This biography stands head and shoulders above the countless others published for our edification. Not only did author Laura Hillenbrand research the details of the story meticulously, but she also wrote about deep themes such as human dignity, man’s cruelty to man, the will to live, and the type of love that sustains. In my opinion, Hillenbrand is one of the best contemporary writers of narrative history, and it is well worth the time it takes to read all 406 pages of this true story.
The facts horrify and defy belief and are definitely not for the faint-hearted. Adults and older teens would be the best candidates to survive the ordeal of reading the life story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a hellion who only “settled down” when he began to run, thanks to the guidance of his older brother, Pete. World War II interrupted his promising running career, although he ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was congratulated personally by Adolf Hitler.
After joining the Army Air Corps, Louie successfully trained and fulfilled missions as a bombardier in the Pacific Theatre. When his B-24, the Green Hornet, crashed in the Pacific on May 27, 1943 only three men survived. The terror of shark attack led many airmen to crash their disabled planes outright versus “ditch” them in the Pacific Ocean. During days the survivors of the Green Hornet waited for rescue, sharks were an ever-present danger, swimming around continuously, rubbing their backs under the deteriorating rubber rafts, and at times, attacking with ferocity over the sides.
During these endless days of suffering in the life rafts, Louie, Phil and Mac drew from the experience of World War I ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker whose story of twenty-four days adrift was familiar to the soldiers. “Exposure, dehydration, stress, and hunger had quickly driven many of Rickenbacker’s party insane, a common fate for raft-bound men. Louie was more concerned about sanity than he was about sustenance… Louie was determined that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control.” (p. 152)
The well-being of the three survivors depended also on their hopefulness: “Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their spiritual and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.” (p. 155)
Shockingly, Louie’s plight worsened after his “rescue” from the sea by the Japanese navy. In the years that follow he was passed through a series of horrific prisoner of war camps in Japan. The shame of imprisonment that was indoctrinated in the Japanese military may be one of the reasons for the savage treatment of prisoners in the Japanese camps. Sadistic and continual torture served to rob men of their dignity so essential to human life.
Persevering to the end of the story offers the reader a final relief and a surprise – a revelation of how to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder through spiritual awakening and forgiving one’s tormentors.
Unbroken is the culmination of seven years of research, seventy-five interviews with Louie who, according to Ms. Hillenbrand, had a prodigious memory. Louis himself provided the author with his journals, original newspaper clippings, memorabilia, and private photos. Due to the author’s battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, all the interviews were conducted by phone. When Louie learned of Ms. Hillenbrand’s courageous battle with the disease he sent her his Purple Heart medal, claiming that her suffering was greater than his. Louie and Laura did finally meet in 2012 just a few years before Louie’s death at age 97. Physically active and cheerful until the end of his life, Louie is no longer available to tell his story. This lends great importance to the narrative finely crafted by Ms. Hillenbrand.
Although Unbroken chronicles the life of one man, many others who served in WWII in the Pacific Theatre are honored in the storytelling. Japanese POW “Hap” (Raymond) Halloran is one such man who Laura Hillenbrand praised in the book’s acknowledgements: “Very few human beings have seen humanity’s dark side as Hap has, and yet he is ever buoyant, ever forgiving. Hap’s resilient heart is my inspiration.”
In my opinion we need this story of a flawed hero who survived terror and torture and received his life back in the end. As goodreads reviewer and fellow veteran Jason commented: “In 10-15 years America will lose all its primary sources from WWII. You will have no reference, no great-grampa to reveal that epoch to you in lost military jargon and GI colloquialism. Great-grampa, the leatherneck, that, when you were a punk adolescent, sat alone in the warm sunroom with paper-thin skin on the backs of his hands, spots of lentigo, and steaming black coffee in winter. Gut-rot coffee, the way he learned to drink it back then, in a hole, or at predawn prep for takeoff. And so, I’m afraid that younger generations will lose the silken threads that link living history. I’m afraid that kids who think nothing unusual of presidents with no military experience will view WWII simply as another knuckle in history—something to study, fodder for a paper—but no less important than history that piles up each year and must be studied in turn.” (For more on this review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/451396288?book_show_action=true&page=1
More information about the author and the Unbroken story can be found on the author’s official website: http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com. The major motion picture, Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, is scheduled for release on Christmas Day 2014.
I wrote a post a while back about another good Japanese POW true story: https://pineneedlesandpapertrails.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/to-end-all-wars-a-japanese-pow-tells-his-story/