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.
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.
The subject of the book is Louis Zamperini, whose life would have been an interesting read even before the events during WWII. A relatively trouble child who stole everything in sight, he grows up to become one of the greatest track stars of his time, shattering the national high school record in the mile and becoming one of the youngest members of the U.S. Olympic team in 1936. Many felt that Zamperini would become the first person to break the four minute mile. With the onset of the war, he was drafted into the Army Air Force and became a bombardier assigned to the semi-unreliable B-24. After surviving a number of bombing missions against Japanese targets his plane goes down in the middle of the ocean while searching for another downed plane. What follows is a story of survival by sheer will, first being adrift at sea for 46 days and then spending over two brutal years as a POW in Japan.
Hillenbrand takes us step-by-step through the events, introducing us to other Allied prisoners as well as a number of the Japanese guards and personnel. Her descriptions of the brutality Louie, as well as other prisoners, went through are very detailed and heart-wrenching. His daily beatings from a guard known as "The Bird" would have been enough to break anyone but Zamperini endured each one. One thing I found interesting is not only did she name names of the guards that tortured the prisoners mercilessly she also did not shy away from pointing out the Japanese personnel who did their best to shield the prisoners even at the risk of their own safety. Then after the war the Author takes us through the post-traumatic years as Zamperini's life spirals downward, and his eventual rebirth as he learns forgiveness and peace.
I would highly recommend this to those looking for an inspiring story of, as the sub-title of the book says, "Survival, Resilience, and Redemption." Just be aware, a large portion of the story will focus on the brutality and suffering inflicted on the POW's by the Japanese war machine. It can be at times a very disturbing and difficult narrative to read, one that can bring tears to your eyes. It is both one of the best books of the WWII POW experience I've read, and one of the most troubling.
Who is Louis Zamperini? He is a man who overcame all THAT only to be "rescued" by the wrong side -- the Japanese. He is the man who went from being a prisoner of starvation and sharks that actually leaped up and tried to snatch him out of the foundering raft to being a prisoner of Japanese guards who were every bit as predatory as the great white of the seas. He is the man who was beaten every day by a particular Japanese corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "the Bird." He is, in short, the Unbroken One -- the man who kept getting up, coming back, rebounding, and holding on to the tenuous thread that connected him with life and hope, past any duration that any of us could possibly imagine. And, as YOU can imagine, his story is compelling. In fact, in the capable hands of Laura Hillenbrand, author of SEABISCUIT, it reads like a thriller, a page-turner, a fictional product of a keenly talented mind -- proving once again that truth can trump fiction when it comes to stories and mankind's love of hearing them.
When you reach the end of this man's incredible journey, you will be awed by the scope of Hillenbrand's writing. It is clear that she did a vast amount of research -- reading letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, radio transcripts, etc., AND interviewing not only Zamperini himself, but his family members, friends, surviving fellow servicemen, and even Japanese captors. Woven in her biography are many statistics and facts from the history of World War II as well. You will learn about the science of survival -- why certain men live and certain men die -- and about the strengths and weaknesses of America's planes that carried servicemen over the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. You will learn about the war strategy, the Japanese culture and its effects on treatment of POWs as well as on conducting (and refusing to surrender in) a war to the bitter end. And, sadly, you will learn about the aftermath of war in Japan.
It's all here, bigger than life, packed into the small frame of one man from Torrance, California -- a man that could, and did, live to tell about a page in history we hope never to repeat. Both a personal tale of redemption and resilience, UNBROKEN is destined to become a classic in the category of narrative nonfiction. Ordinarily I'm a fiction guy, but I was spellbound from the start. Honest. Give it a try. It's big, but reads small. I think, when you reach the end, you, too, will sing its (and Louie's) praises (at 93, Zamperini is still alive and still "Unbroken"!).
The story is that of Louie Zamperini - a track and field star of the 1930's, who participated in the Berlin olympics, was part of the US air force in WWII, was shot down over the ocean, was adrift in the Pacific for over a month, was held as a POW by the Japanese forces and finally made it back to his life and has had the courage to live it to its fullest.
Hillenbrand is a marvelous author. I was never tempted to read Seabiscuit and this was my first introduction to her work. She is one of a few authors who can write a non fiction story in the most gripping and vivid way imaginable. Instead of being flowery or overly embellished her prose relies squarely on research and on witness accounts and yet manages to never be dull. The swiftly moving story takes the reader from Zamperini's early beginnings, his swift rise to track star, the Berlin olympics and then to the World War. This is where the story really blooms. Hillenbrand settles in for the long haul here and we get to see the air force and the B24 bombers through the words of the men who actually flew them. The sequences where Zamperini and his friend Phil are adrift at sea are vivid and strangely beautifully described. The horrors that await them at the Japanese prison camps are not glossed over but neither does Hillenbrand wallow in the gore and violence as some authors may be tempted to do. There is always a strong sense of the respect the author holds for the men whose story she is being allowed to tell.
History has perhaps focused its eye too exclusively on the war in Europe to the extent where the situation in the Pacific and the plight of POW's there has not received the attention and the respect it deserves. Hillenbrand's book and detailed research certainly makes a strong attempt to change that.
Solidly based on statistics and army reports from both sides of the war, Hillenbrands book paints a clear picture of the hellish conditions that the POW's endured and the utter madness of the war that was being waged in the Pacific. This is a hard story to read but one that is well worth it. The falling apart of Louie's life and his slow path to regaining his life and sense of purpose is a story that is truly inspiring. This book will find a permanent place of honor on my bookshelf.