Not usually one for reading nonfiction books, especially in the genre of war- time literature, I was glad I took the plunge with Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (author of the popular book Seabiscuit, which has been made into a film). And this is probably the first time I've written this column about a book that my neighbors are indeed reading. I know this because it hit the top of The New York Times best-seller list last year. Actually, I picked up this book only because some friends strongly recommended it, and then it was on my book club reading list. Now it's my turn to pass along this must-read recommendation to you!
Unbroken is the wartime and post-wartime saga of Louie Zamperini, an amazing man who will celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday in January 2012. Not only did he speak this year on Memorial Day weekend at my church in Southern California (which I was greatly disappointed to miss), but he also recently received an honorary doctorate from Chapman University.
His story is nothing less than astonishing. Although worlds apart in our life experiences, Louie (if I may be so familiar with this dear man) and I have enough in common to make me feel connected with him. In fact, by the time I finished Unbroken, I felt as if he were a longtime friend. He was born in 1917 in Olean, New York, where my grandmother was born in 1913 (I wonder if her family knew his); then in the early 1920s, the Zamperini family moved out to Torrance in the Los Angeles area (that same grandmother moved to Los Angeles about twenty years later). An impressive runner, he won an athletic scholarship in the 1930s to the University of Southern California (my alma mater) and earned a place in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (okay, this is where our connection breaks down!), where he was personally congratulated by Adolph Hitler and later stole a Nazi flag (in his youth, he had been notorious for his thievery and quick-get-away legs). It looked as though Louie had a brilliant running career ahead of him, and he planned to run in the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But then the Second World War began, and this is where Louie's story really gets interesting.
Of course, I don't want to supply any plot spoilers in this review, but it's fairly obvious that Louie lived to tell his tale. It should also be obvious from the subtitle of the book that despite the horrors he endured, not only did he survive and show resilience, but there is also redemption involved’and as a Christian, this is what moved me the most.
In 1942, Louie entered the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific theater and was soon serving as a second lieutenant and bomber on a B-24 called the Green Hornet‘a plane the crew didn't think airworthy. Unfortunately they were proved right when it crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and all but three men were killed. Then begins a remarkable tale of survival (the first part of the subtitle) on a raft constantly surrounded by sharks’including a Great White straight out of a Steven Spielberg film’and eventually strafed by Japanese Zeros, with three men drinking rainwater and catching birds and baby sharks for food (eaten raw of course). It is during this time that Louie, who had never really thought about God, rather Luther-like swears that if God will let him live, Louie would serve him for the rest of his life.
But just when you would think Louie's story couldn't get much worse, it does. After a record-breaking time adrift in the open sea, Louie is "rescued" by the Japanese. After this, it's the proverbial "out of the frying pan and into the fire." The survival story kicks into full gear and soon becomes one truly of resilience (the second part of the subtitle). Louie's Japanese captors are atrocious, and he is moved from one death camp to another, becoming little more than a (barely) walking skeleton, surviving somehow on one ball of rice a day.
But, again, just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. Into the story (in a chapter Hillenbrand calls "Monster") enters Mutsuhiro Watanabe, whom the POWs nicknamed "the Bird"’"a name chosen because it carried no negative connotation that could get the POWs beaten" (239-40). Hillenbrand describes him in detail:
Both his victims and his fellow Japanese would ponder his violent, erratic behavior and disagree on its cause. To Yuichi Hatto, the camp accountant, it was simply madness. Others saw something calculating. After Watanabe attacked Clarke, POW officers who had barely noticed him began looking at him with terror. The consequence of his outburst answered a ravening desire: Raw brutality gave him sway over men that his rank did not. "He suddenly saw after he hit a few men that he was feared and respected for that," said Wade. "And so that became his style of behavior."…A tyrant was born. Watanabe beat POWs every day, fracturing their windpipes, rupturing their eardrums, shattering their teeth. (236-7)
Hillenbrand goes on, but I think this is enough to give you a good idea why this chapter is titled "Monster." The Bird becomes Louie's nightmare, waking and sleeping: "From the moment that Watanabe locked eyes with Louie Zamperini, an officer, a famous Olympian, and a man for whom defiance was second nature, no man obsessed him more" (238). After being beaten daily into unconsciousness by the Bird, Louis began to relive this torture nightly in his sleep’even years after the war had ended. Watanabe's goal was to demoralize and dehumanize Louie; and in Louie's mind, he was successful.
I should say at this point that Laura Hillenbrand is a marvelous writer in her use of description, emotion, and gripping storytelling. After years of research and much time interviewing Louie and his surviving family and friends, Hillenbrand deserves to have another New York Times best-seller (although Louie joked that she would have an easier time than she had with the horse Seabiscuit since Louie could talk!). But I found some of her attention to detail, while interesting for posterity and first-hand historical accounts, became a bit tedious. In fact, I was beginning to lose interest in the story’bogged down as I was in the horrific Japanese POW camp’until my pastor used Louie's story as part of his Easter sermon. Although he gave away the ending, my interest in the book was strongly rekindled (I won't go so far as to say "resurrected"). This is where the redemption part of the subtitle comes in. Again, not wanting to provide a plot spoiler here, let me say that Louie's story ends powerfully’one that drew me to tears as I felt the love and mercy of God flowing first to this pitiable man, then to his Japanese captors, and ultimately to the Bird.
This, therefore, is not just another historical account of the horrors of World War II, but it is a touching and beautiful tale of what it truly means to be human’especially a human redeemed through Christ. Do yourself a favor this holiday season and read this wonderful story. And if you have the Internet technological know-how, check out the CBS television special made during a past Olympics that recounts Louie's story, complete with interviews with the man himself and even Mutsuhiro Watanabe. I've heard that Hollywood wants to make a movie out of Unbroken, but I also heard that Louie will not give permission for them to do so unless his inspiring story includes his conversion. Although it took some time, Louie remembered his promise to God on that raft, and he has spent his entire life since then spreading the good news of the gospel. And it's not every day you see a book like this on The New York Times best-seller list. Now that's something to talk about with your neighbors!