Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”
Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit) took seven years and 75 interviews with Louis Zamperini to research and collect the facts to write Unbroken, which was published in 2010. The book is very well written, exciting and moving. It was clearly thoroughly researched to relate interesting and accurate information about the war events and the activities of the Air Corps. It also gives the reader some insight into what POWs have suffered (some in rather graphic detail), as well as what life is like for our war veterans after returning home. Hillenbrand has broken Zamperini’s story into five parts, as follows:
Part One – Running and Flying
Louie Zamperini’s knack for resilience and determination became evident very early on in his life and would carry him through some of the most challenging and harrowing experiences imaginable. At age two, when he was sick with pneumonia, little Louie “climbed out his bedroom window, descended one story, and went on a naked tear down the street with a policeman chasing him and a crowd watching in amazement.” As a child, Louie was always on-the-go and into mischief, which later would often involve local law enforcement:
The police always seemed to be on the front porch, trying to talk sense into Louie. There were neighbors to be apologized to and damages to be compensated for with money that [Louie’s father] couldn’t spare…When Louie was in his early teens…he was never more than an inch from juvenile hall or jail, and as a serial troublemaker, a failing student, and a suspect Italian, he was just the sort of rogue that eugenicists wanted to cull.
As he moved into his high school years, running from the law was exchanged for running on a track, thanks to his brother Pete, who encouraged and trained with him. Louie’s career as a track star began in 1933, when in tenth grade he began competing in high school track. Breaking one record after another, Louie was virtually unbeatable, as one news reporter wrote, “Boy! oh boy! Can that guy fly?” and Louie was given the nickname “The Torrance Torpedo.” Ironically, he would later find himself flying in a bomber plane, but not before having the opportunity to compete in the World Olympics of 1936, held in Berlin, Germany. He came home without a medal, but set his eyes on 1941, when he would compete as an Olympic runner in Tokyo.
Part Two – Brief Career as a Bombardier
But at age 20, Louis Zamperini’s promising future as an Olympic track medalist was shot down. In 1940 the Tokyo Olympic Games were cancelled, and the following year Louie enlisted in the Air Corps and began his training as a bombardier. This part of the story introduces the reader to Louie’s training, life in the barracks, his fellow crew members and companions (most of whom would die), and the search-and-rescue and bombing missions they conducted in their B-24 bomber.
Part Three – Stranded at Sea
When Louie’s plane was shot down and he was left to survive on a raft with two fellow crewmen in the middle of the Pacific for 46 days, what they experienced is terrible beyond anything most of us could imagine. What kind of scenario could you imagine yourself in where sniffing your earwax might be a source of comfort and pleasure? Consider this:
With every day that passed without rescue, the prospects for raft-bound men worsened dramatically. Raft provisions lasted a few days at most. Hunger, thirst, and exposure to blistering sun by day and chill by night depleted survivors with frightening rapidity. Some men died in days. Others went insane.
Harvesting rain water and catching a rare bird or fish for raw consumption was all they had to sustain them. Add to this sharks circling below and enemy planes firing from above, and you get a bit of the picture. To keep their minds alert and sane, the men told each other stories about home, quizzed each other on trivia, recited poems, prayed aloud, sang songs, and described in detail their favorite meals. All of these kept them connected to the outside world and gave them a reason to stay alive. God had a purpose for Louis Zamperini and preserved his life at this time. Meanwhile, the men were reported as Missing in Action to their families back in the States, who wouldn’t learn if they were still alive for another 16 months.
Part Four – In the Hands of the Enemy
As bad as their existence was afloat at sea, things got much worse for Zamperini after coming ashore and being taken as a POW by the Japanese. For over two years, he managed to hold onto life, sometimes by a thread, as he witnessed and personally underwent some of the most horrendous atrocities any human being has endured. One particular Japanese officer called the Bird would single him out and make his existence a living hell and would haunt his dreams long after his return home. Yet Louis maintained the will, desire, and ability to not only stay alive, but to retain his mental sanity through it all. Again, we can see the sustaining hand of God in Louis’ life as he endured each incident he faced. We also see the extreme and utter depravity and wickedness of ungodly men.
Part Five – The Process of Healing Begins
The memories of his time as a POW would have lasting effects long after Louie’s return home. Of course his health was affected, but the emotional scars lay much deeper. Even after being reunited with his family, regaining much of his physical health, and falling in love and marrying, Zamperini would struggle with what many war veterans deal with: anger, hatred, depression, fear, nightmares and flashbacks. The author explains:
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. Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand. Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness.
Louis almost became consumed with vengeance, but in God’s providential timing, a young evangelist named Billy Graham came to Los Angeles, and Louis’ wife Cynthia managed to persuade him to go and hear the preacher. God used Graham’s message to bring faith and repentance to Zamperini, to heal his soul and give him new life, making him a new creation. The following year, Zamperini visited his Japanese POW camp; he looked in the faces of former guards, now considered war criminals, and learned about what had become of his nemesis, the Bird. With his new heart and perspective, Louis was able to look at these men, not with fear, hatred, or disgust, but with compassion. Louis came to experience peace and forgiveness toward those he once hated, but only after finding the peace and forgiveness of God.
I’m a great believer, and I believe it with all of my heart that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and who are called according to His purpose. Christ told us in the Scripture, “I am the way, I am the truth and I am the life.” Christ is the way to God, the way is the truth. People are always seeking truth; the truth is Christ, and He’s the life. But I think our eternal life starts now by faith in Jesus Christ. That is the strength we live by, and death no longer has a sting… not to the Christian. – Louis Zamperini
Unbroken is an amazing story of what horrible pain and emotional suffering one man is capable of enduring and yet, by the grace of God, eventually is able to go on to live a happy and productive life afterward. I discovered that Zamperini also wrote his own account of his experiences in Devil at My Heels, originally published in 1956. I haven’t read this memoir, but from what the reviews indicate, in it Zamperini focuses more on the work of God in his life and his desire and efforts to serve the Lord after his conversion. It sounds like Devil at My Heels would be an excellent companion work to read.
Amazingly, Mr. Zamperini is still alive at age 97 and has been chosen as the Grand Marshall for the 2015 Rose Parade. A film based on this book is coming out in December 2014, and I am really looking forward to seeing it. But don’t wait for the movie – read the book!
P.S. Add to the title of this article, “Taken Up.” Yes, just three days after I published this article, on July 3, 2014, Mr. Zamperini passed away at the age of 97. Very sad news, but he lived a full, exciting, and God-honoring life and is now in the presence of the Lord who redeemed his life and his soul. The N.Y. Times report of Zamperini’s death can be read here.
Here’s the trailer for the film Unbroken coming out December 2014:
- Official Louis Zamperini website (www.louiszamperini.net)
- Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken hero (www.today.com)
- About author Laura Hillenbrand (www.seabiscuitonline.com)
- Zamperini named Rose Parade grand marshal (www.latimes.com)
- Another review of Unbroken (gentleandquiet.com)
- Discussion questions on Unbroken (laurahillenbrandbooks.com)
- This Day in History: U.S. Olympian’s plane goes down (www.history.com)
- Video about Zamperini (www.cui.edu)