Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” (Random House, 2010), a New York Times best-seller, tells the poignant true story of Louis Zamperini, a member of the U.S. Army Air Forces who survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943 and spent weeks adrift before being captured by Japanese soldiers, imprisoned and savagely beaten for 27 months. After his rescue, Zamperini returned to live in postwar America.
“Unbroken” is at times a very painful book to read. Descriptions of Zamperini’s many terrible ordeals, both at sea and in numerous prison camps, are so detailed that readers may have to set the book aside at times. His story prompts feelings of sadness and, at times, rage.
Despite its graphic subject matter, this is not a book to ignore. Hillenbrand has done a masterful job uncovering every aspect of Zamperini’s life, from his rambunctious childhood to his later triumphs.
Zamperini was a very active boy – Hillenbrand describes his childhood as “a one-boy insurgency.” After his brother Pete introduces him to running, Zamperini breaks records in high school and ultimately competes for the U.S. Olympic team in Berlin in 1936. When war breaks out, Zamperini volunteers for the Army Air Corps and is soon involved in bombing and rescue missions in B-24s over the Pacific.
After his capture and his remarkable resilience in prison camps, Zamperini’s true grit comes into play. His experiences in these camps, and the deplorable acts of cruelty by prison guards, must be read to be believed. After his liberation, Zamperini struggled, as did many other former prisoners, with alcoholism and low self-esteem. Zamperini found redemption in God and was able to let go of his hatred and anger and live a happy, fulfilled life, working as an inspirational speaker and establishing an outdoor camp for troubled youth.
Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller “Seabiscuit” (Random House, 2003), is a consummate researcher. She spent six years reading letters and interviewing people close to the story, including dozens of men whose lives intersected Zamperini’s who are also described in meticulous detail. She notes that during this period, Japan “brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. … Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four.”
After reading “Unbroken,” it may be easy to hate the Japanese guards. The book forces readers to question how they would behave if their lives and the lives of their families depended on how they treated the prisoners they guarded. More importantly, the book demands that readers confront what it is about human nature that provokes such brutal behavior.
Perhaps the answer comes from Zamperini’s worst tormentor: “War,” said Mutsuhiro Watanabe, “is a crime against humanity.” “Unbroken” describes those crimes – and their consequences – very well.
Leslie Ashmore, a longtime Mountain View resident, is an avid reader and member of two book clubs.