Unbroken

When I finished Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. A World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption. I actually felt guilty that I was sitting in a nice comfy chair with a stack of oreos next to me. And I was exhausted.

The story about Louis Zamperini is indeed one of survival. Zamperini was not a model child. He gave his parents a hard time, but his older brother Pete would not give up on him. Pete trained Louis to run. Trading on Louis' natural ability to run at great speed (mostly away from police) Pete turned him into a world class runner. At one point the world record belonged to Zamperini and it looked like he would be the first man to break the 4 minute mile mark. He competed in the 1936 Olympics and seemed to be on his way - then World War II intervened.

Louie joined the air corps and was trained to be a bombardier. His brother Pete was a naval chief petty officer stationed in San Diego. Louie's flight group was assigned to a B-24D known as the "flying coffin." Trained not only to sight bombs but survive a crash, Louie rapidly developed his skills. The plane, named Super Man was sent to Oahu for battle. After some fierce air battles the Super Man could no longer fly. Louie's group was given the Green Hornet a plane that had been patched together. 30 to 40 sorties was the expected tour for the flight crews. Louie's tour was much longer.

On May 27, 1943 Louie boarded the Green Hornet. The plane took off but never arrived at the agreed site. It had crashed. The plane was woefully under supplied. Not enough life vests, food or survival gear for the men who actually survived the crash and the sharks.

3 men survived. Louie, Phil and Mac. They had 2 rafts, some chocolate, little water, some fishing line and flares. Their survival depended on their own tenacity. Once the plane was discovered missing search teams were sent out. They searched for days but never found the men. In the mean time the men continued to drift with the currents. Relentless sun and no water they could drink took a toll on them. They tried to fish with little success, they ate raw sea birds they collected. They tried to collect rain water and still they drifted. 2,000 miles they drifted right into the Japanese.

Here is where the real survival tale begins. Hillenbrand details the horrors inflicted upon Louie and the other POWs. Filthy living conditions, enslavement in the industries used in the Japanese war effort, starvation and the relentless physical abuse. For years Louie and other POWs endured these conditions, leaving them living skeletons. Rescue finally arrived. The captors fled so they themselves would not be captured.

Louie and his fellow captives were rescued and finally sent back to the United States to recover. Louie's reappearance was a shock to his family - the army had declared him dead. Louie's life after the war was checkered. Plagued by flashbacks of the abusive guards he started drinking. He couldn't run because his leg had been shattered in the camps and never healed correctly. Louie was literally the walking wounded. Married, Louie couldn't even support his wife. Taken advantage by schemers he was always buying into one thing or another. Salvation came in the form of a tent sermon by Billy Graham.

That Zamperini survived to even hear Billy Graham is a miracle. The book is relentless in it's descriptions. Horror abounds in the Japanese prison camps, yet Louie seems remarkably resilient. He survives to live another day. And live he does.

I highly recommend this book. It is not a happy story but it is one that shows the strength of the human spirit. Graphic descriptions don't detract from the story they are simply part of it. Something to get past. Something to survive, like Louie did.

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