Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

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It has earned prestigious awards and been reviewed a thousand times already, but there’s room for one more word of praise for Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption It’s a magnificent life story, and Laura Hillenbrand is a magnificent story-teller.

(There are spoilers here, but if you’re experience is like mine, knowing the main outline in advance will add to rather than detract from your appreciation of the book.)

Louis Zamperini was on the road to becoming the next Olympic gold medal miler, but he went to war instead. He became a bombardier in the Army Air Corps until things got bad: his plane went down in the Pacific while on a search-and-rescue mission. Zamperini and his pilot friend Phil outlasted starvation, thirst, sharks, and even a Japanese pilot’s repeated strafings for 47 days (one other man died on the ocean) until they were picked up by the Japanese near the Marshall Islands.

Then things got bad. They were imprisoned in a series of concentration camps, systematically starved, brutally humiliated

Then things got bad. He met up with a truly sadistic sergeant, nicknamed The Bird. who intended with all of his might to break him.

And succeeded.

The book is called Unbroken. You probably weren’t expecting that last sentence.

The Bird tortured Zamperini for months. I don’t use that word “torture” lightly. Zamperini somehow stayed on top, and finally gained a reprieve when the Bird was transferred to Naoetsu. But it wasn’t over. He himself was transferred there to suffer under the man still more: sickness, starvation, slave conditions, and physical beatings.

The brutality of it all made reading painful, although there were frequent uplifting points of light in his and the other captives’ courage, and sometimes even moments of raw delight in their creative trickery with their captors.

Through it all, the great athlete remained courageous, never buckling, always holding on to his life, if only by a thread, and to his dignity. The Bird never saw him break.

The U.S. victory brought the 700 prisoners joy, then food (blessed food!) and finally freedom. Phil made it home alive, too. Zamperini, who had been reported dead, returned to a welcome befitting a famous hero. He married. He trained for the 1948 Olympics. Then he re-injured an ankle that he had twisted badly in Japan. His Olympic hopes were over. He broke.

The Bird had already been haunting his dreams; now Zamperini began experiencing daytime flashbacks of torture. He took to drinking, more and more drinking. His wife, pregnant with their first child, was on the verge of leaving him. His Olympic hopes dashed, his psyche tormented, Zamperini’s character finally crumbled. The Bird had broken him. He resolved to return to Japan and murder the man. It became his obsession, his only hope.

At this point I want to take you on a different kind of flashback. Early in his captivity, Zamperini had received the risky grace of a Japanese prison guard who had greeted him with the discreet question, “You Christian?” Zamperini told him he was. The guard answered, “I Christian too.” This Christ-following Japanese soldier took every opportunity to secretly supply Zamperini and other prisoners with extra food.

Zamperini’s response to the guard’s question intrigues me, for there was nothing in his early history to suggest any church involvement. The way he had discovered he could run when he was a boy was by running from people he had stolen from, and from the law, for he was an inveterate thief. His criminal ways ended when he embarked on his running career in high school, but not because of any new moral insight—he just found a different route to satisfying his desires. So when the guard asked him, “You Christian?,” his yes answer probably had a lot more to do with culture than with spiritual reality.

At any rate, this proud, strong, dignified man, who bore up under so much in Japan, and who deserves so much credit for his courage and constancy there, lacked the character strength to hold up under freedom, and the wining and dining he was offered back at home, and the crushing of his Olympic hopes.

He broke.

It was his wife who convinced him to attend a Billy Graham rally. He hated it. Somehow she convinced him to go back a second night. During the altar call, he remembered a promise he had made on that raft in the Pacific. He had done a lot of praying on the raft, even though there was never a hint that he believed in the God he was praying to. In one of those prayers he had said, “God, if you’ll get me through this I’ll serve heaven the rest of my life.” That night he decided to start keeping his promise. He went forward and committed his life to Christ.

He went home and poured all his booze down the drain. He hasn’t drunk since. The nightmares and flashbacks abruptly stopped. He went on to found a camp for troubled boys and to be a motivational speaker. He carried the Olympic torch past Naoetsu in 1998. He sent a letter of forgiveness to The Bird. In 2008 he was running six-minute miles.

Broken? Yes, finally he was. And repaired.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. New York: Random House, 2010. 404 pages plus 90-plus pages of research notes. Amazon Price US$13.49.

3 Responses

  1. Charlie says:

    Nice job, Tom.

    Zamperini’s raft experience, and Hillenbrand’s account of it, was amazing and set the stage beautifully. I was troubled that there were so many obvious miracles, answered prayers and even a potentially spiritual encounter during the shipwrecking but that the author was not drawing the obvious conclusion – there is a God and He listens and loves us. But she was telling it from Zamperini’s mental awareness of the time. He knew his prayers were answered, he turned to God in his fear and desperation, but he had not yet made a commitment or even really found his true faith. When he was off the raft, and especially when he had survived his torture, his promises and experiences were forgotten.

    If you keep a journal you are likely aware of how this can happen, even though it seems incredible. I return to old prayers and answers on occasion and am amazed anew by God’s goodness and grace, and by my negligence and forgetful. Not for nothing did God have to say over and over to Israel to remember the living God, the God who had brought them out of Egypt and fed and kept them through their wanderings in the desert.
    We are not only inveterate idol-makers, we seem perpetually forgetful.
    By God’s grace, sometimes we remember.

    BTW,
    I traveled for several days in the mountains on a bus with no brakes with a rock band made up of a group of guys whose Christianity lasted exactly as long as it took us to get safely home. Zamperini’s claiming if a Christianity he had not yet embraced comes as no surprise.

  2. Richard says:

    Truly breathtaking