Most people have probably never heard of Louis Zamperini. But, prior to World War II, he was known across the country as the Olympic runner who was on pace to break the four-minute mile (an achievement at one time thought to be impossible to beat). As with many other Americans at the time, Louis volunteered to join the Army Air Forces after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. His story is not like most World War II veterans. Laura Hillenbrand describes Louie’s phenomenal story in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
Briefly, the book follows Louie from his childhood (full all kinds of mischief) through his high school and college years as a track star. It then chronicles his exploits in the Army Air Forces to the day his B-24 bomber crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Forty-seven days later, he and the plane’s pilot (Russell Allen Phillips) were captured by the Japanese. He then endured years of torture and slavery. After the war, he tried to put his life back in order despite the experiences from the war that haunted him.
Anyone who has read Seabiscuit knows that Hillenbrand is an excellent storyteller. She does not disappoint with her latest work. Her writing style keeps you enthralled with Louie’s life. Hillenbrand captures the emotions (high and low) that roll with Louie’s fortunes in life. For example, tears come to your eyes when reading about Louie’s mom’s reaction on hearing that he went missing.
The trials and tribulations of Louie’s life are sometimes his own making. For example, following the war, he quickly got married, but his marriage began to tank because he had not addressed his inner demons from his POW days (understandably, because his experiences were beyond comprehension). He was haunted by the “Bird,” a particularly sadistic guard who enjoyed torturing Louie. Rather than talking about his troubles, he turned to the bottle. His drinking caused much stress on his wife to the point she almost left him.
I have read some criticism of the book that it is too full of anecdotes and too glowing of Louie. I would disagree – there are some anecdotes, but those are used so that the reader fully understands Louie. I think that the glowing praise of Louise is not accurate. Hillenbrand criticizes his behavior in his youth and his behavior toward his wife (plus, it is a little hard to criticize a person’s actions when they are trying to stay alive in an ocean and a POW camp). In addition, she gives credit to others when it is due. She points out several instances when Phil (the pilot of Louie’s B-24 that crashed) saved their lives in the Pacific.
Hillenbrand backs up her great storytelling with solid research. She spent seven years researching the book. Her research included hundreds of hours of interviews and pages and pages of correspondence with Louie. In addition, she also interviewed other POWs and Army Air Forces veterans.
There has been much praise written about this book – believe all of it.