Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

'Unbroken' by Laura Hillenbrand

‘Unbroken’ by Laura Hillenbrand

“…the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness, and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.” – Page 182

During WWII, only one in every 100 Americans captured in Europe died…nearly one in three perished while in Japanese captivity.

Unbroken

It is estimated that over 700 veterans of WWII die every day, and along with their passing, so does their story…lost forever to history. “Unbroken” is the remarkable tale of Louis Silvie Zamperini, a world-class runner who competed in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics and who later became a WWII B-24 Bombardier in the Pacific Theater.

In late May of 1943, Zamperini’s plane – the Green Hornet – goes down in the Pacific Ocean while (ironically) searching for a missing plane. He, along with his pilot and one other man, endure an over 7 week / 2000 mile ordeal (the longest in recorded history) lost at sea on a fragile raft with no water or food, as a frenzy of expectant sharks persistently encircled the fading men, rubbing their backs against the raft and occasionally lunging up onto it…only to later have Louie and his pilot (the 3rd man died) captured by the Japanese and to spend the next 2 years in multiple POW camps and subjected to a whole new set of tortures.

I will not write this review with the same detail as I did with, The Devil in the White City, as I do not wish to foreshadow certain events or detract too much from the inevitable reaction of the reader as they learn of Louie’s story for themselves…of which is one of the most incredible I have ever read.

Time and time again, I found myself uttering the phrase, “You have got to be kidding me” as I learned of the trials that Louie had to endure, while silently marveling at his ability to maintain hope and resilience in the face of his experience…and despite the best efforts of his captors.

The One-Boy Insurgency

Louis was born to Italian immigrants in January of 1917 and grew up in Torrence, California. A trouble-maker in his early years, Louie would get into fights, steal and would later run away from home, only to return shortly after. He was stubborn and rebellious, traits that would later serve him well as a POW.

When a friend gets into trouble with the law, Louie begins to straighten out and takes on running at the suggestion of his older brother Pete, who was a track-star in his own right at their school of Torrence High. Running comes very easily to Louie – although initially thought of as a chore – he begins to train and quickly eclipses his brother at the sport.

Within a short period of time, Louie is breaking city, state and national running records and eventually becomes touted throughout the country as the most likely man to break the elusive 4-minute mile. Surprisingly though, despite his accomplishments, he is still not considered a favorite in many races in which other well-known runners are competing. He is nicknamed the, “Torrence Tornado” by his supportive fans, attends USC as an up-and-coming track star and begins to set his sights on qualifying for the Berlin Summer Olympics, to be held in 1936.

While in Berlin, Louie has such an amazing “underdog” performance that it catches the attention of Goebbels and Hitler, who Louie briefly meets after the race. What’s remarkable about this passage and exchange in the book is how briefly it is discussed, the reason of which is because this is nowhere near the most interesting and remarkable thing to happen to Louie or his story.

Upon his return from Berlin, Louie immediately begins training for the recently announced 1940 Summer Olympics to be held in…Tokyo, Japan. During this period, he continues to inch closer and closer to breaking the 4-minute mile and is devastated when the games are cancelled due to the outbreak of WWII.

Louie Zamperini (left) and his brother Pete

Louie Zamperini (left) and his brother Pete

“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Louie joins the Army Air Corps, is stationed in Hawaii and eventually becomes a B-24 Bombardier, using the top-secret Norden Bombsight.

Louie and his crew fly multiple sorties in their plane affectionately called, “Superman”, including a bombing run over Wake Island and multiple search-and-rescue missions, as lost planes and accidental deaths (especially in B-24’s) due to plane malfunctions were common and unusually high in the Pacific. Many planes would crash after take-off, have engine malfunctions during training exercises and at one point would result in an average – non-combat related – death rate in the double, sometimes triple, figures on a daily basis.

In one well-documented bombing run over Nauru in April of 1943, “Superman” sustained: 4 cannon holes, 2 heavy anti-aircraft hits, 500 shrapnel hits / holes, 150 7.7-millimeter bullet holes and a destroyed right tail. Miraculously it was still able to carry its injured crew to safety and (barely) land…but “Superman” would never fly again.

Louis examines Superman's damage after the Nauru bombing

The Flying Coffin

The crew of, “Superman” were without a plane and settled in on Hawaii while waiting to be reassigned. Louie, still thinking of the Olympics when the war was over, resumed his training, running on the beach and consistently improving his time…he was in the best shape of his life.

In May of 1943, a B-24 and its crew disappeared. Louie, his pilot Phil and the new members of their crew (who replaced the injured crew members from the Nauru bombing) were “volunteered” to search for the missing aircraft. Without a plane, the men were assigned to a rickety B-24 – the “Green Hornet” – that was known for being “mushy” (difficult to fly), had mechanical issues and that had been stripped over time for parts and supplies. Hesitantly and with much reservation, the men boarded the “Green Hornet”.

