Unbroken

Almost three quarters into Unbroken, the book's subject, World War II airman Louis Zamperini, is transferred from one Japanese POW camp, Omori, to another, called Naoetsu. When Laura Hillenbrand writes, "Of the many hells that Louie had known in this war, this place would be the worst," the effect is jarring. By this point in the narrative Zamperini has already crashed into the Pacific, drifted on a life raft for 47 days surviving on little more than rainwater, been captured by the Japanese, and been beaten and nearly starved at three previous camps. How much more can he take?

 

Things do get worse at Naoetsu: under the sadistic rule of Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, called the Bird by prisoners, Louie (as he's referred to throughout the book) is forced into slave labor and falls gravely ill before the camp's liberation in August 1945. It is Hillenbrand's great accomplishment that the heart of Unbroken, describing the more than two brutal years between Louie's crash and his unlikely return home, is not an exhausting catalog of misery but a suspenseful and at times uplifting testament to human survival. And just as Hillenbrand's previous book, Seabiscuit, was about more than a horse, so Unbroken ends up being about more than the punishing wartime experiences of one man.

 

Louis Zamperini, son of Italian immigrants, was born in 1917 and grew up in Torrance, California. According to Hillenbrand, he was "untamable" in childhood, picking up smoking at age 5 and drinking at 8. He seemed to be headed for a life of crime until his older brother, Pete, began coaching him in track. Louie, a naturally gifted runner, immediately started winning meets and breaking records, and he ended up representing the United States in the 5000-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn't win, but his performance impressed Hitler, who asked to meet him.

 

Louie's dreams of medaling at the 1940 Olympics were of course dashed by the war. As an Army Air Forces bombardier, Louie—under the assured flying of Russell Allen Phillips, piloting a B-24—participated in a number of combat missions in the Pacific theater. But it was a rescue mission that sent Louie, Phillips, and nine other men into the air on May 27, 1943, searching for a B-24 that had gone down. When their plane crashed in turn, only Louie, Phillips, and one other man, a tail gunner named Francis "Mac" McNamara, survived.

 

Hillenbrand describes the men's 47-day ordeal at sea in wrenching detail, including the constant circling of sharks, an attack by a Japanese bomber on the 27th day, and Mac's death on the 33rd. By the time they reached land, having drifted 2000 miles to the Marshall Islands, each man had lost at least half his body weight. While Louie and Phillips were treated kindly by the stunned Japanese who found them, they were soon transferred to Kwajalein, nicknamed Execution Island, where, separated into tiny, sweltering, dark cells teeming with lice, mosquitoes, and maggots, Louie actually "missed the raft."

 

As Unbroken recounts the trials that Louie faced during and after the war (much of the narrative is based on interviews with him), Hillenbrand often pulls back to paint a broader picture. An exhaustive researcher, she provides context on everything from wartime flight (in the Pacific theater, "for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents," and search planes may have been more likely to go down than to find the men they were searching for) to the neglected stories of Pacific POWs. "Of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died," she writes, explaining that the Japanese contempt for POWs was rooted in a cultural belief that "to be captured in war was intolerably shameful."

 

Hillenbrand also paces the book expertly, inserting affirming moments of grace and heroism just when the narrative is getting unbearably grim. She describes the kindnesses of several Japanese guards and POWs—including Louie, who once gave his ration to a critically ill friend, calling it "the hardest and easiest thing he ever did." She also details the "humming underground of defiance" that existed at the camps, the risky acts of rebellion through which captives communicated war news to each other and stole food. Louie was even able to keep a diary with a tiny book made of flattened rice paste sewn into pages.

 

Now 93, the remarkable Zamperini has outlived his siblings, his wife, and most everyone he served with. His first years home were clouded by nightmares, heavy drinking, and an obsession with revenge, and he credits a conversion at a revival led by a young Billy Graham with turning his life around. Louie (who told his own story in a 2003 autobiography, Devil at My Heels) eventually founded a camp for troubled boys. He has visited Japan and met with some of his former captors. He's carried the Olympic torch at five different Games. The book includes a photograph of him riding a skateboard at 81.

 

But, as Hillenbrand seems to acknowledge by dedicating Unbroken to "the wounded and the lost," the book is haunted by the presence of those who didn't survive the war. In Louie's cell at Execution Island someone had carved the names of nine marines who'd been captured there and, Louie learned, executed. He carved his name alongside theirs but, of course, met a different fate. While Louis Zamperini is probably—and deservedly—about to become as well known as Seabiscuit, it's difficult to read Unbroken without thinking of all the lives cut short and stories never told.

Comments
by ChrisRoberts on ‎03-02-2011 12:41 PM

Author Laura Hillenbrand has done her best to keep at a minimum "Unbroken's" Louis Zamperini hand shake with Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. When I asked her why, when his teammate Jesse Owens was snubbed, he decided to shake Hitler’s hand, she replied, "Chris, it is a myth that Hitler snubbed Owens specifically." Not true at all. Here's what Zamperini had to say:

"Hitler came and shook my hand after the race," Zamperini recalls. "I was one of three Americans who shook his hand. But what happened was that one of his advisors told him that once he starts shaking hands, he'll have to shake all of them. We all knew he wasn't going to shake Jesse's hand."
 “The Official Web Site of The United States Olympic Committee, teamusa dot org, 2009/11/12.”

It seems Louis Zamperini was fascinated by the Nazi's, here is another incident:

True to form and before departing for home, the troublemaker turned champion runner stole a Nazi flag off the Reich's Chancellery. Caught by the Gestapo, Zamperini convincingly talked his way out of the predicament and proudly brought the flag home.
 “sports humanitarian dot com, 2008.”

And after all these years, over half a century, this is what the man thinks of Hitler:

Zamperini shook the Nazi leader's hand and thought the man odd. "Like a dangerous comedian," he said.
"Veterans Journal," Winter, 2006, Franklin County Veterans Service Commission, Columbus, Ohio.

Really? A comedian? That's a first in describing Hitler. Both Laura Hillenbrand and Louis Zamperini need to come clean about the Nazi question in the paperback version of "Unbroken" because now it is broken.

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