Thoughts on Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Thoughts on Unbroken by Laura HillenbrandWith books that are widely popular, I often find that I am among the last to discover them. Well, not discover them, exactly, but to read them and discover why they are so popular, and well liked, for myself.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemptionis exactly that kind of a book. By the time I picked it up, most people I knew had read it, even people who did read much. It was slated for release as a movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, and there was even Oscar chatter. Suffice to say: I felt like the last person in America who had not read Louis Zamperini’s story.

And the obligations of a book club to read it, even then.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I was reluctant, if reluctance is the right way to describe my slow journey to experience Zamperini’s World War Two survival story. The tale is incredible and exciting, full of heroism and survival over herculean obstacles, eventual redemption, forgiveness and love. Once I started reading it, I did not want to put it down.

Without recounting the story, since it’s more than easy to find out what it is about (Olympic runner becomes World War Two pilot, crashes in the Pacific just a few hundred miles from Hawaii, and survives first on a raft in shark invested waters for 47 days and then for two years as a Japanese prisoner of war. Oh, also, he survives, and beats, alcoholism and PTSD once he returns home after the war), allow me to share just a few observations and insights that stuck out to me as I was reading.

First off, Zamperini was not the only person who survived the horrendous abuses of Japanese prisoner of war camps. Heck, he wasn’t even the only person to survive his plane’s crash into the Pacific. With him was Russell Allen Phillips, his friend and the pilot of the plane. Along with thousands of other servicemen and women, both survived through Japanese POW camps, faced horrific experiences, and came home bruised and hurting (Al dutifully attended commemorating events for his friend Louis in the decades that followed the war, even though he never received similar recognition that he probably deserved). Over 27,000 American servicemen and women were captured by the Japanese in the Pacific Theater, with only 16,358 returning home after the war.

And yet, this does not diminish Zamperini’s story. From a near miscreant as a boy to a track star and eventual competitor at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (where he met Hitler after a race and ran afoul of German soldiers when he stole a NAZI flag off the front of the Reich Chancellery as a souvenir), Zamperini’s story might have ended with the start of World War II and the cancellation of the Olympics. Instead, he became the bombardier of a bomber crew and saw action several times before his plane went down into the Pacific.

Three survived the crash, though one died before they crossed the ocean. Shark attacks, Japanese fighter attacks, and dehydration plagued them, and yet, they managed to survive. It’s a harrowing tale and full of incredible feats. The men caught birds that came too close, snagged fish with hooks tied around their fingers, and collected rain water, when it fell. If the story had ended when the men found land, it would still have been an incredible tale.

Second, every time it seems like things can’t get worse for Zamperini, they get worse. It’s one jump out of the frying pan and into the fire after another. He survives a bombing raid, returning to base with his plane shot up and low on fuel. Instead, he’s sent out on a broken replacement bomber that crashes into the ocean. He floats across thousands of miles of ocean, only to find himself in Japanese territory.  Zamperini is thrown into a prison camp, separated from Al, only to find out that the previous prisoners, a number of Marines, had all been executed. He survives execution (though not without being used as a human test subject for Japanese medical experiments) and is transferred to a better prison camp…only to find a sadistic guard who controls the camp, beating the prisoners and singling out Louis for punishment. The guard is transferred, eventually, and Louis seems to see better days ahead…only to find himself transferred to the guard’s new location.

And so on. Even back to Zamperini’s final release and return home. Home in the US, he finds love and his victory over his captors appears complete. Then, Louis finds himself beset with the effects of repeated beatings, PTSD really, and sinks into alcoholism, depression, and anger.

Which comes to the final observation [sort of spoilers ahead. Proceed at own risk]. Taken as a whole, Zamperini’s story has a lot that relates to a lot of other POWs returned from war. And perhaps it shouldn’t be seen as unique. What makes the story so compelling, though, is how Zamperini eventually finds God, remembers his promise to turn his life over to Him if Zamperini makes it through the war alive, and begins to do just that. He forgives his captors, even returning to Japan to visit a prison for prison camp guards, forgiving them in person. He spends his life working with boys, building camps and running programs for the rest of his life.

Sure, it’s not unique, but perhaps it is the lack of uniqueness that allows it to resonate with the human spirit, promising redemption and transcendence. In Zamperini’s story, we see shades of the hero we wish to be and, perhaps, can be.

Unbroken Book Cover Unbroken
Laura Hillenbrand
Random House
November 16, 2010

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

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, Unbrokenis a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.