Like many people, when I go on long trips I take a book for the plane ride and other downtime. For a recent trip to Washington, DC, from my home in L.A., I took along Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by author/historian Laura Hillenbrand, who gained prominence for her book, Seabiscuit (made into a film in 2010). I’ll be posting soon about my trip to the nation’s capitol, but wanted to also mention this remarkable book—it was such a page-turner, I finished it well before the trip was over, meaning I had nothing to read during the five hour return flight home!
I first learned about the book through Vanity Fair, which ran an extensive excerpt late last year. The excerpt covered the extraordinary story of the 47 days a downed airman named Louise Zamperini spent adrift in the Pacific Ocean (along with two companions, one of whom died before the end of the ordeal) after their malfunctioning bomber went down while on a search mission. (The week before, they’d already been in a hellish bombing mission that nearly took their lives and killed and wounded half the crew.) It was a mesmerizing tale, so I was delighted to get the book for Christmas and to bring it along for my trip.
As the title suggests, Unbroken is the story of Zamperini's World War II experiences. In many ways, Zamperini led a charmed life—he was a wild and often angry child from a poor immigrant family in Torrance, California, whose behaviors seemed to suggest he would come to no good end until he found a way to focus his energy as a track star. Indeed, his high school record for the mile held for nearly 20 years, and he crossed the Atlantic as part of the 1936 U.S. Olympics team, which included Jesse Owens (Owens tried to keep an eye on Zamperini who, in return, played a small practical joke on the track and field star). Though he knew he had little chance of beating the world class Finnish runners who dominated his event, he acquitted himself well, surprisingly making the best showing among the Americans in his event. He even was introduced to Adolf Hitler at the games, who had noticed and remarked on his strong performance. (Zamperini’s hell-raising past never entirely left him—while in Berlin, he stole a Nazi flag flying over the German Chancellory as a souvenir, successfully talking himself out of getting shot and arrested by the authorities. They let him keep the flag.)
Although Zamperini set his sights on medaling at the 1940 Olympics which were scheduled for Tokyo, the outbreak of World War II cancelled the games and led to his enlistment in the Army Air Force, where he served in the Pacific. As brutal as his weeks at sea was (he and his companions drifted 2,000 miles into enemy territory, battling sharks and, at one point, a Japanese bomber that strafed them at sea), that experience turned out to be nothing compared to his next two years plus in captivity as a prisoner of war in Japan to where he was eventually expatriated. Partly because of his minor celebrity as a track star, Zamperini was singled out for especially vicious punishment by a guard nickamed by prisoners as the Bird, who was perverse and brutal even by the standards of Japanese POW camps, which already were notorious for their mistreatment of POWs. (Immediately following the cessation of the war, the Bird’s reputation earned him a spot as one of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan alongside prime minister and army minister Hideki Tojo.)
The book describes in vivid detail Zamperini’s experiences at the mercy of his Japanese captors, as well as the appalling conditions under which he and his fellow prisoners survived. The story tracks to a lesser extent the experiences of other prisoners, including Zamperini’s friend and lead bomber pilot who was shot down with him, Russell Phillips. (Phillips ended up at at a slave labor camp, also in Japan.)
In addition to serving as another example of the courage and sacrifice of what has been deservedly called “the greatest generation,” the book underscores the incredible amount of adversity and hardship the human body is capable of enduring, as long as the spirit and mind stay intact (sometimes even beyond). While it would be inaccurate to say that Zamperini and his fellow prisoners never gave up hope, the will to live and survive at any cost was nevertheless an essential part of their character.
The last part of the book covers Zamperini’s last years, particularly right after the war. As one can imagine, after years of privation and abuse, adjustment to “normal” life did not come easily. Even in captivity, he and the other prisoners recognized that their captors’ goal was to completely dehumanize them and take away their dignity, which the prisoners fought—often surreptiously—to maintain as much as possible, since it was all they had left to them as men.
On top of the post-traumatic stress he no doubt suffered which manifested itself through blackouts, flashbacks and nightmares, Zamperini sunk into serious self-destructive behavior that included drinking heavily and very nearly sabotaging what otherwise seemed like a loving relationship with a new young wife and, soon, a new baby. After some time, his belief that returning to Japan and murdering those responsible for his suffering during the war became his only hope for recovery.
Eventually, Zamperini found peace and even achieved closure with many of his former captors, through a spiritual awakening that harkened back to brief visions he experienced during his incredible ordeal at sea and in captivity. After some resistance, his awakening began with a revival meeting in Los Angeles led by a very young and emerging Rev. Billy Graham.
I am not particularly pious and, frankly, I’m usually suspicious of those who wear their faith on their sleeve. But given his incredible experiences, one cannot doubt that Zamperini’s path to discovering his faith was genuinely achieved. Indeed, his story in some way affirms the power of faith and belief. Once he embraced God, he turned his life around and the nightmares and other symptoms immediately stopped. He devoted his life to good work, God, and inspiring others, particularly troubled youth. He met with his former guards in Japan to offer his understanding and in 1998, at the age of 81, he carried the Olympic torch on a leg of the run in Japan for the Winter Olympics.