I’ve read quite a bit about World War II, but had not heard the story of Louis Zamperini until Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken hit the shelves in 2010. Louie, as he was known to his family and friends, was a record breaking runner, an Olympic athlete turned B-24 Liberator bombardier.
The book follows Louie through his turbulent childhood, as he gets in all sorts of trouble because he’s not a rule follower. It details his brother’s successful attempt to get him to settle down with running, giving Louie something to focus his energy and frustration. He ends up being such a good runner that he qualifies for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, at an age where runners have not yet reached their peak.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
And then along comes the War. Louie enlists and is sent to train as a bombardier as a part of a B-24 crew. He achieves glory as a part of a bombing raid over mainland Japan, the first since Doolittle’s Raiders bombed Japan in 1942. Despite the severe damage their plane suffered, they managed to make it back to base. However, one of the crew died, several were seriously injured, and their plane was too damaged to fly again.
After heading back to Hawaii, the remaining crew were assigned a new plane – a known lemon, and several unseasoned crewmates. On their very first flight in the new plane Green Hornet, a rescue mission, they crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Three men survived and were able to get into two rafts with very few provisions. There they drifted for 47 days, before Louie and his pilot were picked up by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in a series of brutal Japanese labor camps.
Any one of the hardships that Louie endured likely would have killed other men, or driven them insane. 47 days floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, trying to cobble together enough sustenance by fishing and collecting rainwater. Years in Japanese POW camps, forced to perform hard labor while facing starvation and disease. Frequent beatings and psychological torture…
The book showed the reader in vivid detail what it was like to live as a Japanese Prisoner of War. It makes it clear why so many veterans did not want to talk about their experience in the war. After Louie returned home, he struggled with PTSD and alcoholism – he credited a commitment to God for his climb back up from rock bottom. Although he had not been religious before the war, he made a promise to commit his life to God, if only He would deliver him safety from the raft.
This book is a difficult read – it is graphic, violent and raw. It will make you angry and rip your heart out. I cried more than once and at times audibly gasped. But it is necessary – to understand that war is not a decision to be taken lightly. To understand that when we ask people to give their lives for a cause, they have often done so even if they come home alive. To hopefully one day break the cycle of conflict. To one day get to “never again.”