It begins at sea. Louie Zamperini is on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with two other men from his Army Air Forces division. They are in shark-infested waters controlled by the Japanese at the height of World War II. A plane flies overhead. Not an American plane to rescue them but a Japanese plane that shoots at them.
This dramatic yet realistically written prologue to Unbroken sets the tone. Laura Hillenbrand’s style will continue to be matter-of-fact throughout the story of Louie Zamperini’s life, full of gruesome and terrible details recounted unflinchingly. This deceptively simple linguistic choice allows the reader to immerse fully in the story and do all the flinching.
Louie Zamperini is a fighter right from childhood who is also generous. He stole food but shared it. Louie’s older brother Pete helped get him on the right track by coaching him in track. At first he was terrible but as he improved, Louis came to love the sound of cheers that followed a win. Louie threw himself into training and when the next season came around won every race he ran.
He set his eyes on the 1936 Olympics and earned himself a place on the team. The section about Hitler’s Olympics is an example of one of Hillenbrand’s strengths – she discerns relevant and important contextual information and provides it when necessary. While her research and story focus on Zamperini, she incorporates pertinent anecdotes from other contemporaries to fill in what Louie wouldn’t have seen. For example, after Louie leaves Germany, Hillenbrand provides a story about an American basketball player who is invited to stay with his German hosts. He sees Berlin changing now that the Olympics are over. The Star of David is hung in the window of a restaurant but his hosts say it will be harmful to them. One small story and Hillenbrand has set the stage for the coming war.
Once the war began, Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corp and washed out due to airsickness. He was drafted soon after and unfortunately sent back to the Air Corp to be a bombardier. Louie’s training and the subsequent move to a Hawaii air base are described in detail, as are the other men in his division. The meticulous research on all the people that mattered to Louie adds both richness to the story and suffering. These men will be returned to again and again throughout the book, no matter where their lives lead them.
Eventually, the scene from the prologue is reached. Louie’s plane is shot down over the Pacific and he survives along with two other crewmen. They have two small inflatable rafts and practically no rations. Eventually the third man will die, leaving Louie and his friend Phil, the pilot, on the rafts. With their extraordinary optimism, they kept each other going, telling stories about home, recounting as much as they could remember about any given topic. They caught fish when they could, rain water when possible, and hoped.
They were rescued – by the Japanese. Louie and Phil are in a series of POW camps and fight starvation, disease and torture by the Japanese. Hillenbrand takes time to explain the culture of Japan and how much honor means to them. It is better to kill yourself than be dishonorable. It is extremely honorable to die for your country, hence the suicide pilots. Which explains a lot about Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a corporal who would become Louie’s nemesis at the Omori POW camp. Watanabe thought he would rise higher in the ranks. He was bitter and jealous and disgraced and took his anger out on the POWs. He was Omori’s disciplinary officer and he took to it as if he was born to do it.
He homed in on Louie, an Olympian and proud man who stood up to authority figures. Watanabe was known to beat a man unconscious and then hold him afterward, apologizing, only to fly into a rage again. He made his fellow officers nervous. The POWs discussed how to kill him.
There are many stories of Japanese soldiers at the camps who showed kindness to the POWs. After the war is over and officers are being tried for their crimes, it is the stories by numerous POWs that would prove that certain Japanese officers helped as best they could.
The POW camps were labor camps with little Red Cross provisions ever making it to the men. Louie, along with the rest of the men, lost tremendous amounts of weight. It is truly amazing that any of them survived. They did find ways to survive, both physically and mentally. They stole food. They played pranks on the guards. They sabotaged materials and supplies they came in contact with during their labor, for example, peeing in crates of food to be shipped into Japan. The POWs stuck together to the end.
When the end came, in the form of two atomic bombs, the POWs are eventually rescued. Louie returns home a different man. He has nightmares about Watanabe. He drinks too much. He holds it together enough to cobble some work and even get married, but he is falling apart at the seams until his wife takes him to see a tent preacher, Billy Graham. Louie is able to forgive and his life changes in that moment.
There is so much more to Louie’s story, let alone the book. It is a masterpiece of research and writing. Hillenbrand has a knack for conjuring the personalities of Louie, his family and his fellow soldiers. She presents the war as it was with no propaganda. The view of the Japanese is balanced and at times sympathetic. Not everyone involved in war was a bad person. Probably most were not. They were simply pulled into their country’s decisions.
Louis is broken when he returns from war but finds a way to heal. I think this is the best anyone can hope to achieve from a bad situation, no matter the circumstance. Get through it, however you can. Keep a bit of yourself if possible. And learn to forgive. That’s the hardest part but the most necessary.