I unintentionally jumped from the Vietnam War (Matterhorn by Karl Melantes) right into World War II by listening to Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand. I had heard it was a great story without being aware of the subject matter. If I had known I may not have listened to it, but I am certainly glad I did.
The book chronicles the epic transformation of Louis Zamperini. His life story is so compelling that Ms. Hildebrand (Seabiscuit) decided it was worth telling. Louis is a young boy being raised in Torrance California. He spends much of his youth during the 1920′s stealing from people and getting into all kinds of trouble. For being so mischevious, his personality is bright. He is perennially upbeat. He lets no one discourage him; he does what he wants. His saintly and high-achieving older brother Pete saves Louis several times, but the last time he had to make a deal with the high school principal. Louis wouldn’t be punished if he ran on the school’s Track team. This turning point in Louis’ young life gave him a passion he didn’t know he had and he ultimately breaks the mile record all the way to the 1936 Olympics.
World War II breaks out in time to cancel the 1940 Olympics and Louis becomes an airman, flying for the US Army Air Corps, the precursor to the US Air Force. During an air fight, Louis’ plane goes down in the Pacific Ocean with two other men. The details of their 46 day survival are too impressive and creative to give any spoilers – it’s unbelievable but true. In fact it should be said that this entire story is true, which makes it that much more incredible.
After a dramatic water shooting scene, Louis is captured by the Japanese. We are filled with relief and joy when he’s captured because life in a POW camp has got to be better than life on sea. Not so in Japan. Throughout Louis’ two year stay in several Japanese POW camps, he is consistently beaten, starved and injected with unknown substances. The Geneva Convention had drawn up international laws for POWs which the Japanese chose to ignore. In fact many of their camps were hidden and unknown to anyone other than the Japanese military. The worst abuser of all is a man named Watanabe. He is noteworthy because he chooses Louis out of hundreds, to beat daily. It is as if he recognizes Louis’ strong spirit and takes it as a personal mission to squash it.
It is said that man can survive without a lot of food and water, however, if a man loses his dignity there is no hope. While being held captive, the prisoners find various ways to keep this dignity: they steal and share food, and communicate with fellow prisoners by addressing the Japanese guards, knowing the guards do not understand. The communication is for fellow prisoners. In one camp in which they aren’t allowed to speak at all, they communicate in Morse Code with their fists. In so many ways they learn how to trick the guards.
After the war when it seems everything should be going well, Louis and his friends continue to struggle through psychological turmoil. Although Louis marries and tries to live a conventional life, he has nightly flashbacks and dreams of Watanabe and the horror he inflicted. His wife works hard to be supportive, but even she starts to lose hope. One evening, Louis has an encounter that changes his life – and that’s all I’ll say. It is possible to Google Louis to learn the rest of the story, but I didn’t. I wanted to listen to it via Ms. Hildebrand.
Ms. Hildebrand brings us a shocking tear jerker – tears of sadness and horror and tears of joy. Louis Zamperini is an amazing man. He endured torture that none of us can imagine. Throughout it all, when he thought he couldn’t take another lashing, he found a way to keep his dignity and he lived on. Louis didn’t just survive the camps, after the war he eventually found a way to flourish and use his experiences to help others. He remained positive and upbeat. According to his brother Pete, everyone loved Louis. He truly was unbroken.
My respect for our troops and veterans that was renewed while listening to Matterhorn, only deepened after listening to this magnificent story. So many combat veterans have and survived by the skin of their teeth, ready to sacrifice it all for America. I am grateful to Ms. Hildebrand for bringing us this detailed chapter of World War II. I’m also thankful that she researched every character’s life after the war. So often after reading these stories I’m left with an emptiness of not knowing what happens. I’m happy to learn the rest of the stories in Unbroken.