“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010). $27.00, 496 pages.

If Louie Zamperini didn’t exist, Hollywood would have to invent him.

The son of Italian immigrants, Louie grew up in Torrance, California, coming of age during the Great Depression. His youth was misspent until his older brother, Pete—trying to keep him out of trouble—convinced him to take up running. Louie was fast.

In high school, Louie won all sorts of awards for running, setting record times at his school, in his state, and in the nation. He qualified to run the 5000 meter race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Although he finished eighth—the top American in the race—his final lap was so fast (56 seconds) that Adolf Hitler asked to shake his hand.

He continued to set records during his time at the University of Southern California. Friends believed that—had the war not come—he might have been the first person to run a four-minute mile.

But the war came.

Louie enlisted in the Army Air Force as a second lieutenant and became a B-24 bombardier in the Pacific theater. On May 27, 1943, his plane went down in the Pacific, with only three crew members surviving.  They floated in a life raft for 47 days until they were captured by the Japanese. (One crew member died before capture.) The Japanese held them as prisoners of war until the end of the war in a variety of prison camps, where they suffered deprivation and torture.

At the Omori prison camp, where Louie was held the longest, he was singled out for vicious and repeated abuse by a guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe. When the Allies defeated Japan, Watanabe was seventh on a list of war criminals wanted for prosecution because of his abuse of Louie and other prisoners. (Admiral Tojo was first.)

Louie’s re-entry into America went smoothly at first. America considered him a hero, and he was often asked to address public gatherings. He met and married his wife, Cynthia. They had children together. But Watanabe haunted his dreams. Louie turned to alcohol to help him survive his nightmares of abuse.

In late 1949, Billy Graham began his famed evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles. Their marriage nearly in ruins, Cynthia dragged a resistant Louie to the meetings. She gave her heart to Jesus. One night, Louie did too. And the nightmares ceased.

After that, Louie began to speak of forgiveness. He traveled to Japan and forgave the Omori guards for what they did to him. He wrote a letter to Watanabe too, but Watanabe refused to meet him.

In his post-war life, Louie dedicated himself to helping at-risk boys find productive, fulfilling lives, and volunteering with seniors at his church.

I’ve sketched the outline of Louie’s life in this review, but make sure to read Laura Hillenbrand’s biography, Unbroken. She’s the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Seabiscuit. Unbroken is a riveting tribute to a man whose spirit could not be broken. The book is being turned into a movie starring Nicolas Cage.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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