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One terrible, tumbling second passed, then another. An instant before the plan struck the water, Louie’s mind throbbed with a single, final though: Nobody’s going to live through this.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Unbroken is a stunning read by Laura Hillenbrand. As I write this, I am struggling to keep from weeping just thinking about parts of it.

Louie Zamperini

Unbroken is essentially a biography of Louie Zamperini. Louie Zamperini, growing up in Southern California would became a world class miler by the time he finished high school and go on to run at USC. He ended up running in the 1936 Olympics in an event he barely trained for, the 5000m. However, the book centers on the turn in his life as he enlists in the military to be a part of the war in the Pacific, becoming a bombardier on a B-24 in the fight against the Japanese.  The B-24, also known by the men as the “Flying Coffin,” was known for being an unstable aircraft, being unusually wieldy to fly, with noncombat mission and training accidents actually killing tens of thousands. Needless to say, Zamperini’s fate in the war would be tied to this aircraft and his survival story is incredible.

The War in the Pacific

Before reading this book, I was much more familiar with the war in Europe from the events of D-Day to Hitler, to Band of Brothers, and the Holocaust. My knowledge of the war in the Pacific was largely limited to my visits to Hiroshima while living in Japan, Pearl Harbor, and my memories of my dad’s frequent watching of “Midway.” In Unbroken, you get a decent overview of the war in the Pacific: the timeframe, the progression, the types of battles, the great losses, the POW camps, and the tenacity and brutality of the Japanese.

For every Allied soldier killed, four were captured; for every 120 Japanese soldiers killed, one was captured. In some losing battles, Japanese soldiers committed suicide en masse to avoid capture… The contempt and revulsion that most Japanese felt for those who surrendered or were captured extended to Allied servicemen. This thinking created an atmosphere in which to abuse, enslave, and even murder a captive or POW was considered acceptable, even desirable.

Post-War Life

Hillenbrand devotes the last 50 pages of the book to what happened when Zamperini and his friends came home from the war. How would they recover from the battle? How would they handle what they experienced in the harsh and inhumane POW camps?

To Matsuhiro [sic] Watanabe,

As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.

Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.

The post-war’s nightmares caused my life to crumble, but…

You’ll have to read the book to see how the Louie resolves what he went through. The story of his breaking point (yes, he would be broken) and what happened when he hit bottom caught me by surprise and made me weep. I’ll say this: to put his life back together and fight the nightmares, he didn’t find the power within himself.

This is a long book – nearly 400 pages – but it is worth it. Louie’s story is incredible and it is also a glimpse of what all of those soldiers in the Pacific went through. World War II was such a unique war in that the lines between good and evil were so clear. Yes, the Allies were human and flawed and committed unbelievable travesties themselves. But left unchecked, Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini would have brought such unhindered darkness and slaughtered even more people than we could have imagined. Unbroken is the story of the hell that many of our soldiers endured to make sure that didn’t happen.

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