Unbroken was on my summer reading list, and I just sneaked it in with a little over a week to go! And I’m so so glad I did.
Those of you who know me fairly well will know that I am fascinated by World War II stories, specifically ones that involve the Holocaust and the European theatre of the war. Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the Pacific theatre.
Unbroken tells the story of Olympic runner Louie Zamperini and his almost miraculous survival. (There will probably be spoilers, so stop reading if you don’t want to know!)
Louie spent his childhood stealing and causing trouble. At the suggestion of his brother Pete, Louie began to channel his energy into running. He ran and ran, setting high school records in the state of California and throughout the country. He went on to a successful track career at USC and then ran in the 1936 Olympics.
WWII began and Louie was drafted. He served in the Army Air Force as a bombardier. After a few scary yet successful missions, his plane was shot down. He and two other men survived longer than anyone to date on the open ocean with nothing but a small bag of tools and rafts, one of which was destroyed leaving three men on one small raft. One of the men eventually died before they reached land.
The remaining men, Phil and Louie, floated 2,000 miles only to land on a Japanese-occupied island. They became POWs. They were routinely beaten, starved, kept in infested quarters, interrogated — you name it. They lived in a hut on an island so notorious it was nicknamed execution island. They were transferred to an interrogation camp and then separated. Louie went on to be tortured by a camp disciplinary officer known as “the Bird.” The Bird picked on Louie, routinely humiliating and mutilating him. After The Bird left the camp, Louie was transferred to The Bird’s new work camp. The Bird continued to terrorize him, at one point hitting him repeatedly in the head with his belt buckle causing Louie to temporarily lose his ability to hear.
The POWs lived in constant fear of being killed. Should the Japanese lose, they were to be given a “kill all” order. Geneva Convention, be damned. (Many of the officers would later be tried and convicted of war crimes — the ones who were not executed were released by the end of the 1950s as the U.S. wanted to better its relations with Japan upon entering the Cold War.)
After the U.S. began its air raids on Japan and dropped the a-bombs, the POWs were freed. But they were not freed from their past. Many suffered, both physically and mentally, for their entire lives. Louie came back to the U.S., married a woman he’d only known for a few weeks, and swiftly became an alcoholic. He wasted money on get-rich-quick schemes by day, drank himself silly by evening, and had nightmares of being attacked by The Bird at night.
Cynthia, Louie’s wife, wanted a divorce. But then she attended a Billy Graham revival. She came back convinced that Louie could be saved. The first time Louie attended a Billy Graham event, he left before prayer. Cynthia convinced him to go once more. And it hit him: he had promised God when he was floating in the middle of the ocean that he would serve Him if only he would be saved. From that moment on, he dedicated his life to the Christ. He spoke of forgiveness. He opened a camp for troubled boys — not to push Christianity on them but to show them that they can get through their hardships; that they had a future.
Hillenbrand’s writing is descriptive, yet simple and to-the-point. I devoured this book. It is inspiring and educational. And I could not suggest it more.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars