morning Sunday, she tried to coax him into seeing Graham again. Louie, angry and threatened, refused. For several hours, Cynthia and Louie argued. Exhausted by her persistence, Louie finally agreed to go, with one caveat: When Graham said, “Every head bowed, every eye closed,” they were leaving.

Under the tent that night, Graham spoke of how the world was in an age of war, an age defined by persecution and suffering. Why, Graham asked, is God silent while good men suffer? He began his answer by asking his audience to consider the evening sky. “If you look into the heavens tonight, on this beautiful California night, I see the stars and can see the footprints of God,” he said. “… I think to myself, my father, my heavenly father, hung them there with a flaming fingertip and holds them there with the power of his omnipotent hand, and he runs the whole universe, and he’s not too busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me … God spoke in creation.”*

Louie was winding tight. He remembered the day when he and Phil, slowly dying on the raft, had slid into the doldrums. Above, the sky had been a swirl of light; below, the stilled ocean had mirrored the sky, its clarity broken only by a leaping fish. Awed to silence, forgetting his thirst and his hunger, forgetting that he was dying, Louie had known only gratitude. That day, he had believed that what lay around them was the work of infinitely broad, benevolent hands, a gift of compassion. In the years since, that thought had been lost.

Graham went on. He spoke of God reaching into the world through miracles and the intangible blessings that give men the strength to out-last their sorrows. “God works miracles one after another,” he said. “… God says, ‘If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.’ ”

Louie found himself thinking of the moment at which he had woken in the sinking hull of Green Hornet, the wires that had trapped him a moment earlier now, inexplicably, gone. And he remembered the Japanese bomber swooping over the rafts, riddling them with bullets, and yet not a single bullet had struck him, Phil, or Mac. He had fallen into unbearably cruel worlds, and yet he had borne them. When he turned these memories in his mind, the only explanation he could find was one in which the impossible was possible.

What God asks of men, said Graham, is faith. His invisibility is the truest test of that faith. To know who sees him, God makes himself unseen.

Louie shone with sweat. He felt accused, cornered, pressed by a frantic urge to flee. As Graham asked for heads to bow and eyes to close, Louie stood abruptly and rushed for the street, towing Cynthia behind him. “Nobody leaving,” said Graham. “You can leave while I’m preaching but not now. Everybody is still and quiet. Every head bowed, every eye closed.” He asked the faithful to come forward.

Louie pushed past the congregants in his row, charging for the exit. His mind was tumbling. He felt enraged, violent, on the edge of explosion. He wanted to hit someone.

As he reached the aisle, he stopped. Cynthia, the rows of bowed heads, the sawdust underfoot, the tent around him, all disappeared. A memory long beaten back, the memory from which he had run the evening before, was upon him.

Louie was on the raft. There was gentle Phil crumpled up before him, Mac’s breathing skeleton, endless ocean stretching away in every direction, the sun lying over them, the cunning bodies of the sharks, waiting, circling. He was a body on a raft, dying of thirst. He felt words whisper from his swollen lips. It was a promise thrown at heaven, a promise he had not kept, a promise he had allowed himself to forget until just this instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever. And then, standing under a circus tent on a clear night in downtown Los Angeles, Louie felt rain falling.

It was the last flashback he would ever have. Louie let go of Cynthia and turned toward Graham. He felt supremely alive. He began walking.

“This is it,” said Graham. “God has spoken to you. You come on.”


Cynthia kept her eyes on Louie all the way home. When they entered the apartment, Louie went straight to his cache of liquor. It was the time of night when the need usually took hold of him, but for the first time in years, Louie had no desire to drink. He carried the bottles to the kitchen sink, opened them, and poured their contents into the drain. Then he hurried through the apartment, gathering packs of cigarettes, a secret stash of girlie magazines, everything that was part of his ruined years. He heaved it all down the trash chute.

In the morning, he woke feeling cleansed. For the first time in five years, the Bird hadn’t come into his dreams. The Bird would never come again.

Louie dug out the Bible that had been issued to him by the air corps and mailed home to his mother when he was believed dead. He walked to Barnsdall Park, where he and Cynthia had gone in better days, and where Cynthia had gone, alone, when he’d been on his benders. He found a spot under a tree, sat down, and began reading.

Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation.

Softly, he wept.

* From the King James version.

* Excerpts taken from “The Only Sermon Jesus Ever Wrote,” sermon by Billy Graham, © 1949 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Author’s transcription from audio recording.

* Excerpts taken from “Why God Allows Christians to Suffer and Why God Allows