I don’t recall when I first heard that Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Louie Zamperini, Olympic track athlete, World War 2 bombardier, and POW was a big hit. But I put Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption on my Christmas wish list and got it. A week later I started it on vacation and had a hard time putting it down.
Louie Zamperini’s life story is indeed remarkable, even stunning. Utilizing years of research and personal interviews with Zamperini, Hillenbrand meticulously describes the significant events of Louie’s life. The result is a compelling narrative that is uplifting, encouraging, titillating (there are a lot of sharks!), harrowing, and spell-binding. Those are a lot of effusive adjectives, but I’m not the only reviewer to give this book high praise.
Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California (my home town in the “south bay” of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region). In the 1930s he became a local hero as he earned national acclaim for his times running the mile. His talent eventually landed him in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where his dashing end-of-race performance earned him a meeting with the Fuhrer. Upon returning to the States he resumed his studies at USC and continued improving his mile time, pushing toward the elusive and mythic 4 minute barrier.
But then the war came calling and Louie ended up in the Army as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater. On one fateful rescue mission Louie’s plane went down into the ocean. Only 3 of the crewmen survived the crash. Louie and 2 other men flowed adrift on a life raft for 47 days. They battled to survive hunger, thirst, the elements, Japanese fighters raining bullets on them, encroaching insanity and sharks. O so many sharks! Did I mention the shark? One of the men didn’t survive their journey, which ended when the raft landed on a Pacific atoll controlled by the Japanese military. For the next number of years, Louie would be a prisoner of war—an experience that tested his human limits of resilience. As an international track star, Louie fame earn him special privileges and especially inhumane treatment at the hands of his captors. Yet Louie survived, although his body was growing weaker and sicker, and his hatred for those who abused him and his POW friends was budding like an evil cancer in his soul.
While the U.S. Army had declared Louie dead at sea, his family never stopped believing that somehow Louie had survived and they would be reunited with him someday. Their hopes and faith were vindicated after V-J Day when Louie’s POW camp was liberated and he made the slow journey back home through military check-points and hospitals. His family were elated the day he finally showed up again on the doorstep of home. As with so many soldier’s homecomings, it was sweet and joyous.
But that is not the end of Louie’s story. Although unable to resume his track career due to a war-aggravated ankle injury, Louie healed physically. But his PTSD began to erode his mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Shortly after marrying, he began to brood and drink his life away. Nothing seemed to help him forget and move on from his war experiences, especially the vicious abuse he had endured in Japan from a sadistic camp commander known by the POWs as “The Bird”. Haunted by the Bird in his nightmares, Louie planned revenge and vowed to return to Japan, hunt down the Bird, and murder him. Louie reasoned this was the only way to escape from his unending nightmare torments.
Instead of revenge, Louie was about to experience redemption. Always skeptical of religion, Louie grew increasingly irritated as his wife urged him to go hear a young fiery evangelist named Billy Graham who was conducting his 1949 now famous tent-revival crusade in Los Angeles. After hearing Graham preach just once, Louie’s wife had experienced a spiritual awakening, claiming to be born again as a Christian. Louie was incredulous, but he couldn’t deny the spiritual and heart changes happening in her. Finally he agreed to go hear the preacher, but under the conditions that they would sit in the back and leave immediately after the message. That day Graham’s message struck a nerve in Louie. He felt trapped and angry. At his wife, at the preacher, at God. He left in a huff as soon as the alter call began. But Louie and his wife would return to hear Graham once more. And this time, Louie couldn’t resist the pull of God’s call on his life. He testified that at that moment he experienced spiritual healing, release of his anger, and the power to forgive his enemies, and deliverance from his personal demons of PTSD and alcoholism.
Louie lived into his 90s, outlasting all of his generation’s family members and his wife. He devoted his life to spreading the message of simple Christian message of love, forgiveness, and redemption through Jesus Christ. Louie devoted his life to bringing hope to troubled and at-risk boys through a ministry he founded. Serving at a Presbyterian church in Hollywood for decades, Louie faithfully worshiped the God who saved him from the sharks, from the war, and from himself.
It’s no wonder Louie’s story was quickly adapted into a movie. I couldn’t help gawking, over and over, while reading his story. Thinking to myself, “This is incredible! It’s like a movie!” It seemed nothing could break Zamperini, until his life fell apart under the incredible burdens he shouldered. But then Jesus put him back together–unbroken once and for all.
Every now and then, a true story emerges that is worthy of wonder. Louie Zamperini’s story is one of those rare gems. And Hillenbrand’s biographical account of his life gives Louie’s story the telling it deserves.