In Honor of Veteran’s Day, Review of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—A Moving True Story to Read & Weep

November 11th is Veteran’s Day in the US.  Other countries call it Remembrance Day (UK and the Commonwealth), Armistice Day (France and Belgium) or Independence Day (Poland), but we’re all celebrating the same thing.  Funny thing is, most peopleespecially young peopledo not know the day actually commemorates the end of World War 1.  After four long years of fighting in WWI hostilities formally ended with the German surrender “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918.   It was called the “war to end all wars” – but it was not, was it?  Twenty-one years later, World War II began, and we’re fighting still.  

Usually I commemorate Veteran’s Day by posting on Facebook the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, (from “Some Corner of  a Foreign Field-Poetry of the Great War“) but instead I’ve linked to it.  Today, I think in particular of Louie Zamperini, who is 93-years-old, a veteran of WWII and the subject of the most beautiful, difficult, wonderful biography I’ve read in a long time.  Louie, Happy Veteran’s Day—for all the horror you saw and endured—I hope there’s a beautiful day ahead for you.  I hope veterans of our current wars can find peace as you did. 

The title says it all: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Many, many others have reviewed this book, notably the NY Timeswhere the book reached no. 3 on the best seller list–and countless bloggers.  I suppose their reviews compelled me to buy and read itand I’d encourage you to do the same.  It is quite simply the most moving story I’ve ever read about the human spirit and triumph over adversity. I defy you to read this amazing true story and not weep buckets.

In Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand picks up the themes of perseverance and triumph against adversity that were prominent in her first book, “Seabiscuit.” This time, she  recounts the extraordinary true life of Louie Zamperini, American track star, Olympian, WWII bombardier, and prisoner of war.  Hillenbrand writes with precision and clarity—there is no overblown prose, no emotionally charged adjectives.  They are not needed—this is sharp story-telling that grabs you and keeps you turning the pages in horror, in hope and finally in joy.

Louie Zamperini was a bit of a hooligan in his youth until he found his talent as a track star—eventually heading to the 1936 Munich Olympics.   Pre-WWII, Zamperini was considered to be the runner most likely to break the 4-minute mile.  But when the US entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Louis enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier, flying in the Pacific theatre.

In May 1943, the B-24 Liberator carrying Louie crashed into the Pacific. Louie survived, and spent 47 days on a raft before landing on Wake Atoll—and being captured by the Japanese.  His time as a Japanese POW-singled out because of his former notoriety in the Olympics—is difficult and emotional reading.  Louie and his fellow POWs endured truly unspeakable torture.   And even though I knew from the start that Louie Zamperini would survive, I could not imagine in what kind of mental or physical state.  This is non-fiction that you wish was fiction, because the truth pushes the bounds of believability—both of what one human being will inflict upon another, and what a human being can endure.  Indeed, Louie copes post-war with flashbacks, trauma by turning to alcohol.

Olympian Louis Zamperini carrying the Olympic Torch

When Louie finds peace post-war, by forgiving his captors and torturers, that is when the tissues come out.   I cried the last third of the book.  But it is beautiful, and moving, and I cheered for Louie’s humanity and spirit.

As Louie’s story unfolds Hillenbrand includes fascinating research on the war in the Pacific, bombers statistics, POW facts—and this background gives the reader context understand both the enormous risks taken by bomber planes in WWII, and the widespread torture tactics, yet also how much more extreme Zamperini’s treatment was as a POW.  You realize how miraculous Louie’s survival from the bomber plane crash was, let alone his survival of the events that unfold.

Louie’s WWII story is not unique—hundreds, maybe thousands, of planes crashed into the Pacific.  Thousands of allied troops were captured by the Japanese and faced torture and hardship.  Louie’s return from the war, his alcoholism and PTSD were also not unique–they are widespread today.  What is unique is Louie’s high profile pre- and post-war and his ability to overcome tremendous adversity.  The miracle is that Louie survived to tell his story and speak for many who did not.

I love a good WWII story-though admittedly I’ve read less non-fiction than fiction (Charlotte Gray, Atonement, Sarah’s Key, among great historical fiction reads).  I also love WWII movies—”Bridge over the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape”, “The Eagle Has Landed,” “Guns Of Navaronne”…and I can watch endless episodes of  “Band of Brothers.” When Universal makes “Unbroken,” I’ll be first in line, Kleenex at the ready, for this epic story about the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for forgiveness.

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