Due to my busy schedule these days, I have less time for reading than I would like. As a result, much of my literary intake is coming in the form of audiobooks, which I listen to while I am driving. My latest audiobook listen was “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. You may have heard of the story from the recent motion picture, which came out in the U. S. in December 2014, incidentally, just a few months after the real man whom the story is about died, in July of 2014 at the age of 97.
The story chronicles the war time experiences of Louis Zampirini, a B-24 bombardier who crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a search mission. Beginning with Louis’ troubled, delinquent childhood, and following him through his running days and his moment of glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hillenbrand deftly paints the character of a willful, defiant but ultimately good-natured young man, with unknown reserves of fortitude and resolve which had yet to be tapped into.
With the onset of WWII Louis joined the Army Air Corps, and trained as a bombardier, in which role he served with distinction until his plane went down during a search mission. After miraculously escaping form the wreckage of the mangled aircraft, Louis and his friend, the pilot Phil, along with the tail gunner Mac, pulled themselves onto a raft. In the 45 days that they spent on the raft, Mac died, while Louis and Phil drifted into Japanese occupied territory where they were eventually captured. They would spend the remainder of the war in Japanese prison camps, subject to the most inhumane and nearly lethal torture, subjugation and degradation.
I was surprised when the end of the war and Louis’ release from the POW camps occurred with two hours of narrative remaining on the recording. From what I had seen of the movie (previews only, I didn’t watch the whole thing) I thought the story was about his wartime experience, and expected it to end with his rescue.
I was wrong. The real story was just beginning.
It is not too much of a stretch to say that everything prior to his release was simply a prologue, the necessary foundation for the real story of Louis Zampirini. While his POW experience was the focus of the movie, it was the repercussions of that experience that truly made the man.
After returning to the States, Louis’s life was a struggle. PTSD coupled with the stress of fame and being forced to relive his experiences over and over again on speaking tours, led to alcoholism, a hasty marriage, financial troubles, marital troubles, and a rapid downward spiral of resentment, anger and bitterness. What follows is a truly amazing example of God’s grace, powerfully, undeniably at work. This is so powerful that it remains inescapably evident despite the author’s carefully agnostic approach.
Throughout the book, Hillenbrand writes with a remarkable combination of sardonically restrained narrative, bald, harsh exposition of the cruelty of the POW camps in the Pacific theater, poetically beautiful descriptions and exhaustive and meticulous research. Well worth anyone’s time to read, this is one of my favorite biographies to date.
At the age of 82 Louis Zampirin ran the Olympic Torch past one of the former POW camps that he had stayed in.