Accompanied by another plane, “Green Hornet” began the search for the missing crew. But because of its odd habit of flying with the tail lower than the nose – and after about 200 miles out – the “Green Hornet” was slowing down the search. Green Hornet’s pilot, Phil, told the other plane to continue on…leaving Louie and his crew dragging behind.

Shortly after, due to a mechanical failure, the “Green Hornet” and its crew crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing everyone on-board with the exception of Louie, Phil and one other man, Mac Cunningham. With limited supplies and only two rafts (each being 6-ft long x 2-ft wide and intended to hold 1 man), Louie, Phil & Mac were lost at sea.

Plagued with Problems: The Green Hornet

Plagued with Problems: The Green Hornet

Adrift

What follows, is one of the most harrowing and compelling parts of the book. The three men are adrift at sea for 47 days, the longest in recorded history. Phil, the pilot, has a head injury and occupies one of the rafts. Mac Cunningham (who later dies on the raft), freaks out during the first few days and – while Louie & Phil sleep – eats all of the remaining ration of food (a bar of chocolate) that could be found in the raft’s supplies.

The men quickly run out of water – a small canteen stored in the raft – and have no food. The sun beats down upon them, they begin to drastically lose weight, develop salt sores and become so sun-beaten and dehydrated that their upper lips swell until it touches their nose and their bottom lip touches their chin. As if this wasn’t enough, the Pacific Ocean is teaming with sharks and within a short time the raft and the men are being constantly circled. The sharks swim so close to the raft that the men can see them just below the surface – close enough to touch them – and having to keep their limbs away from the side of the rafts for fear of being bitten and dragged overboard. On a daily basis, the sharks test the rafts by rubbing their backs along the bottom and, in a few particularly harrowing accounts, attempt to jump into the rafts to capsize them. The men have to use oars to beat them back.

To survive, the men eat raw fish and birds that they are able (and lucky enough) to catch. The men are so weakened, that an occasional bird (an albatross) would actually land on one of them, providing them with an occasional meal to keep them alive…eating the bird raw. They drank the bird’s blood in lieu of available water. Occasionally a storm would pass, raining down precious water upon them that they try to capture in the canteen…buying them a few more days of survival.

Occasionally they would hear or see a plane and try to signal it with the raft’s flare gun. These attempts are to no avail, save for one instance in which a plane sees the flare and turns towards the men. As the plane passes, it serves only to reveal that it is in fact a Japanese bomber who begins to strafe the men with its door gunners.

The bomber makes multiple passes in an attempt to shoot the men, who have to jump overboard – and into the circling sharks below – to avoid being hit. At first all three men jump overboard, but in their weakened state it is only Louie with the remaining strength to jump into the water, pull himself back into the raft and jump back into the water as the bomber makes yet another pass…all the while literally having to kick and punch the sharks as they lunge at him each time he re-enters the water!

After about 6-8 strafing passes, the bomber drops a depth charge into the water near the men and the rafts. But it doesn’t explode. It appears that they forgot to arm it. Finally, the bomber flies away.

At the end of this ordeal, miraculously none of the men are hit, yet the rafts are riddled with bullet holes. One of the rafts is damaged beyond repair and all three men are now piled into one 6×2 foot raft intended to hold one man. What follows is a few days in which the three men have to constantly alternate between bailing water out of their sagging raft to avoid sinking into the awaiting sharks, while Louie attempts to patch the bullet holes with a repair kit found in the raft and the other man keeps the lunging sharks at bay with an oar. Jesus!

Being adrift at sea for a such long time commonly results in insanity and in some cases, cannibalism. To keep their wits about them and their minds sharp, the men engaged in games, telling highly detailed stories, singing songs and recounting every moment of their lives repeatedly to the point that the other men know if you left out a detail – of your own story – that you mentioned previously. To keep hope (to which Mac deteriorated / lost faster than Phil and Louie), the men even “celebrated” surpassing the previous record held for being lost at sea (34 days).

As the men approached 47 days at sea, they were fading fast and even calculated how far they had traveled (with the prevailing currents) to be over 2000 miles, bringing them deeply behind enemy lines and likely – should they ever see land – that it would be Japanese held territory. During this time, Mac dies, finally succumbing to the despair and lack of food and water. Their raft, literally melting from the sun and perpetually bleeding yellow dye into the ocean and the men’s skin, was also deteriorating fast.

WWII bomber life raft similar to the one all 3 men had to occupy

WWII bomber life raft similar to the one all 3 men had to occupy

Captured

While at sea, a major typhoon hits and Louie and Phil are finally able to see hints of land in the distance as they rise atop the crest of massive waves caused by the storm. However, before they are able to reach land, they are spotted by a passing Zero and captured aboard a Japanese war ship and taken to a (non-POW) camp. Initially they are treated well, their Japanese captors are awed by the story of their survival, feed them, doctors attend to them and they are afforded rest. This decent and humane treatment does not last, however.

