Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemptionby Laura Hillenbrand Published 16 11 2010
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In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man's journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.
On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane's bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he'd been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.
Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.
"Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" Reviews
I was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for another serving to make them worth saving so I dumped them in the sink, but just as I was about to turn on the garbage disposal, I realized that to the POWs described in Unbroken those few green beans I was about to mulch would have been a feast they would have risked torture and beatings for. I was disgusted with myself for the rest of the night. You know the book you’re reading is hitting you hard when you feel that much shame for letting a tiny bit of food go to waste.
Louie Zamperini is one of those guys who definitely earned that Greatest Generation label. The son of Italian immigrant parents, Louie was a rebellious kid who was constantly into one form of mischief or another, but when he finally channeled his energy into running, he became a high school track star in California. Louie was so good that he made the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at the age of 19, and even though he didn’t medal, he ran one lap of a race so quickly that he electrified the crowd and even caught Hitler’s attention.
As a college runner, Louie held several national records and many thought that he’d be the man to eventually break the four minute mile. He was poised to do well in the 1940 Olympics, but then World War II cancelled the games. Louie left college and ended up in the air corps even though he was scared of planes. He became a bombardier and went to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Louie survived several missions, including one where their B-24 barely made it back with over 500 holes in it.
While on a search and rescue mission, Louie’s plane crashed in the ocean, and only he and two others survived. With few supplies on two tiny life rafts, they’d endure exposure, starvation, thirst and sharks.
However, after finally reaching an island and being captured by the Japanese, Louie’s hellish experience as a POW would make him miss the raft and the sharks. Starved, beaten, tortured and degraded, Louie also faces extra punishment at the hands of a brutally sadistic guard who singled him out. Louie and the other prisoners desperately try to hang on long enough for America to win the war and free them.
I didn’t care anything about race horses, but found Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit an incredibly interesting read. She’s surpassed that book here with this well researched story. Hillenbrand creates vivid descriptions of Louie’s childhood, the Berlin Olympics, the life of an air man in the Pacific, and a Japanese POW camp while also telling the stories of the people around Louie.
She also does a superior job of describing a phase of World War II that tends to get overlooked, Japanese war crimes against prisoners. The number of prisoners killed by the Japanese through starvation, beatings and forced labor are staggering, but Hillenbrand also shines a light on the Japanese policy of killing all POWs if that area was about to be invaded. Per her research, they were preparing to begin slaughtering prisoners in Japan in late August and September of 1945, but the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of the emperor probably saved those POWs lives. If the war would have carried on or a conventional invasion done, then mostly likely those prisoners would have been killed.*
*(Do not take this as my personal feelings about whether nuclear weapons should have been used or not. I’m just relaying a part of the book here, and Hillenbrand makes no argument as to whether dropping the bombs was justified. She writes that many of the POWs believed that the bombings probably saved their lives and leaves it at that. And if you feel like trying to start a comment fight about it, I’m just going to delete it so don’t bother. I left my sword and shield at home today and don’t feel like battling trolls.)
Ultimately, while this is a book about people enduring incredible hardship and cruelty during war, it's a hopeful book, not a depressing one. Great writing and the care that Hillenbrand took with the people and places make this compelling reading.
”If I knew I had to go through those experiences again,” he finally said, “I’d kill myself.”
Louis Zamperini was a precocious child. He was always finding creative ways to get himself in trouble. He was desperate for any attention. Causing trouble is one way to get it, another way is to become really, really good at something. His brother Pete, a multi-sport star athlete, forced him into cross country and track in the hopes of keeping him out of trouble. The running, at first, felt like a punishment for all of Louis’s misdeeds, but then something clicked over and he discovered that not only did he like running, but that he had an aptitude for it. He started winning races and then he started breaking records.
I went out for cross country my senior year of high school not because I had a burning desire to run, but because I wanted to get in shape for basketball season. The football coach had visions of me being a tall, reasonably fast, wide receiver. I had visions of a helmet crashing into my knee ending not only a short lived football career, but also wiping out my penultimate season of basketball. On the cross country team was a guy named Roger. His father had been an Olympic athlete. He had qualified for the games in Mexico, drank the water, and became too sick to compete. Roger had dreams of the Olympics in his future. I had a much smaller goal of improved stamina for basketball.
