Unbroken is one of those books that leaves you shaking your head at the atrocities that men have committed against men and women in war. There are moments in this book when I thought, how unlucky can this guy be, to go from one sadistic camp officer to another who is worse. The fact that any of the men interred in the prison camps described in this book is a testament to human resilience. The book is aptly subtitled.
Unbroken is the life story of Louie Zamperini, from childhood to quite old man. Growing up in Torrance, California, Louie got himself into all sorts of trouble. Fortunately he could run fast to escape punishment. With the encouragement of his older brother he became a competitive runner in high school. His specialty was the mile, but at 19, he qualified for the 1936 US Olympic team in the 5000 meter race. He came in 7th in the 5000 in Berlin. Afterwards he set his sites on the 1500 meter race in the 1940 Olympics. In the late 30s he ran the mile in 4 minutes 12 seconds and hoped to break 4 minutes.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Zamperini’s Olympic hopes were put on hold. He joined the Army, became a bombardier and shipped out to Hawaii. He was assigned to a B-24 plane which went down in the Pacific. Louie and two others survived the crash and made it to the life rafts. They drifted 1800 miles for 47 days, harassed by sharks, strafed by a Japanese plane and nearly died of thirst and hunger. Their reward was to be captured by the Japanese when they reached the Marshall Islands.
Hillenbrand is incredibly thorough in her research (acknowledgements and end notes are plentiful. The number of planes that were lost in the Pacific was phenomenally high, many of them not in combat when they went down. Also, the life rafts were woeful at best, with no provisions other than a few candy bars.
Zamperini was interred in three different POW camps, each one worse than the last. The Japanese did not observe the Geneva Convention and prisoners were starved, beaten and often killed. The camps were infested with lice and rats. Illnesses such as beriberi and dysentery were common. The rate of survival was abysmal. At one camp Zamperini became the object of a camp officer’s sadistic obsession. He regularly beat him, often to unconsciousness. Zamperini survived all of this.
After the war Zamperini returns to California, marries and spirals downward with what appears to be PTSD (they didn’t diagnose PTSD at the time). He turns to alcohol and his life is out of control. With his wife’s help, he does recover, overcomes his fears and his hatred of his captors and lives into his 90s.
Hillenbrand covers several of Louie’s peers and statistics about POWs in the Pacific. She also provides a glimpse of Japan at the end of the war and what was happening to the civilians as their government refused to surrender. This book is another affirmation that war is hell, and that a very few are able to survive the worst war has to offer.