A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand
(Disclosure: I'm an Amazon Associate. All opinions are my own. Blah blah blah.)
As I kept exclaiming to Josh while reading this book, the story is just simply unbelievable. It reminded me of the film, "Forest Gump." While watching that movie, you keep thinking, "There's no way so much crazy stuff could happen to one guy." And of course, in "Forest Gump," all of that stuff never did happen to one guy, because it's fictitious. However, in Unbroken, the events described truly happened in the life of one remarkable man, Louis Zamperini, and the story is even more remarkable.
(Warning: spoilers below. Do yourself a favor and read the book itself instead...)
As a child, Zamperini seemed unlikely to ever become an American hero or even a productive member of society. He spent most of his youth as a delinquent, hobo, and trouble maker. Running for his life eventually turned into a passion for running itself, an activity that probably kept him out of prison. He went on to set world records in track and even made it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where his fast finish caught the attention of the world and also Adolf Hitler, of all people, who asked to meet him.
After returning home to adoring fans and more running and records, he eventually enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces, where he became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber known as "Super Man." He and his crew flew a number of successful and dangerous missions in the Pacific, the last of which damaged "Super Man" beyond repair. Zamperini and his crew were transferred to Hawaii, where they were assigned to a notoriously defective plane known as the "Green Hornet." Despite their reservations about flying on this lemon of a plane, they nevertheless flew it on a mission to search for survivors from another downed plane. That mission would prove to be the last flight for "Green Hornet." The plane crashed at sea, killing 8 of the 11 crew members. Three of the crew, including Zamperini, managed to escape the wreckage and climb aboard two small, poorly-provisioned life rafts that providentially surfaced along with the men.
The three men, Zamperini, pilot Russel Allen "Phil" Phillips and tail-gunner Francis "Mac" McNamara, survived for weeks in the life-raft, managing to stay alive on a few small fish and birds they caught and captured rain water. They faced threats from the elements, starvation, thirst, shark attacks, deflated rafts, storms, and strafing runs by Japanese planes. Mac died after thirty-three days at sea, but Louie and Phil hung on for two more weeks. On day 47, they spotted land, but were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy, who questioned them and then sent them both to POW camps, where they remained for the duration of the war.
In the camps, the prisoners faced cruel and dehumanizing abuse from many of the guards. One particularly sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, had it in for Louis and singled him out for constant beatings. Zamperini, as well as other survivors, share their accounts of brutality at the hands of their captors, but also express gratitude for a handful of guards and Japanese civilians who had compassion on them and did what they could to help the POWs, often at the risk of their own safety.
After the Japanese surrender, the POWs tell of their jubilation over the end of the war and of being rescued. After the initial celebrations were over and they went home to be with loved ones, the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder began to set in for many of the former prisoners. Zamperini, who had returned to California and married after a whirlwind romance, was haunted by nightmares of his former captor Watanabe, "the Bird," and he eventually turned to alcohol to dull the memories. His drinking became more and more frequent, as did the nightmares and his thirst for revenge. When he wasn't drunk, he was plotting to return to Japan and murder the former guard whose cruelty had haunted Louie's dreams and earned Watanabe a place on Douglas MacArthur's 40 most wanted war criminals list.
On the verge of divorce and personal ruin, Zamperini was finally convinced by his wife and a neighbor to attend a revival being held in town by the evangelist, Billy Graham. On the second night of being dragged unwillingly to the meeting, Zamperini was convicted by the message and overwhelmed by a revelation of God's miraculous protection throughout all of his suffering. He remembered the long-forgotten promise he had made to God on the life raft: "If You get me out of this, I will serve You forever." He went down the aisle and surrendered his life to Christ.
When he got home, he poured all of his alcohol down the sink and threw away his cigarettes and girlie magazines he had hidden around his house. He and his wife reconciled, and their marriage and lives were transformed. His nightmares and flashbacks never returned.
The most astounding thing is his description of the transformation of his attitude towards his captors during the war. The power of the Gospel in his life gave him the ability to forgive the people who had treated him so cruelly - including his particular demon, "the Bird." He shares the moving story of returning to Japan to face the former camp guards, share the Gospel with them, and offer them forgiveness, much to their surprise. Watanabe, "the Bird," refused to meet with Zamperini in person, but Zamperini wrote him a letter offering him forgiveness for what he had done, and expressing his hope that he would also come to Christ for salvation.
Zamperini went on to create a camp for wayward boys and is still kicking around in his home in Hollywood, CA. He has received numerous honors and awards which included running a leg of the Olympic Torch relay in Nagano, Japan for his 81st birthday in 1998. The spunky 95-year-old took up skateboarding in his 70's and could still be seen snow skiing well into his tenth decade of life. You can't help but love the guy.
Unbroken is, without a doubt, one of the best books and most amazing stories I have ever read. It gives you an appreciation not only for the sacrifices made by so many of our heroic servicemen and women, but also for the power of the Gospel to transform hardened hearts and make forgiveness possible even in the most unforgivable of circumstances. It's been both encouraging and convicting to me to read it, and I'm sure it will be the same for you... So be sure to find yourself a copy, and make it the next book on your reading list... In the meantime, here's an interview with Louis himself:
Go check it out!