By the time the first race rolls around I’m still not sure how I will stack up with the other runners. With Roger beating me easily every day at practice I was more worried about embarrassing myself. At this point I had no racing strategy, no thought except finishing two miles. The gun sounds, everybody takes off in a stampede. At about the one mile marker I started passing scads of runners who were flagging. I was thinking am I outpacing myself here? Am I going to run out of gas? Then up ahead I caught a flash of Phillipsburg Panther blue. I could see Roger! He was duking it out with a pair of twins from a rival city. The stories that Zamperini told the author about runners elbowing, pushing, gouging...all true. Of course Roger wasn’t worried about how long he took to run the race he was just putting a pace out there that eliminated all but his most formidable opponents. When the finish line came into sight he kicked down the afterburners and won with ease.
I finished 6th out of 65 runners, suddenly running took on a new meaning for me.
I was descended on by the local radio, television, and newspaper reporters. They asked me about the upcoming basketball season, a sport with a lot more interest to the community than cross country. They did ask me a few questions about the race which I couldn’t really answer because I wasn’t really sure how I managed to come in 6th. I looked over at Roger who was sitting on the ground changing out of his running shoes. No one was asking him any questions. I wish I’d motioned him over or walked over to him bringing the people asking questions with me, but I was still trying to make sense of everything.
He told me later that he was just glad I was bringing some attention to the program. He was magnanimous, but I felt about four inches tall. Louis and Roger would have understood each other perfectly. They knew all they had to do was keep winning and eventually the world would notice.
Louis Zamperini’s Olympic passport.
I never did learn to love running, but I did love competing.
Laura Hillenbrand knows how to tell a story. Readers will find the descriptions of Zamperini's races leading up to the Olympics much more compelling than they think, even if they don’t have an interest in sports. Zamperini qualified in the 5000 meters by the skin of his teeth for the historic 1936 Olympic Games. Jesse Owens was the story that year. He was putting a finger in Adolf Hitler’s eyes every time he stepped onto the track. Zamperini finished eighth, but he was determined to return in 1940 and win a fist full of medals.
The wheel of fortune landed on a different fate for Louis Zamperini.
World War Two put a crimp in many plans, dreams were put on hold, careers were set aside, and marriages were speeded up. Zamperini ended up a bombardier in a B-24. His job of dropping bombs on the Japanese was hazardous enough, but when a commanding officer ordered his crew up in a plane that flew “mushy” and had been stripped of all nonessential parts he was certainly tempting fate.
The plane was called The Green Hornet and just like the movie by the same name it crashed and burned. Three members of the crew survived and Zamperini was one of the fortunate few.
The Bucket of Bolts that dropped the boys into the Pacific. I always love the airplane artwork.
After drifting for months, surviving by sheer grit and determination, they are picked up as prisoners of war by the Japanese.
Life has got to improve, right? After all they don’t have sharks rubbing at the bottom of their survival raft every day and every night. They don’t have to worry about where their next drink of water is going to come from or their next meal.
The shark metamorphosis into a Bird, the Bird is Matsuhiro Watanabe. He is a psychopath who actually became sexually aroused beating up helpless prisoners. When the movie comes out this guy is going to be known the world over as one of the sickest most despicable human beings to ever exist. The list of charges against him, at the end of the war, were a stream of paper eight feet long.
Matsuhiro “the Bird” Watanabe
His favorite target: Lieutenant Louis Zamperini.
”The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized.”
I was surprised to learn that my own understanding of the treatment of POWs under the Japanese was sketchy at best. I’m still processing the images invoked from recently reading The Devil of Nanking about the massacres at Nanking in 1937. Like the Nazis the Japanese at this time were interested in the purity of their own race. They felt that as a superior race it was their place to rule all of Asia. They believed that to surrender was cowardly and dishonorable behavior. This belief led to some very erratic aggressive behavior by Japanese soldiers who would rather die than be taken prisoner.
So The Bird was a corporal who had been turned down for an officer’s position, this humiliation infuriated him. He despised these American soldiers who had surrendered and he especially despised the officers.
More than 37% of Americans held captive by the Japanese died. Only 1% of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. The Japanese guards were brutal and sadistic and at the end of the war many of them were prosecuted and executed. This changed as the Americans discovered that Japan would prove a valuable ally in the upcoming Cold War. The prosecution of further war criminals became a political stumbling block and were stopped.
