I’m ready for the movie adaptation of “Unbroken” — at least I think I am — I just finished the 2010 bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s incredibly powerful for sure, and one of the most epic war survival tales I’ve ever read — though I’m sure there are many grueling accounts I haven’t gotten to. Just this year, I read Eric Lomax’s book “The Railway Man,” which is another chilling account of life in a WWII prisoner-of-war camp. And a few years ago, I read David Howarth’s epic true story “We Die Alone” about a Norwegian resistance fighter who somehow survives a Nazi ambush and escapes to an arctic village. Check those out if you’re feeling brave, or if you want to read two other incredible World War II survival stories.
I think I’m nearly the last person on Earth to have read “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It sat on my shelf for four years, collecting dust, but I knew I’d get to it. I’d heard all the amazing things about it, and in the end, it lived up to it all. For being nonfiction, “Unbroken” is not a dense or heavy read. It’s a quick page-turner, and I plowed through it with zest, careful not to miss a word. I wanted to get to the bottom of Louis Zamperini’s fascinating life, and Laura Hillenbrand’s flowing narrative and amazing research perfectly led the way. Not only does Hillenbrand’s book lend insight into Louis’s own life, but it also captures what the war was like for so many servicemen in the Pacific, especially in the air battles.
Even without the war part, it’s incredible that Louis Zamperini, who apparently was a total hellion as a kid growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in Torrence, California, became an Olympic miler in the 1936 games, qualifying at only 19. He was expected to be the first ever to break the four-minute mile, but then WWII broke out and he enlisted.
“Unbroken” recounts Louis Zamperini’s service as a bombardier on a B-24 bomber, which eventually was shot down by the Japanese while on a mission over the Pacific. He miraculously survived 47 days lost at sea on a raft with the plane’s pilot before being picked up by the Japanese and transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp. There, he was tortured and endured the wrath of one particularly sadistic guard nicknamed “The Bird.”
Ugh, The Bird is really difficult to handle in this book, and some of the violent and brutal parts inflicted on the prisoners by him are hard to read. The starvation and humiliation, as well, is stuff you can’t fathom. The POWs suffered through so much, it’s harrowing to imagine. I felt very vengeful toward The Bird and hoped he would be brought to justice after the war, but it doesn’t appear that’s what happened.
The book’s ending deals with life after the war for Zamperini and a few other POWs. Louis marries and becomes a devout Christian after hearing the sermons of Billy Graham, which ends up turning Louis’s alcoholic life around. Eventually he returns for a visit to Japan, forgives his captors, and is chosen as one of the carriers of the Olympic torch in Japan for the 1998 Nagano Games.
It’s quite an emotional ending, though the post-war years of the book feel a bit more rushed and seem perhaps not as thorough or as deep as what happens to Louis during the war. I’m sure I probably gave away too much of the synopsis of the book, but even knowing that, it doesn’t do justice to reading the story. You might know that “Unbroken” is about a prisoner-of-war’s experiences during WWII, but until you read the Hillenbrand book, you won’t really get the gist of how remarkable the story really is. I’m sure it is one of my favorite reads of the year. I plan to see the movie, but I know it might not have the same impact as the book, which I seemed to have lived through in my head, rooting for Louis to survive over all the intolerable hardships.
What about you — do you plan to see the movie? And did you read the book first — and what did you think?