“If I knew I had to go through these experiences again, I’d kill myself.” Louis Zamperini
In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand unfolds the astonishing life of Louis Zamperini. You may not believe what I say about her account, but I have not distorted or imagined anything. Still my summary is nothing like the experiences Zamperini endured.
Louis Zamperni was a rambunctious kid who grew up in Torrance, California, where he broke into homes, robbed merchants, and had a great knack at getting into trouble. But he was never jailed, was usually successful, and must have learned then that he could do just about anything.
It was his older brother who finally found a way to channel his energy by means of long distance running, a mile and beyond. Apparently Zamperini took to the sport at once, he had a long stride, and a tremendous kick at the end of a race.
He qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finished 8th in the 5,000 meter race and caught the eye of Hitler who came up to congratulate him after his record-breaking time in the last lap. Hillenbrand suggests he did not do better because he overate to the extreme on the long ship ride over the Atlantic and was terribly out of shape by the time he arrived in Berlin.
When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. In May of 1943, the B-24 that he was flying went down on a search mission over the Pacific. Eight of his crew were killed, he and 2 others survived, one of whom eventually died on the raft they were drifting in.
They floated over 2,000 miles for 47 days. That’s 47 long days and nights without much in the way of food or water. They managed to survive by catching rainwater and an occasional fish they were able to snatch from the sea. This itself was an unbelievable ordeal. But there is more.
The raft eventually drifted on to one of the Marshall Islands held by the Japanese, to the dismay of the two survivors. They were captured, subjected to the most brutal treatment imaginable, especially Zamperini who was well known to the camp commander through his running feats.
He endured over two years of daily, intense assaults, starvation, slave labor, dysentery, beriberi, respiratory diseases, and physical injuries delivered by a succession of sadistic guards.
According to Hillenbrand, “…of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.”
Not surprisingly, after the Japanese surrendered and Zamperini was discharged from the Air Force, nothing was ever the same. He tried running again, but the injuries he sustained in the camps made it clear that was impossible. He had nightmares, terrible flashbacks, anxieties, and bouts of alcoholism.
He married, was separated from his wife several times, and finally, at her instigation, attended a crusade led by Billy Graham. Hillenbrand ends her account with an upbeat tale of his new career as a born again Christian and inspirational speaker.
I simply cannot comprehend how Louis Zamperini survived the ordeals he experienced during World War II, first the month and a half on the raft floating in the Pacific and then the years of torture in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.
Hillenbrand attributes his endurance to those early years in Torrance. Zamperini is currently 93 and lives in Hollywood. He has received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and made television appearances in this country, Europe, and Japan.
As she brings her account to a close, Hillenbrand writes: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird [the most brutal of the guards] had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away."