I reached a point where I wondered why Louis Zamperini continued to want to live. He was too strong, too stubborn, too competitive to give up. When he crashed, his parents didn’t know he survived. They were kept in nervous, soul crushing suspense because a demented Corporal decided that the POWs under his command would not be able to write home. Laura Hillenbrand could have let the behavior of the Japanese guards weigh this book down into a horrific tale of depressing stories of physical and mental abuse, but though she does share a lot of those stories with us they are uplifted by the sheer determination of Zamperini not only to live, but to get one chance to wrap his hands around the neck of his tormentor.
This book had me considering who we are when we go to war. Why do so many leave their homes as fathers, husbands, brothers and become this shockingly terrifying person capable of the most sadistic behavior? War is hell. I know that, but there is a huge difference between killing someone in self defense on a battlefield and quite another to systematically, with creativity, torture people. The Rape of Nanking or the abuse of POWs defies all logic. These soldiers are not criminals or murderers. These are normal people until they are put in a uniform; and then, somehow they transform into criminals and murderers.
Laura Hillenbrand with Louis Zamperini
Hillenbrand includes a plethora of pictures all placed in with the text so you can look at a picture of what she is describing as you read it. I wish more publishers would do this for more books. It really enhances the experience. Hillenbrand is an excellent writer with a gift for storytelling. She adds in these wonderful details that really bring the story to life, so instead of waiting for the movie pick up the book and marvel at the capacity of humans to survive and bring their lives back from the brink of despair. Survival, Resilience, and Redemption are the subtitle of this book. You will end the book knowing and believing that Louis Zamperini exemplified all those qualities in the face of impossible odds.
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Louie Zamperini was quite a character, wild, given to mayhem and thievery, but he straightened out enough to become a world-class runner, joining the US team in the Berlin Olympics. He continued his athletic career at USC, setting running records there, preparing for the next international competition. But the world would skip that event, leaving Louie adrift. He joined the military and washed out, but he was drafted back in after Pearl Harbor, as a bombardier. When Louie’s plane went down in the middle of the Pacific, while on a bombing run, his great adventure began. Unbroken is Louie’s tale of survival.
Laura Hillenbrand - image from Flavorwire
Louie and two other crew members would drift for an unthinkable duration before sighting land, struggling to collect potable water, desperate to catch fish and birds for food and terrified of being devoured by the constantly marauding sharks. Once they finally landed it was out of the frying pan and into the rising sun, as they were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Enduring years of the beatings, deprivations, forced labor and humiliations that were daily fare in Japanese POW camps made their ocean voyage seem like a pleasure cruise.
This is not only an amazingly researched book, with details that clearly took serious, serious digging to unearth, but Laura Hillenbrand is a gifted story-teller, as any who have read Seabiscuit can attest, and she brings her narrative skills to this remarkable, real-life tale. Having introduced Louie in the early chapters and providing reasons to care, she documents a relentless sequence of trials that he and his mates had to endure. It does get a little repetitive, but there were times when the hairs on my arm stood up and saluted and I had to put the book down because the horrors these men faced were so frightening and upsetting. Think Jaws vs a rubber raft. But I was so captivated by the story that I dove right back in after a short break. The unpleasantness of the Geneva-challenged WW II Japanese military was not news to me, but the details Hillenbrand provides gave that vision considerable depth. There is a psycho-guard character in this story who would fit in well in many a horror film. And yet, with all the monstrtosities of the camps, there is also Hogan’s Heroes-type humor that will make you laugh out loud.
Louie’s life post-liberation was no picnic either. PTSD was not in the lexicon at the time, but anyone today would recognize the symptoms. Even though the unspeakable horrors he endured had not killed him, the internalized terrors he brought home might have finished the job. Hillenbrand takes us through those trials and tells the surprising story of how this incredibly strong, but seriously damaged man, was mended.
Unbroken offers an important portrait about a dark time, but shows how strength, courage, incredible determination and a dose of faith can overcome any obstacle. You will weep, rage, laugh and cheer. What more can a reader ask?
The author's personal and
A fascinating article on Laura Hillenbrand from Smithsonian Magazine
July 3, 2014 - Zamperini passes, the NY Times obit
Louie Zamperini and my father, Jim Wilson, were friends, and so I have known the outlines of Zamperini's story my whole life. Somewhere in the photo archives around Moscow, we have a baby photo of me, taken by Zamperini. I am drooling in that picture, something I have contrived not to do with more recent photographs.
Though I have been familiar with this story for a long time, Hillenbrand's telling of it is magnificent. This is a book to reinforce everything you knew doctrinally about man's capacity for both depravity and heroism. This was a deeply edifying read. Highly recommended.
