Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Book By Laura Hillenbrand, Random House: 2010
A coach of mine recently had the pleasure of having dinner with Louis Zamperini, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. When I asked her what he was like, she said, “You know when people ask you, ‘If you could talk to any person, living or dead, who would you choose?’, well, I would choose Louis.” After reading Unbroken, I would have to answer the same!
In Unbroken, Hillenbrand tells Louis’ incredible story. Guided by his older brother Pete, Louis transforms his willfulness and tenacity into a passion for running and competition, becoming one of the best high school milers in the country. Louis’ running career culminates with a trip to the Berlin Olympics, where he competes in the 5K. But the most grueling and compelling chapter in his life comes later when he enlists in the US Army Air Force during World War II. While on a rescue mission, his plane crashes and Louis endures 47 days drifting at sea on a life-boat with two other airmen, only to be captured by the Japanese military. Using personal interviews with Louis and other POWs, Louis’ wartime diary, and lots of historical research, Hillenbrand describes the harrowing test of endurance that confronted the POWs interned at Japanese camps. No track workout or hilly marathon course can compare with the emotional and physical torments these men suffered.
At times, Hillenbrand steps aside from Louis’ riveting story to posit reasons for his survival. Louis’ virtues do not just translate into making a great runner; they also make a great person. Hillenbrand describes Louis’ calm reaction when the plane crashes, his optimism while facing death, his sense of humor, and his ability to focus on what is in his control instead of worrying about the difficult circumstances. Hillenbrand also reflects on the importance of human dignity—how Louis and the POWs fought to keep their spirits alive, and how certain Japanese officers violated the men’s dignity to break them down. Unbroken imparts lessons that apply well to the distance runner—lessons about mental toughness, optimism, faith, and perseverance. Having just come off of an injury, I found that the book spoke to me in my journey to heal as well. The last section of the book, which focuses on Louis’ return to civilian life, was especially poignant from a religious perspective. I had a hard time believing that Louis’ redemption occurred so suddenly and completely, without many hurdles so to speak, but it was touching nonetheless.
All morals aside, Unbroken is a captivating read. Hillenbrand did extensive research to tell Louis’ story. It was interesting to learn about the less-known plight of POWs in Japan, as most of my exposure to World War II has centered on the Nazis’ actions in Europe. This really is one of those books that you won’t be able to put down!