During World War II, you’re a crew member of a fighter plane that crashed in the Pacific Ocean. You and two others are the only survivors, marooned on two rafts floating in Japanese territory. Suddenly, a Japanese bomber appears out of the sky, aiming right for you. If you jump in the water, the sharks, waiting for just such a moment, will eat you alive. If you stay on the raft, the aircraft’s ammunition will kill you. This is the story of one such crewman, former Olympic track star Louis Zamperini, who survived weeks on a raft before being picked up by the Japanese and enduring years of torture, starvation, and other hardships in prison camps before being liberated by the war’s end.
Unbroken: The World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand is not something I would normally read, but it was an audiobook my uncle and aunt chose to listen to while we made the long drive to Colorado last week. Despite my dislike of anything with a lot of violence, I found myself fascinated by Louis Zamperini’s story.
He was born on January 26, 1917 in Olean, New York. He died at the age of 97 in Los Angeles, California, on July 2nd, 2014. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945. His highest rank was captain. He was awarded a Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Prisoner of War Medal. To learn more about him, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Zamperini .
In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand starts out by describing Louis’s early life in Olean, New York, and then in Torrence, California, where the family moved when he was two. Louis was a wild child, delighting in running away, stealing, playing practical jokes, and many other undesirable activities. His Italian immigrant parents didn’t know what to do with him until as a teen-ager, he took an interest in track. Hillenbrand then describes how he made it to the U.S. Olympic team and participated in the winter games in Germany in 1936. Although he didn’t win a medal, he caught Hitler’s attention by attempting to steal the dictator’s personal flag. I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened to him if he’d been captured by the Germans instead of the Japanese. In 1938, he set a collegiate mile record despite opponents’ attempts to spike him during the race. This record gave him the name “Torrence Tornado.”
In September of 1941 before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces where he eventually became a second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Hawaiian Islands as a bombardier. Hillenbrand’s fascinating description of the planes in which he flew and bombed islands inhabited by Japanese military operations brought back memories of my younger brother’s interest in World War II aircraft as a child.
In the spring of 1943, he and other crew members were searching for a lost plane and its crew, using a defective B-24. The plane developed mechanical difficulties, and they were forced to crash land in the Pacific Ocean. Hillenbrand vividly describes the crash that killed all but three of the crew members. Zamperini and two others were the only survivors who ended up on two rafts 850 miles west of Oahu.
Hillenbrand then goes on to detail the 47 days spent on the rafts. The men survived by catching and eating raw fish and drinking rain water. They were attacked many times by a Japanese bomber which damaged the rafts, but no one was hit. One man died after 33 days. When they eventually reached the Marshall Islands, they were captured by the Japanese, and their situation went from bad to worse.
Hillenbrand then describes the two and a half years Zamperini spent as a prisoner in several camps where he was starved, tortured, and forced to do hard labor. At one facility in Tokyo, he was offered a job broadcasting propaganda in exchange for better living conditions, but he refused. One of his constant Japanese tormenters was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird.” Zamperini had beaten many schoolyard bullies as a kid but was no match for this one. Nevertheless, although “The Bird” came close, he didn’t break Louis Zamperini.
In the last few chapters of Unbroken, Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s transition at the end of the war from being a prisoner to civilian life after being reunited with his family in the fall of 1945. In 1946, he married Cynthia Applewhite and stayed married to her until she died in 2001. Plagued by flashbacks and nightmares, he vowed to return to Japan and find and kill “The Bird,” but this plan was never carried out. He was also consumed by alcoholism. He tried many business ventures, but they all failed.
In 1949, his wife became a born again Christian, and one night when she dragged him to a Billy Graham revival, he remembered a promise he made to God while stranded in the Pacific Ocean and in the prison camps. After that, he stopped drinking, and the nightmares and flashbacks disappeared. In 1950 after becoming an inspirational speaker, he returned to Japan on a peaceful mission to visit and forgive the guards who mistreated him.
Laura Hillenbrand is also the author of the acclaimed Seabiscuit: An American Legend and several magazine articles. She lives in Washington, D.C. Unbroken is the #1 New York Times bestselling author hailed by Time Magazine as the best nonfiction book of the year. For more information about Laura Hillenbrand’s books and to hear an audio sample of Unbroken, visit http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/ .
As I said before, I didn’t think I wanted to read Unbroken but found myself compelled by Laura Hillenbrand’s narrative. She touches on the lives of others Zamperini knew during his service in the Air Force, his surviving other crewmate on the rafts, and fellow prisoners in the camps. She also describes what his family went through after being notified that he was missing. When he was declared dead, his parents, brother, and sisters believed he was still alive. When Seabiscuit came out, I didn’t want to read it, either, but now, after reading Unbroken, I’m suddenly interested in horse racing.