A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand
Illustrated. 473 pages. Random House. $27.
This month we will discuss Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2010: From Laura Hillenbrand, the bestselling author of Seabiscuit, comes Unbroken, the inspiring true story of a man who lived through a series of catastrophes almost too incredible to be believed. In evocative, immediate descriptions, Hillenbrand unfurls the story of Louie Zamperini--a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. During a routine search mission over the Pacific, Louie’s plane crashed into the ocean, and what happened to him over the next three years of his life is a story that will keep you glued to the pages, eagerly awaiting the next turn in the story and fearing it at the same time. You’ll cheer for the man who somehow maintained his selfhood and humanity despite the monumental degradations he suffered, and you’ll want to share this book with everyone you know. --Juliet Disparte
The Story of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Eight years ago, an old man told me a story that took my breath away. His name was Louie Zamperini, and from the day I first spoke to him, his almost incomprehensibly dramatic life was my obsession.
It was a horse--the subject of my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend--who led me to Louie. As I researched the Depression-era racehorse, I kept coming across stories about Louie, a 1930s track star who endured an amazing odyssey in World War II. I knew only a little about him then, but I couldn’t shake him from my mind. After I finished Seabiscuit, I tracked Louie down, called him and asked about his life. For the next hour, he had me transfixed.
Growing up in California in the 1920s, Louie was a hellraiser, stealing everything edible that he could carry, staging elaborate pranks, getting in fistfights, and bedeviling the local police. But as a teenager, he emerged as one of the greatest runners America had ever seen, competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he put on a sensational performance, crossed paths with Hitler, and stole a German flag right off the Reich Chancellery. He was preparing for the 1940 Olympics, and closing in on the fabled four-minute mile, when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier. Stationed on Oahu, he survived harrowing combat, including an epic air battle that ended when his plane crash-landed, some six hundred holes in its fuselage and half the crew seriously wounded.
On a May afternoon in 1943, Louie took off on a search mission for a lost plane. Somewhere over the Pacific, the engines on his bomber failed. The plane plummeted into the sea, leaving Louie and two other men stranded on a tiny raft. Drifting for weeks and thousands of miles, they endured starvation and desperate thirst, sharks that leapt aboard the raft, trying to drag them off, a machine-gun attack from a Japanese bomber, and a typhoon with waves some forty feet high. At last, they spotted an island. As they rowed toward it, unbeknownst to them, a Japanese military boat was lurking nearby. Louie’s journey had only just begun.
That first conversation with Louie was a pivot point in my life. Fascinated by his experiences, and the mystery of how a man could overcome so much, I began a seven-year journey through his story. I found it in diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs; in the memories of his family and friends, fellow Olympians, former American airmen and Japanese veterans; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. Along the way, there were staggering surprises, and Louie’s unlikely, inspiring story came alive for me. It is a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.
The culmination of my journey is my new book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I hope you are as spellbound by Louie’s life as I am.
A NYT REVIEW: BOOKS OF THE TIMES
“The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” said Louie Zamperini’s coach at the University of Southern California, as this track star, who had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, trained for the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. But a deeply unfunny thing happened to him on the way to Japan. The 1940 games were canceled. Mr. Zamperini became an Air Force lieutenant. And he wound up going to Japan not as a miler but as a savagely abused prisoner of war.
Yet through torment after hellish torment, he demonstrated the kind of survival skills that would make Paul Bunyan look like a marshmallow in comparison. And Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit,” knows a winner when she sees one. Ms. Hillenbrand has given Mr. Zamperini the full “Seabiscuit” treatment in “Unbroken,” which is only her second book.
The ideal way to read “Unbroken” would be with absolutely no knowledge of how Mr. Zamperini’s life unfolded. Ms. Hillenbrand has written her book so breathlessly, and with such tight focus, that she makes it difficult to guess what will happen to him from one moment to the next, let alone how long he was able to survive under extreme duress. But blinders are for horses, not for readers of “Unbroken.” So we must acknowledge the good news that Mr. Zamperini is now a snappy 93, and better able to promote this book than its author (who is often sidelined by her chronic fatigue syndrome). He’s on YouTube. The words “Survival,” “Resilience” and “Redemption” are part of the book’s subtitle. And Mr. Zamperini, strongly influenced by Billy Graham more than 50 years ago, has been treating his story as an inspirational tale ever since. Hollywood has had its eye on him for so long that the young Tony Curtis was once scheduled to play the starring role on screen.
