Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand has been one of my favorite World War II books thus far. It has it all: action, love, redemption, and forgiveness. It has the heroism of the unconquerable human soul.
Louis Zamperini does two things well: get in trouble and run like hell out of it. This running takes him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Before he can return in 1940 when he’s at the top of his game, war erupts in Europe, and his life changes course forever.
He joins the United States Army Air Corps in 1941 where he’s stationed in the Pacific Theater of the war. He’s a bomber with an eagle eyes, and he and his crew do a lot of damage to the Japanese. But a faulty plane changes everything.
Zamperini sits in a raft with a few other survivors of a plane crash, adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days before the Japanese capture them. Despite their suffering, things only get worse. The prisoner of war camp in which Zamperini is transferred is under the control of a sadistic man. Zamperini must find the will to survive not only his captor, but the memories as well.
There’s no way, short of reading the book, that will do it justice. There’s so much to say; this is only a small part.
Louis Zamperini is fully fleshed out, his strengths—and there are many—and his weaknesses. He has an uncanny ability to endure while maintaining a sense of humor. Even though he’s eventually freed, the war doesn’t release its grasp so easily. He finds that he needs to draw on that strength of character, that will, to survive something completely different.
Mutsuhiro Watanabe, “The Bird,” is the sadistic guard that makes his life miserable. He’s tormented by Zamperini’s running ability and strength of will. In one momentous event, Zamperini outlasts The Bird, refusing to give in to torture, and that breaks him. Despite the fact that Mutsuhiro Watanabe was a highly-wanted war criminal, he’s eventually pardoned in the 1950s (thanks to the U.S. pardoning the bulk of the Japanese war criminals in order to gain an ally in the Pacific during the start of the Cold War).
While the bulk of the story in the movie takes place in the prison camp, the book is pretty evenly divided between—spoiler alert!—Zamperini’s early life, running career, time as a bomber, drifting on the ocean, in the prison camp, recovering from being a POW, struggle to cope with his nightmares, and his discovery of Christianity and ability to forgive.
What the movie doesn’t get into, and what I wish it had, is what happened to Zamperini after he was rescued. You just don’t go through nearly three years as a prisoner of war under some of the most inhumane conditions on Earth without coming back with some demons. Zamperini’s demons were almost all named The Bird. He coped with alcohol, and it nearly destroyed his marriage. Only the superhuman effort of his wife, the healing power of Christ, and the ability to forgive all his tormentors, saved him in the end. One of the saddest things is that the torture he sustained destroyed his ability at Olympic-level running. But he ran in the Olympics again. It was the Olympic Torch relay. In Japan. In 1998.
The writing was both beautiful and haunting. How could it not be when dealing with the human soul in all its awesome fierceness? It told of human dignity:
“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”
“When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him.”
“At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.”
I believe in the human spirit. I believe that we are more than we seen, that we have divine potential that’s beyond anything we can imagine. Books such as this one illuminates what I already know: the human will can do anything; love can heal all.
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