Book Review: Unbroken

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Ever since Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, became a movie in 2014, I’ve wanted to read it (then see the movie!). I recently found a copy on the shelf at my local library, but was almost deterred by its size. I don’t often read 400-page books, and was afraid it would take me a month to finish. I checked it out anyway, then went home and read it cover-to-cover in three days. I could not put this book down! Even though I knew how the story would end, I was in total suspense, reading frantically, and constantly wondering, “What’s going to happen next?”

Unbroken is the story of a young Olympic runner, Louie Zamparini, who is drafted into the Army Air Corps during World War II. The book tells several astonishing tales beginning with Louie’s outlandish childhood and unexpected path to the Olympics. When the war begins, Louie becomes a successful bombardier on a B-24 bomber, but while flying a search and rescue mission, his plane goes down and he is stranded on a life raft with two other men from the crew. Spoiler alert! Incredibly, he survives 47 days adrift on the Pacific Ocean before washing up on an island controlled by the Japanese. The remainder of the book details his two years of captivity in Japanese POW camps and his struggle to find his way in life after returning home to California.

Whenever I hear stories of Americans at war, I’m amazed by the extraordinary courage and ingenuity of these ordinary young men and women. Twenty-six-year-old Louie was stranded in the ocean for over a month with limited drinking water and no food. He and his comrades drank rainwater and ate birds and fish. Sure, people catch, kill, and eat birds and fish all the time, but he did it with only his hands, a few fish hooks, and a small amount of fishing line. Having no way to cook the meat, they ate it raw. At one point, a Japanese plane flew overhead, spotting them and firing countless bullets at them. Miraculously, no one was hit, but one life raft was destroyed and the other was perforated and deflating rapidly. The men used a patching kit to repair the raft while afloat on a choppy sea filled with hungry sharks. They used two oars and their fists to fight off sharks on several occasions. They even turned the “useless” raft into containers that would collect and hold rain water for drinking on sunny days. Their ordeal at sea finally came to an end when they drifted onto an island, but then they faced a new problem. The island was occupied by the Japanese. Louie and his friend, Phil, were quickly captured.

Louie is held in horrific POW camps for about 15 chapters of this book. As awful as it was to read about his experience, I plowed through these chapters in one day. My husband was working late that day. When he came home late in the evening, I was engrossed in the book, explaining that I had to keep reading until Louie was rescued. I could not close the book and leave him suffering in that terrible place! I felt as though I had to read him out of the prison camp! I didn’t go to bed that night until American bombers began dropping supplies to the POW’s, announcing that the war was over, and the Allies were victorious.

When I read books about the Pacific theater of World War II, I am struck by the cruelty of the Japanese military. I’m certainly not suggesting that Japanese Americans deserved any of the discrimination or retribution they endured, but reading these books has given me a better understanding of the feelings some older Americans harbored for the Japanese in the 20th century. Hillenbrand writes, “For many men, seeing an Asian person or overhearing a snippet of Japanese left them shaking, weeping, enraged, or lost in flashbacks.” Hillenbrand reports that Japan held 34,648 American prisoners. More than 37% of them died. In contrast, only 1% of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Forgiveness doesn’t come easy when you or your friends have endured the atrocities of war at the hands of men who don’t seem to value life – even their own. We’ve all heard of the infamous kamikaze pilots who would fly their planes into American ships, sacrificing their own lives in order to inflict great pain and destruction on their enemy.

I feel great compassion for the Japanese people living at the time of World War II. Their military members were trained to believe that being captured was dishonorable, but dying would bring great honor to their families. Some Japanese soldiers would commit suicide before they would allow themselves to be captured by Allied forces. Many Japanese guards were ordered to treat prisoners of war inhumanely. Japanese guards who showed mercy and kindness to their prisoners did so at great peril to themselves. Hillenbrand also gives us a glimpse of the suffering of Japanese civilians. She relays stories of cities leveled, villages abandoned, and liberated American POWs sharing their air-dropped food with hungry Japanese civilians.

When Louie Zamparini returned to California, he enjoyed a hero’s welcome, married a beauty named Cynthia, and became a father. But sadly, he was haunted by a particular POW guard known by prisoners as “the Bird.” Louie experienced nightmares, flashbacks, and an insatiable desire to return to Japan and kill the Bird. Alcohol was Louie’s only escape, and it was ruining his marriage. Cynthia wanted a divorce, but in October 1949, a little-known preacher came to Los Angeles, and Cynthia went to hear him speak. After hearing his message, she told Louie she wanted to stay, and she insisted he go to hear this preacher, Rev. Billy Graham. Louie was reluctant, but he went, and as he listened to Rev. Graham, he remembered a day of floating on the Pacific, near the equator, where the wind and waves ceased, and the vast sky and glassy water became a peaceful and somehow comforting sight. Even though he was starving to death, Louie felt grateful to witness the awesome beauty of nature. Hillenbrand writes, “Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil.”

Louie also remembered a promise he made to God while drifting on the ocean: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” Louie responded to Rev. Graham’s message by going home and dumping all of his alcohol down the drain. His nightmares and flashbacks stopped. He began living for God, telling his story to inspire others, and opening the Victory Boys Camp, where he mentored troubled youth. Ultimately, he forgave his captors, traveling to a Japanese prison for war criminals to tell them in person. He even forgave the Bird, although they never again stood face-to-face. (The Bird avoided prison by hiding from authorities until Japanese war criminals were given amnesty.)

What an amazing story of an unlikely hero who triumphed against all odds! Laura Hillenbrand does an exceptional job of bringing him to life and telling his incredible story. Now it’s time for me to see the movie!

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