The Louie Zamperini story has been crammed with excitement right from the start. “Outraces Death” read a caption with his picture in The New York Times on Sept. 9, 1945, when this athlete’s suffering and survival became big news. His adventure, The Times said, in wording so revealing about postwar euphoria, “followed the usual raft story pattern, except that it eclipsed them all in endurance.” And endurance is what Ms. Hillenbrand has made “Unbroken” all about.
Just as she demonstrated in “Seabiscuit,” Ms. Hillenbrand is a muscular, dynamic storyteller, never using an ordinary verb when a “teeming,” “buffeted” or “porpoising” will do. Her command of the action-adventure idiom is more than enough to hold interest. But she happens also to have located a tale full of unforgettable characters, multi-hanky moments and wild turns. And if some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true, Ms. Hillenbrand has also done a bang-up research job. She interviewed Mr. Zamperini more than 75 times. He has an excellent memory. And he is a pack rat nonpareil: his scrapbook covering the years 1917-1938 is a single book that weighs 63 pounds. Most memorably Ms. Hillenbrand persuaded a man from the Army Air Forces Historical Association to bring a once-top-secret Norden bombsight of the type used in World War II bombers to her house, set it up with a screen of Arizona and teach her how to “bomb” Phoenix.
Thus prepared, Ms. Hillenbrand churns up her drama about how the rambunctious young Louie (“his ears leaned sidelong off his head like holstered pistols, and above them waved a calamity of black hair”) became the fanatically dedicated track star; at the July 1936 Olympic trials in a boiling hot New York City, he claimed to have felt his feet cooking as the spikes on his shoes conducted heat from the track. He went to Berlin, stole the “Do Not Disturb” sign off the door of the world-famous Jesse Owens, elicited the attention of Hitler(“Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish”) and then returned home to Torrance, Calif., as a hero. On Aug. 19, 1942, he went off to war.
On May 27, 1943, Mr. Zamperini’s plane went down over the Pacific. “Green Hornet, its nose and left wing hitting first at high speed, stabbed into the ocean and blew apart,” Ms. Hillenbrand writes, following it up with a visceral description of the young man’s being plunged in total darkness underwater. He and two buddies ended up afloat on rafts, and their sustained survival at sea is eventful enough to make a book in its own right. But there is also a certain sameness to their experiences after a while. And there’s a limit to how many times Ms. Hillenbrand can present a man-socks-shark-in-the-nose anecdote before it begins to get old. Mr. Zamperini did, however, manage to catch lice from a bird and to kill one shark with a pair of pliers.
When they thought things could not possible get worse, things did. There were now only two survivors of the plane crash, and both became Japanese prisoners of war. From the moment of capture, “Unbroken” devotes itself to the terrible humiliations heaped upon such prisoners, from being punched in the face repeatedly to having to clean a pigsty by hand. In ways that underscore the cinematic potential of this story, and would actually seem less theatrical on the screen than they do here, our hero has many ugly encounters with the frothing, drooling, sexually sadistic Japanese officer who has singled him out for special torment. “Six hundred prisoner,” this man would say years later, in an interview with CBS News. “Zamperini No. 1.”
In “Unbroken” Mr. Zamperini is No. 1 on any occasion, in any contest, facing any ordeal. Ms. Hillenbrand writes about him so hagiographically that he can come out ahead even when not quite making seventh place in a 5,000-meter race, because she chooses to emphasize the extreme speed of his final lap.
So “Unbroken” is a celebration of gargantuan fortitude, that of both Ms. Hillenbrand (whose prose shatters any hint of her debilitating fatigue) and Mr. Zamperini’s. It manages to be as exultant as “Seabiscuit” as it tells a much more harrowing, less heart-warming story.