Shortly upon their arrival the men are told that they are being transferred to a POW camp. The same officers who were enthralled by their story, also warn them that – upon their departure – they can no longer guarantee their survival.

What follows for the next 2 years is the main crux of, “Unbroken” and Louie’s story of resilience and survival, as the men are transferred to multiple POW camps in the Pacific and eventually to mainland, Japan. Initially Phil and Louie are transferred together, but after the first couple of camps the men are separated and do not know what has become of the other and whether or not either man is still alive.

Zamperini had a special status: as a former Olympian, he was a valuable propaganda tool, too precious to kill. But his celebrity also made him very tempting to torture. Although most POW camps and their prisoners were registered with the Red Cross – and therefore word could be sent home of their survival and status as a POW – Louie was not afforded that luxury. Also, in a registered POW camp, treatment was (supposed to be) more humane as outlined in the Geneva Convention and prisoners were permitted to write home and fed a necessary diet. However, as we eventually learned after the war, the Japanese rarely sent POW letters home and instead read and destroyed them. They also systematically starved and beat POW’s and often stole much of the rations sent for the POWs for themselves.

In Louie’s case, all of the camps that he was transferred to were not registered with the Red Cross and, as he was often reminded by his captors, no one knew he was alive and therefore they could do anything they wanted to him…and did. In fact, Louie was declared dead by the U.S. War Department less than a year after the “Green Hornet” disappeared into the Pacific Ocean.

First in the Pacific and later in Japan, he was subjected to an unrelenting regime of assaults: humiliation, starvation, medical experiments, slave labor and disease. A succession of sadistic guards topped by a psychopathic sadist named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, (aka: “the Bird”), derived a special, almost orgiastic pleasure from beating him.

Mutsuhiro Watanabe - The Bird

“The Bird”, in particular, became the bane of Louie’s dwindling existence and would later haunt his post-war dreams. His treatment under, “The Bird” is best read and experienced by the reader themselves, as its incredulous nature is far beyond anything I could sufficiently put into words. For context though, his crimes and treatment of Louie and the other POWs is such that, after the war, he was listed as the Number 7 Most Wanted war criminal in Japan after their surrender…Number 1 was Tojo, the architect of Pearl Harbor.

I do not wish to reveal too many details about Louie’s experience in these camps, as they are the source of the most shocking parts of the book in which people should read for themselves. I also do not wish to overstate or understate the nature of Louie’s and the other POW’s treatment in these camps, but rather to state that it is during this time that readers will absolutely marvel at the human spirit’s capacity for hope and survival in the face of such horrendous and degrading trial and tribulation.

It should also be noted that, in Japan, those tasked with overseeing POW’s and assigned to the camps were considered “unfit” to serve in the Japanese military. This meant that POWs were subjected to men who’s own military viewed them as psychopaths, mentally disturbed and not capable of serving in the regular army.

Louie’s ability to withstand his 2 years in captivity – and subsequent treatment at the hands of the Japanese – is nothing short of remarkable. Later, Louie would declare that if he knew what awaited him after his capture, he would have rather died on the raft in the middle of the ocean.

Louis returns home after 2 years in captivity

Louis returns home after 2 years in captivity

Final Thoughts

As a tremendous WWII buff, the story of Louis Zamperini is one of the most incredible that I have ever read about a single soldier’s experience during WWII. I was shocked that I had never heard of the man before Hillenbrand’s well-written and well-researched book.

As I stated earlier in this review, we lose an average of 700 WWII vets a day…each with their own story and many of which I am saddened to say that we may never hear. I am so thankful that I was able to learn of Louie’s life and sacrifice for his country, as his story is so deserved of its telling and I would be surprised if a movie is not currently in the works.

If you are looking for a truly remarkable and inspiring story, I highly recommend that you pick up “Unbroken.” It is a book of the sort that is nearly impossible to put down and I can’t count how many times I exclaimed incredulously to my girlfriend, “Hun, you have got to hear this!” as I recounted story after story from the book that left me shaking my head with disbelief at Louie’s unflappable resilience.

It is one of the best stories that – until now – was never told.

– Dana

Note to Publishers & Authors: If you are interested in having a book reviewed, please contact me. I will only review books in which the subject matter personally interests me. I will also make all reasonable effort to post an honest review prior to the scheduled release date, therefore (when sending an advanced copy) please allot enough time for this prior to publication. Should I enjoy the book, I will also honor requests to interview the author on the podcast. Thank you!


Bipedal. Podcaster. Blogger. Geek. Browncoat. I Occasionally Pee Sitting Down. Dana is the host and owner of Stimulated Boredom.