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How the Rev. Billy Graham influenced the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini, the real life inspiration for 'Unbroken'

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most endearing parts of Louis Zamperini's remarkable life story involves the Rev. Billy Graham.

After surviving years of torture as a Japanese prisoner of war, Zamperini returned home and struggled with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. With his marriage on the verge of divorce, Zamperini found peace, faith and forgiveness through a sermon preached by evangelist Billy Graham during a 1949 Los Angeles tent revival.

"Thank God for Billy Graham," Zamperini said decades later in a video interview. "He is indelible in my heart and mind."

Graham, 99, a world-renowned, charismatic pastor, religious leader and counselor to U.S. presidents, died in his North Carolina home Wednesday, NBC News and many other news outlets reported.

Zamperini died at age 97 in 2014.

The powerful words Zamperini heard from Graham in 1949 reminded of a promise he had made to God while adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days, according to his 2010 best-selling biography, "Unbroken," by Laura Hillenbrand.

"God kept his promise," Zamperini said in his biography ( "And I started to leave (the sermon) when I thought about that and I thought, 'You know, he brought me home alive, and here I am turning my back on him.' So when we got to the main aisle, I turned to the right and went back to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ."

Zamperini said that when he heard Graham quote scripture, his life passed before his eyes, according to a 2014 article on

"I saw an ugly life," Zamperini said in the article. "Yes, I had a lot of good times. A lot of great experiences and a lot of escapes from death, but I still didn't like my life after the war. It was terrible. … I knew I was through getting drunk. I knew I was through smoking and I knew I'd forgive all of my guards including 'The Bird.' Never dawned on me again that I hated that guy. … That was the first night in all those years I'd never had a nightmare, and I haven't had one since."

Graham's grandson, Will Graham, wrote more about Zamperini's conversion in a 2014 article for Zamperini was a broken man, Will Graham wrote, "but Jesus Christ grabbed hold of Louis and changed his life forever, for eternity."

"Louis did go to hear my grandfather and ultimately remembered the promise he’d made to God when he was adrift in the ocean, when he promised to serve Him if allowed to survive," Will Graham wrote. "Louis walked forward, committed his life to Christ, and allowed Him to mend the broken pieces of his life. The nightmares and the thirst for alcohol were gone. His marriage was restored. He was even able to forgive."

Because of Graham's sermon, Zamperini went on to become an inspirational speaker who championed the "power of forgiveness," according to NBC Los Angeles.

Director Angelina Jolie's film version of "Unbroken" does not include Zamperini's tent revival experience with Graham, so he collaborated with Zamperini to tell the rest of the story in a short film titled, "Captured by Grace."

Graham and Zamperini were friends for decades. Zamperini visited his old friend in 2011, according to the video.

"This Billy Graham thing is a phenomenal miracle," Zamperini said in the video. "The way it started, the way it spread out. I'm the one that got saved and I've spoken to hundreds of thousands and had my testimony in papers where millions read it. One person. Think of the spiderweb effect all over the world."