I can’t afford to buy brand-new books these days, and certainly not hardcovers (unless Alice Munro publishes a new book, in which case I am at the bookstore the day it is released.) But I made an exception for the new Laura Hillenbrand book, Unbroken. It was my early Christmas gift.
By just a few pages in, I was itching to tell you about it – yeah, it’s that fantastic. This true story is a sports story, and a war story, and an adventure story, all rolled into one. And it’s the most incredible survival story I ever expect to read, as long as I live.
All the usual adjectives fall short: unbelievable, harrowing, devastating, triumphant. If there is one book I’ve read this year that makes me want to grab you by the collar and insist, “Get your hands on this book,” this is it.
You can find an excerpt of Unbroken in Vanity Fair. But here’s a re-cap of the whole thing, because I want you to know this story even if you don’t read the book. (If you already plan to read the book, and you don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now!)
In the 1920’s, a small boy named Louis Zamperini was growing up in California and giving his Italian-American parents a run for their money. From the beginning, their son showed no fear and no restraint. He pulled pranks, he stole, he sabotaged, he set fires, he made messes, he got in trouble with the law. Fueling his mischief was his huge optimism; he always believed he could squirm out of any sticky situation.
In high school, his older brother started training him to run, to channel his energies, and Louis quickly became a local track legend. By the time he graduated in 1935, he was the fastest high school miler in American history, inching close to a 4-minute mile; although that milestone wouldn’t be reached for almost 20 more years. (In the photo, that’s Louis on the left, and his brother on the right.)
Louis made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936, when he was just 19 years old – and he made the team by running the 5000 meters, a new distance for him. When he ran at the Olympics, it was only the fifth time he had ever competed in that event. He did not medal, but he ran his final lap (out of more than 12) in 56 seconds – a feat so astonishing and un-heard of, Hitler asked to shake his hand after the race.
Louis had big plans for his running career, but then World War II broke out, and Louis entered the Air Corps. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he was sent to Hawaii, as a bombardier. He and his crew, including his pilot, Phil, began going out on both bombing and rescue missions. (This was a terribly deadly occupation: during the War, the Allies lost 35,933 planes, most of them to accidents.)
Louis and his crew, all of whom were just in their early twenties, survived a series of close calls in the air. In April of 1943, they went out on a bombing run and were attacked by Japanese “Zero” planes. After sustaining 594 bullet holes, their plane limped back to base and barely landed. It was a miracle they were still alive (one crewman died from his injuries), but that very night, their base was virtually destroyed by Japanese bombers. Somehow, Louis lived through that attack, too.
After that, things took a turn for the worse.
The very next month, Louis and Phil were sent out on a search and rescue mission, in a “junk” plane. They crashed into the Pacific. Louis, Phil, and another crew member survived the crash, and scrambled into two tiny, inflatable rafts. They had no food, no water, no supplies, no shelter. Sharks were everywhere. The men captured rainwater when they could, and when sharks tried to dive into their raft, the men beat them off with oars. They snatched and ate birds whenever one landed on their raft.
On their twenty-seventh day on the raft, a plane finally spotted them – but it was a Japanese bomber. The bomber opened up fire and made several passes overhead, raining bullets onto the castaways. The other men were too weak to move, but Louis repeatedly dove into the water and hid under the rafts, beating off small sharks when they came near him. By the time the Japanese aircraft left, one raft was destroyed, so all three men climbed into the other one and took turns pumping out the water, patching the 48 bullet holes, and beating off sharks, which had become even more aggressive after the attack.
The third crewman eventually died. Louis and Phil kept themselves alive and finally made landfall in the Marshall Islands. They had drifted 2000 miles – and had survived for an astonishing 47 days. The two men, who had each weighed about 150 pounds when they’d left their air base, now weighed about 80 pounds each. They were walking skeletons.
After that, things got really, really bad.
The next section of the book was difficult for me to read. I have always had a very hard time processing wanton cruelty, even in fiction – and this book is not fiction. When they’d made landfall, Louis and Phil had washed up on Japanese-held shores – and much of the Japanese military, in 1943, was one of the most barbaric fighting forces in history. Louis and Phil were starved, tortured, and beaten constantly. They were subjected to medical experiments. Louis was transferred from one POW camp to another, and at each one, his treatment grew more terrifying. At his last camp, he was attacked daily by a psychopathic guard nicknamed The Bird (who was later convicted as a war criminal.) The prisoners lived with the knowledge that at any moment, they could be beheaded or shot, for any reason or no reason at all.
Louis was not rescued until the war was over, more than two years after his imprisonment.
I cannot tell you how often, during the reading of this book, I thought to myself: This man (or any man) cannot possibly live through this. There were so many times when there was literally no earthly hope, no physical strength and no reason to live; yet Louis hung on.
After the war, Louis, like most soldiers and virtually all POW’s, suffered greatly from PTSD: flashbacks, nightmares, violence, alcoholism. He finally found peace at a Billy Graham rally, where he devoted his life to God. Louis became a motivational speaker, and started a camp for troubled boys. He traveled back to Japan, where he met with some of his former guards, now prisoners themselves, and offered them forgiveness.
Louis will be 94 years old next month (that’s him, above), and he has barely slowed down in old age. He has carried the Olympic torch for five different Games. In his sixties, he was still climbing mountains and running a mile in under six minutes. In his seventies, he took up skateboarding. He has had countless structures and events named after him. This impossible, walking miracle continues to lead a full life.
Now, a word about the writing.
This is only Laura Hillenbrand’s second book – her first was the phenomenally bestselling Seabiscuit, one of my favorite non-fiction books. After reading Seabiscuit, I thought that Hillenbrand was one of the best living writers of historical narrative. Her new book has only cemented that opinion.
She spent seven years researching Unbroken (as the 50 pages of footnotes attest.) The writing is so detailed and immediate you would swear that Hillenbrand had actually been there, as the events took place, and had written down every detail as soon as it happened. That she accomplished this with a stranger’s story, one that happened nearly seventy years ago, is astounding.
Oh, did I mention? Read this book.