Book Review: Unbroken

Laura Hillenbrand
Random House, 2010

Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is the story of Louis Zamperini — an Olympic athlete, B-24 bombardier, POW, and Christian.

Zamperini is famous as the man who many believed “could have” beaten the 4-minute mile in the 1940s.  At 19, he qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, even getting to shake Hitler’s hand after a 7th place finish — in which he sprinted one of the fastest final laps ever and beat every American time by more than 12 seconds.

Zamperini would ultimately become a bombardier in World War II and participate in the bombing of occupied Wake Island.  He later crashed in a search mission near Hawaii; only 3 of the 11 onboard survived the impact.  He, his pilot, and the tail gunner drifted thousands of miles west in a rubber raft.   Zamperini and his pilot, Lt Russ Allen Phillips, washed up 2,000 miles away in the Marshall Islands after 47 days on the open ocean in a rubber raft, emaciated.

They were captured by the occupying Japanese.  What follows is Zamperini’s torturous survival over the next two years in Japanese POW camps, including a near-continuous relationship with a sadistic guard known as “the Bird.”  For those unfamiliar with the historical record on the treatment of prisoners by the Japanese in World War II — they considered the POWs without dignity for having been captured alive — the book contains horrifying detail.  As a historical record — and it does appear to be well-researched — the book is a sobering but gripping view into the motivations and men on both sides of the Japanese prisons.

Zamperini was ultimately repatriated after the war’s end.  He was haunted by the war and, along with an alcoholic addiction, fixated on a plan to return to Japan and kill “the Bird” in an attempt to regain his sanity.

In 1949, his wife virtually forced him to attend a Los Angeles event held by an almost unknown Billy Graham.  He would give his life to Christ there, giving up both his alcohol and his hatred for his former captors.

In 1950, he visited the prison in Japan where his former captors were held.  The Bird was not among them, thought to be dead.

It turns out the Bird, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, actually survived.  Though Zamperini wanted to see him again, Watanabe refused.  The Bird died in 2003.

Zamperini would leave Billy Graham’s Crusade a changed man; he went on to be a Christian speaker and run a camp for trouble youth.

If that seems like an abrupt end — it is.  As noted, Zamperini is as famously remembered for his conversion and forgiveness as he is for his athletics.  Yet the 380-page tome, not including the epilogue or notes, covers his life in great detail, from childhood on, reaching page 371 before it begins the Graham crusade.  It notes his conversion in some detail, and his life thereafter in almost none.  It’s as if his life, as far as popular culture was concerned, was defined by his story of survival and resilience, but not redemption, to quote the subtitle.

In a May 2011 Billy Graham Evangelical Association interview with Zamperini on the book’s release, Zamperini noted it was “Laura’s book,”

so all I could do was pray that she would somehow have the Gospel in it.

In that regard, the book lacks introspection, spiritual discussion, or even a reference to lessons Louis had learned in his life.  While the story is captivating, as it has been for the past 6 decades, when told so clinically, bereft of spiritual introspection even after the fact, it comes across as almost superficial.

Coincidentally, Zamperini had just finished the second version of his own memoir, Devil at my Heels, when Hillenbrand called up wanting to write his story.  His self-published version was re-issued not long after Unbroken was published.

Unbroken is an engaging read and imparts an important understanding of both history, war, and the people in it.  It was also on the Professional Reading List published by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Norton Schwartz.  It is Recommended, though for the full story you should also read Zamperini’s autobiography.  If you only have time for one, read Devil at My Heels.

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