There are events so impossible that they can only happen in reality. An author’s mind can only do so much and go so far, and that is why history will never cease to fascinate me, and this was not an exception. (I was constantly running back to find out what happened next and stayed up late to finish it.)
Louis Zamperini was born to a poor family of Italian immigrants in 1917. While he was a toddler, the Zamperini family moved from New York to a little town in California. Louis had a troubled childhood, terrorizing the community and stealing everything he could, until is older brother stepped in and pushed him to start running track, hoping to keep him out of trouble. Through high school, Louie became a star, and won a scholarship through running.
In 1936, he decided to try out for the Olympics. During one of the hottest weeks on record, he raced in trials for the 5,000 yard dash and qualified to go to Berlin, the youngest ever to do so, at just nineteen years old. He came in eighth, but fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who shook his hand. Louis set his sights on the Tokyo Olympics of 1940, and went back to California to run collegiate. But Tokyo was not to be, for Japan went to war, seceding the games to Helsinki, Finland. Nor were those to happen. Russia invaded Finland in 1939-1940, and the games were cancelled entirely.
When America entered the WWII, Louie joined the air force before he could be drafted, but he found that he did not care for flying. He left the air force and became a movie extra – until he was drafted back into the air force. He was stationed in Hawaii as a bombardier, and took part in a raid on the Japanese-held island of Nauru, where Phosphate was being processed. The mission was successful, but the Super Man, the plane flown by Louie’s company, was badly damaged in the dogfight afterward. One man was killed, others badly wounded, and the crew was disbanded.
Not long after, Louie and a friend from the Superman were reassigned to a new flying crew, and sent out to search for a missing plane. Their new craft, The Green Hornet, had been raided for extra parts needed for better planes, but they were sent nonetheless. 850 miles out of Oahu, an engine stalled, and a misstep, meant to turn off a corresponding engine to balance the plane, turned off the wrong one and sent the B-24 into the sea.
Only three of the eleven men on board survived. Louie, his friend from the crew of Superman, and one other man were stranded nearly a thousand miles from help, without communications, and low on food and water. Two of the men managed to survive for forty-seven days on a life-raft, drinking rainwater, eating birds and shark liver, and surviving a raid from the air. The currents carried them west in shark infested ocean, straight into the hands of the Japanese.
The next two years were a nightmare, spent in three different camps, filled with hardship, beatings, and starvation. Louie’s family in California clung to hope that he was alive, in spite of the protocol which declared him dead after so many months. They were right. Louie was alive; barely alive, and unbroken.
In addition to incredulous circumstances, there are events (especially in wartime) that could only be found in history. I couldn’t bear to read them in fiction; they’re too enormous. Ms. Hillenbrand does not spare the sad realities of war, and paints a vivid picture of what the lives of pilots were like, and the risks they took everyday, in combat or not. (Notes: There was less language than I thought there would be at the beginning, but it did pick up towards the middle. I did see that there was an edition released for young adults, but I don’t know how it differs from the original. Also, I have not seen, nor do I endorse the motion picture based on this story.)
The best word to describe Unbroken would be gripping. The part in Berlin for the 1936 games was extremely interesting. After their voyage they spent two years of captivity working for the Japanese, starvation and torture. It is no wonder that Louie Zamperini struggled in the wake of his captivity. At the war’s end, he returned to California and married, but his experiences remained with him. After losing his last hopes of running again in the Olympics, he became an alcoholic and suffered from severe PTSD, sometimes losing touch with reality and having terrible nightmares. He vowed that he would go back to Japan and kill the man who had worst mistreated him.
The end of the book was drawing near, and Unbroken was turning out to be very depressing and sad. But the conclusion was wonderful. I knew nothing of Zamperini’s story before I read it, and I did not know that he became a Christian. I hadn’t even considered it was an option, and it made me glad. There was no other way that his story could have ended well, and thus, it had the best ending possible.