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Tuesday, January 27, 2015


For a horrifying but very real picture of human resistance and endurance in time of war, read Laura Hillenbrand's brilliantly written Unbroken.  This is non-fiction that reads as fiction. Make sure you have time because once you pick up this book, you will not want to put it down.

Hillenbrand is extremely careful to let us get to know our protagonist, Louis Zamperini, as a child, an often recalcitrant child, a dedicated Olympic athlete, a WWII bombardier and prisoner of war, and a returning GI. The author's meticulous depiction of Louis’ background, his dedication to become a runner in the 1936 Olympics and a skillful, trained Army Air Corps bombadier during WWII helps us to understand how he withstood the Japanese attitude toward prisoners of war and particularly toward him.  It also helps us to see how he was able to build a post-war life, something we hear about almost daily with our contemporary returning military.

In June, 1943, Zamperini and his surviving fellow fliers were adrift in an ocean teeming with sharks.  Their search mission for another plane abruptly ended when their own plane failed mechanically and crashed into the ocean.  Wrapped in the plane's wires as it sunk below the waves, Louis mysteriously managed to find himself on the surface of the water near a raft. At that time, life rafts were not sufficiently equipped to withstand the horrors of being adrift in the ocean for any length of time. The  survivors of the crash had just enough food to sustain the barest of life; they managed with just enough water to do the same, and then, after being strafed by a Japanese fighter, they were captured and became part of the Japanese prisoner-of-war system that left more dead prisoners by a significant margin than any other country in WWII.  The Japanese culture despised the idea of surrender or of being captured by the enemy, and their treatment of their captives reflected their disgust and lack of respect. In fact, as Japan saw its loss in the war an eventuality, it issued a Kill Order so that no prisoner-of-war would be left alive.  The atomic bombs assured that order was not carried out.

Japanese politician Nakajima Chikuhei said in 1940 “ is the sacred duty of the leading race [Japanese] to lead and enlighten the inferior ones.” The Japanese, he continued are the “sole superior race of the world.” Its military-run school system drilled children on this imperial destiny.” This is the true outlook of fascism.

Hillenbrand shows us how violence was an integral component of the Japanese military culture.  “The Japanese imperial army made violence a cultural imperative.”  Before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the horrific attack on Nanking, China was an example of the Japanese approach.  Needless to say, Japan’s prisoner of war camps were violent places that resulted in more deaths than in releases at the end of the war.

Throughout Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand leads her readers to understand not only the Japanese approach to its prisoners, always supporting her information with statistics, but also how Louis Zamperini had grown into a man who had a chance of surviving despite the odds.

When he returned from the war having resisted every attempt to break and kill him by sadistic Japanese, in particular one nicknamed "Bird," his spirit finally collapsed and he nearly ruined his life.  On the brink of destruction, he once again found something that would not only save him but also would guide him until his death at age 97 in July of 2014.  His “war” as a civilian can be seen by many as a tougher war than the physical one he experienced as a prisoner, and his redemption, perhaps, even more remarkable.

I absolutely do not want to give you any more specifics about what Louis endured nor do I want to delve too deeply into his “before” and “after” lives.  All of this man's life was a remarkable journey.

Why read this book if it is simply the biography of a splendid individual?  The answer is simple.  Louis has a a great deal to teach us about hope, dedication, endurance, and finding one's self time and again despite the pain.  His life is something we can all profit from understanding. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, took away something for her own life, wrote about Louis' influence on her, and shares that with us.  If you are familiar with Man's Search for Meaning, you will see the same kinds of ideas there.

I add too, now that the movie is out and so famous, that the movie ends at chapter 33 in the book.  The movie, which I admit I have not seen yet, cannot do justice without the “rest of the story.”  Read this book.

Unbroken is well-written, interesting, supported (you will seen her bibliography at the end), and will make you want to look at more of Hillenbrand's writing.  I've got Seabiscuit on my list.
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