This is a life-is-stranger-than-fiction book from the same author who wrote Seabiscuit. In this World War II era biography, Hillenbrand explores the life of Louis Zamperini. Once the trouble-maker of his neighborhood, in high school Zamperini focuses his talents on running, even making the Olympics for the 5000 meter race in 1936. His experience in Berlin was an adventure for the 19 year old, with memories of eating to excess, meeting people from around the world, and placing 8th in his race. But there were also signs of unrest that hid beneath the surface of the gaiety of the Olympics. As the games came to a close, signs of civil inequality between Jews and non-Jews became more prominent, and Zamperini caught small glimpses of a storm brewing in Germany that would spread throughout the world in the years to come.
After the games, Zamperini’s focus was on the 1940 Olympics, but they were never to be, having been canceled due to war. Zamperini joined the war effort soon after. Serving as a bombardier on bomber airplanes, Zamperini became an all too common statistic – one of the missing or war dead. Hillenbrand does a great job of explaining the difficulties and dangers of our military personnel in World War II, specifically dangers not directly related to combat. And Zamperini’s position as a bombardier was primed for disaster. Fatefully, in 1943, his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean.
Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s 43 days at sea as a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience. Sadly, it was probably the easiest part of his misadventures to come, enduring prison camp after prison camp at the hands of the Japanese. Reading about his experiences was difficult, at best, but eye-opening too. I didn’t realize how naive I was about Japan’s role in World War II. Sure, they were a part of the Axis Powers and devastatingly brought the U.S. into the war, but this book really gives you plentiful and specific examples of their treachery.
Zamperini makes it out of the war and, like many veterans and especially prisoners of war, continues to suffer. His post-traumatic stress, not as well understood (or even recognized) as it is today is a realistic reminder that although Zamperini eventually triumphs over his demons, his road to redemption is a long, slow one.
While some of the subject matter is hard to take in, Zamperini’s story is, in a word, amazing. Hillenbrand connects seemingly random topics like juvenile delinquency, the Olympics, World War II, POW camps, and survival at sea in a fascinating way through the life of this one man.
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