January 28, 2023

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken

Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book, Unbroken, is the kind of story that should be read on the 4th of July as fireworks are going off. The story is about Louis Zamperini, a track star from Torrance, California who ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then became a lieutenant in the Army Air Force. His bomber was shot down over the Pacific. At that point, the 5,000 meter Olympic runner was forced to become an endurance contestant. The finish line drifted with his life raft for two thousand miles amid hundreds of hungry sharks, a harsh and unrelenting sun, starvation, dehydration, and typhoon. When he and his last surviving crewman couldn’t take anymore, the worst of all befell them as Japanese prisoners of war.

Laura Hillenbrand fills every page with stunning detail, making Unbroken a great followup to her first book Seabiscuit. Zamperini has the lead role in Unbroken but when Hillenbrand takes the focus off him and writes of the other American soldiers, her story doesn’t waver in the slightest. Her tale also doesn’t end with the end of the war. I am writing this as loud fireworks sound in the streets. Kids are screaming. Hillenbrand writes poignantly of the post traumatic stress of the Pacific POW’s and Zamperini’s struggles, including a description of a dinner reunion of Zamperini and his POW pals that has a normal festive air until the waiter serves a plate of white rice. Sounds such as 4th of July fireworks going off would have sent many of these former POW’s into a post traumatic hell zone.

As Hillenbrand researched and wrote Seabiscuit, she learned of Zamperini’s story. She writes eloquently of the ordeal suffered by the Pacific POW’s. “For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history.” The media put Zamperini on a celebratory pedestal while he fought his post war demons in private, even at one point almost strangling his wife in bed because he dreamed she was the Bird, his demented tormentor in the prison camp. While the media put the spotlight on the Olympic runner, his comrade on the life boat drifted away from the media glare. There were two crew members surviving the harrowing ordeal. The pilot returned to Indiana and led a quiet life as a school teacher, his heroics all but neglected until his death in old age. Another POW in the same camp as Zamperini survived an insane amount of brutality and then kissed his family goodbye and fought and disappeared in the Korean War. Hillenbrand puts Zamperini in context of the incredible suffering inflicted on all the Pacific POW’s.

“Life was cheap” was how one of the pilots described the war. Reading Unbroken is probably a surreal experience for many who have little sense of history and identify Japan with smart phones and cars. Unbroken demonstrates the importance of learning history. A friend who had two tours in Vietnam talked of the painful adjustments back to civilian life for combat soldiers that continues today. Few if any historians, journalists, or sports writers could name the most decorated Vietnam veteran, also a star athlete who had been recruited to play quarterback at Michigan. After earning two Silver Stars, seven Purple Hearts, a Bronze star, Randy McConnell thought he could do what Rocky Bleier did with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But like Zamperini, he also suffered from flashbacks, trading in dreams of the NFL for the water department in Flint, Michigan. In Unbroken, Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s athleticism late in life, still on the skis into his nineties. I have a neighbor who was in the middle of Halsey’s Typhoon in World War Two. He was on the ski patrol into his late eighties and still on the golf course into his nineties.

The 4th of July, as with Unbroken, is a story of survival, resilience, and redemption. Hang the flag in honor. These heroes could be your next door neighbor.


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