Saturday, January 08, 2011

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Just finished reading the excellent "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption".

Witten by "Seabiscuit" author, Laura Hillenbrand, the book chronicles the life of Olympic athlete and WWII veteran Louis Zamperini. I learned of the book from this Time review and then came across an SI interview with Hillenbrand... which is interesting in it's own right as her struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is covered.

However, someone with no familiarity with Zamperini and designs to read the book might want to go ahead and do so prior to reading either either piece linked above (or the below story details) to maintain suspense around the events of his life...


Hillenbrand begins with Zamperini as a youth in Torrence, CA in the 20s and 30s. From early years, his life fit the redemption story from the book's title as he went from wayward teenager to champion runner before turning 20.

Zamperini then went from Olympic athlete to solider and found himself as part of a bomber crew based in WWII Hawaii. What struck me as remarkable from this early period of his military service was the danger involved. Completely apart from the risk posed by Japanese forces was the general risk involved in being a U.S. Airman in WWII. Between planes breaking down and minimal emergency supplies onboard, people were dying at an alarming rate in crashes not involving the enemy.

The next step of Zamperini's tale found him a victim of one of these airplane malfunctions and he and two other Servicemen floating in the Pacific. An incredibly taxing time that seemed amazing anyone would survive... which he did. In the just his luck category, what little remained of Zamperini's raft after 40 some days floated into Japanese occupied territory and he became a Prisoner of War.

In addition to the frequently inhumane treatment of Allied POWs by the Japanese, what I found remarkable from Zamperini's latter time as a prisoner was the description how the Japanese viewed surrender. Even in the face of great bombing inflicted upon Japan by the U.S., they were prepared to keep fighting to the death. Reading this portion of Hillendbrand's book made me think of the idea (which I had heard before) that by twice dropping the atom bomb and devastating two cities, the U.S. probably saved untold numbers of Allied and Japanese lives.

After his release, Zamperini's tale continued with him dropping into alcoholism, but then ultimately redemption with an embrace of religion as proselytized by a young Billy Graham. From there, Hillenbrand wraps up the book fairly quickly, but the story of Zamperini definitely closes with him as someone at peace with this incredibly difficult period of a remarkable life story.