Remember when we used to have live TV and stations would air previews for a program they were trying to promote? Have you ever then gone and watched that program only to discover that the preview was kind of misleading?
Well, the previews for this book are wicked misleading. Everything about it—the jacket cover, the book description...ok, maybe just the jacket cover and the book description—led me to believe this was a story about a World War II soldier lost at sea. And yes, there is certainly a section of the book that chronicles the experiences of a few Army Air Force personnel who become stranded on a raft in the South Pacific following the crash of their bomber, but the scope of the narrative encompasses much more than that. In fact, the “raft stuff” doesn’t even constitute the most compelling parts of this book. So what gives, Random House? Why you be unnecessarily deceitful?
What’s appreciable about Hillenbrand, who by the way suffers from a chronically debilitating disease which often leaves her confined to her home for days at a time (I don’t know why I felt the need to mention that), is her ability to relay a story that depicts a person at what we imagine to be his worst, only to reveal slowly a situation of progressively deepening madness, and she accomplishes this without running out of adjectival modifiers that would otherwise be needed to bring the reader’s jaw closer and closer to the floor. In other words, Hillenbrand knows how to tell a story, and this book, a biography of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, which focuses on his life in a Japanese POW camp, is a prime example.
Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Louie Zamperini’s life as an Olympian and later as a POW in Japan gives us powerful reminders that some things in life are real cool and some things just basically suck. Here’s a list that Unbroken brings to mind – things that would be either great (↑) or decidedly not (↓).
Having a family that supports you as a child even when you’re a light-fingered, hyperactive little hellion. ↑
Becoming enough of a juvenile menace that the police are called to intervene. ↓
Having an accomplished older brother who has your back, especially if this brother knows you well enough to divert your energy on to the track. ↑
Showing rapid improvement in races, ultimately making the 1936 Olympic team at the age of 19. ↑
Gorging yourself on the trans-Atlantic boat ride’s free food that proves all too tempting if you’ve never had a restaurant meal before in your life. Gaining 12 pounds as a result and losing race fitness. ↓
Passing numerous runners with a blazing last lap to finish 8th and having Hitler ask to meet you afterwards, remarking, “Ah, the boy with the fast finish.” ↑
Stealing a German flag as a souvenir. ↑
Setting a collegiate record two years later for the fastest mile, a record that would stand 15 years. Having experts say you’re the likeliest to first break the four minute barrier. ↑
Seeing hopes of Olympic glory in 1940 go up in flames with the advent of the war. ↓
Joining the Army Air Corps as a bombardier; soon thereafter coming back from a mission with 600 bullet holes in your B-24’s fuselage. ↓
On a different plane (a lemon that nobody wanted to fly), having it crash into the ocean due to mechanical problems, killing 8 of the 11 crew members. ↓
Finding out after the crash that your life raft has very little in the way of supplies. ↓
Living on small raw fish and rainwater for week upon week, aimlessly drifting at sea. ↓
Facing a typhoon with 40 foot waves. ↓
Facing Japanese bombers strafing you with bullets, missing you (miraculously), but blowing holes in your raft. ↓
Sharks. (Even if they don’t come with laser beams, this would suck.) ↓
Finding out that the survival manual was correct. With a hard punch in the snout, a shark will usually turn tail. (I’m forcing an interruption to the down-arrow streak.) ↑
Discovering that the land you finally get to after a record 6+ weeks at sea is a Japanese-controlled island. ↓
Getting beaten every day by a hyper-sadistic prison guard they call The Bird. Getting singled out as his favorite target. ↓↓
Finding out how much starvation, filth, dysentery, and physical abuse a human being can endure. ↓
Finally being liberated, going home to a hero’s welcome after you’d been declared dead, and eating mom’s pasta again. ↑
Showing signs of PTSD. Drinking to forget. ↓
Having your devoted young wife guide you to a spiritual conversion that allows forgiveness and a chance to move on as a motivational speaker. ↑
Going strong – still unbroken – into your nineties. ↑
Up- and down-arrows apply to Laura Hillenbrand, too. She suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that, for the most part, keeps her in the house and inactive. But she had this to say about her writing, particularly her subjects. “I'm looking for a way out of here. I can't have it physically, so I'm going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it's just fantastic to be there alongside Louie as he's breaking the NCAA mile record. People at these vigorous moments in their lives - it's my way of living vicariously.”
Ups and downs like Everest and Death Valley – a remarkable story, really. And one that was very well-told.