In “Unbroken”, Hillenbrand magnificently recounted Louie Zamperini’s experience in the Pacific during World War II, which can only be surmised by one word: amazing. I was absolutely enraptured as Zamperini, who seemed superhuman, survived on a lifeboat for more than sixty days and then for almost two years as a prisoner of war. The harrowing journey revealed Zamperini’s iron will to remain strong while highlighting the courage and heroism of veterans.
Before the war, Zamperini lived an idyllic life in Torrance, California where he attended USC surrounded by friends and family. He became an Olympic athlete, competing in the 5000 meter dash at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Although he finished eighth in the race, his performance so impressed Adolf Hitler, who was watching the games, that Hitler asked to meet Zamperini! Soon after, Zamperini would join the Air Force and be sent to the Pacific. He was constantly under attack, both in the air and on the ground, and Hillenbrand masterfully weaved a detailed account of these attacks while bringing a personal element to the combat he experienced.
While in search of another plane that had gone missing, Zamperini’s own plane crashed into the water, allowing only three men to survive. Zamperini and two other men began their long journey across more than 2,000 miles of ocean on two life rafts, each only six feet by two feet wide and both very poorly equipped. After one of the survivors eats the entire ration of chocolate on the raft, the men almost starve. They are kept alive by capturing birds and fish that manage to come near their boat. The raft soon begins to deflate, and the sharks swimming around the raft become brazen enough to jump into the raft and attack the men! One man hits the sharks away with an oar, while a second man pumps up the raft with an air pump, leaving the third man to patch the holes with makeshift glue and plugs. Had there been one less man, the fate of the survivors would likely have ended there.
After the slow death of one of the castaways, the two remaining men finally reach land, but are caught by the Japanese before even reaching shore. Zamperini is about to enter a period of his life that will be filled with torture and degradation at the hands of his captives. Forced into a small wooden cell that was barely big enough for him to stand, he was starved, beaten and told of his impending execution daily. Finally transferred to a POW camp, Zamperini is anxious to be in the company of other POWs and to receive better treatment.
But Zamperini soon discovered how horribly the Japanese treated POWs. Barely kept alive by small and rotting portions of food, many of the men had dysentery and other suffered from preventable diseases. Although the Red Cross packages reach the camps, the Japanese guards took all of the rations for themselves. Several of the guards relish in torturing the men, beating them mercilessly, and even forcing the soldiers to beat each other. The conditions inside the camp were so awful that I was amazed anyone could survive.
I was particularly horrified at the Japanese War Department’s Order to its soldiers to kill all POWs that might be recaptured. And when the war was over, the guards refused to tell the POWs for several days. Such actions go against everything the Geneva Convention attempts to prevent. The book discussed the plight of the U.S. after the war to find the guards that inflicted such pain on the soldiers. Thankfully many of the guards were found, tried, and convicted for their war crimes. Although they served time in prison, it hardly compared to the miserable conditions they imposed on the soldiers under their control.
I was also intrigued to read about the post traumatic stress that Zamperini endured once he returned. He was one of the veterans who woke up in the middle of the night choking a particularly horrible guard only to learn that his hands were wrapped around his wife’s throat instead. But Zamperini was determined to live a full life after the war, and became a motivational speaker who also created a camp for troubled boys.
I learned that Zamperini grew up only ten minutes from where I grew up and that I’d driven by his home and the airfield named for him dozens of times. I also happened to be right in the middle of this book, when I attended a USC football game where Mr. Zamperini was honored! I couldn’t believe the coincidence!
I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested stories of survival and true heroism.