I found Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at a library book sale. I was hesitant to buy it because I’d seen the movie preview of Unbroken and knew the book would be a disturbing one to read.
It’s based on the true story of an Olympic runner who was a prisoner-of-war (POW) in WW II and was brutally treated by the Japanese. Yet, I knew Laura Hillenbrand was a talented author. She also wrote about an underdog racehorse in Seabiscuit: An American Legend.
I was also interested in reading the book because I was raised on hearing stories about my mother’s beloved brother, the heroic Uncle Bart. He co-piloted a bomber in WW II and was shot during a bombing mission over Germany. The damaged plane made it to Holland before it was forced to land. Local people ran to the plane and helped all the uninjured men run to safety before the German soldiers arrived. The injured men were left because the Germans would give them medical treatment.
Uncle Bart was uninjured. For the remainder of the war in Europe, he was sheltered by the Dutch people, who moved him from house to house and hid him in places like Dutch ovens. When Germany surrendered and Holland was liberated, Bart returned to the USA. He was about to be sent to fight the Japanese, but the dropping of the atomic bomb and the following surrender of Japan saved him from this dangerous new tour of duty.
Unbroken is a truly amazing story of Louis Zamperini, a remarkable man who showed the true strength of the human spirit to survive adversity.
The story starts when Louis was a boy. He was a wild, free-spirited child who always got into trouble. His older brother Peter, a model student and wonderful person, took Louis under his wing and channeled his energy into running. Louis was a natural runner and won all kinds of races. He became the town hero and eventually made it to the Berlin Olympics at a young age. This was all the more remarkable because he didn’t have formal training—just a good set of legs and a strong will.
Louis was well on his way to running the four-minute mile when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Louis became an airman and flew many dangerous missions. On one flight, they barely made it back in a plane riddled with 594 bullet holes. (Warning some spoilers in the rest of the review.)
On May 27, 1943 Louis and his team were ordered on a rescue mission. The plane wasn’t airworthy, so it had problems during the flight and they crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean. Louis was trapped underwater in the blown-apart plane, entwined in wire and lost consciousness. Miraculously, he awoke free of the wire and swam to the surface. He saw two other men in the water who had survived the crash and two rafts floating away. He swam after the rafts, climbed into one of them and rowed back to the other men.
The three men faced an incredible journey of survival with barely any food, water or shelter from the sun, heat and cold temperatures. Sharks swarmed around the raft and at times leaped toward the men who beat them off with paddles. On one occasion, a Japanese plane shot at them and they had to hide in the ocean where they fought off sharks. On another night, a great white shark attacked the raft as the men slept, lifting it up into the air.
While at sea, Louis saw and heard a choir of people singing and regularly prayed to God to let him survive.
After 47 days at sea, Louis and Phil came in sight of land (the third man died at sea). Unfortunately, they were picked up by a Japanese boat before they reached shore. The next section of the book details Louis’ brutal experience as a POW. The man in charge of the Japanese POW camp targeted Louis with his wrath, making his life unbearable.
The Japanese thought they were a superior race and everyone else was less than human. They didn’t follow the rules about how to treat POWs. They killed 40,000 Chinese who surrendered to them. Thirty-seven percent of American POWs died in Japanese POW camps (compared to one percent who died in German POW camps). They were starved, beaten and made into slaves.
Toward the end of the war, Japan set the date of August 22,1945 to execute all POWs. However, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th caused Japan to surrender and the POWs were freed instead of being executed.
Louis’ story didn’t end there. When he returned home, he suffered post-traumatic stress and became an alcoholic. Eventually, he turned his life around and became a true servant of God.
The book was well researched and the author directly interviewed Louis Zamprini. Louis’ life was a hard one, but in the end he had the strength of character to move beyond the adversities he experienced.
Like Louis, we all go through challenges and hardships, as well as joys and successes. At each point in our journey we have the choice to move forward with courage and spiritual strength or be crushed by our experiences.
Have you had a challenging experience that you grew from? I’d love to hear it, if you’d like to share it.
Here is the movie trailer: