Friday, December 26, 2014

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

Title:  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author:  Laura Hillenbrand
Publication Information:  Random House. 2010. 473 pages.
ISBN:  1400064163 / 978-1400064168

Book Source:  I read the book based on the publicity for the movie release.

Favorite Quote:  "... the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost:  dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live."

The chronology of Louis Zamperini's life is as follows:

  • 1917 - Born in New York
  • 1919 - Moved to California
  • 1932 - Set the interscholastic record for the mile run
  • 1936 - Qualified for the Olympic games held in Berlin, Germany, where Louis met Hitler
  • 1941 - Enlisted in the army
  • May 1943 - Crashed into the Pacific Ocean
  • Summer 1943 - Survived on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days
  • 1943 to 1945 - Held, tortured, and abused as a prisoner of war (POW) in Japanese camps
  • 1946 - Married
  • 1949 - Found a religious path that led him to turn his life in a positive direction
  • 1998 - Ran in the Olympic Torch relay in Nagano, Japan, not far from a POW camp
  • July 2014 - Died at the age of 97

This book has three distinct sections - before, during, and after the war. Before the war is the story of a brash young man - a troublemaker at times - who channeled his energy into a passion for running and found himself at the 1936 Olympic games. During the war is the story of sheer will, determination, and hope that helped a man survive the unspeakable horrors that came his way. After the war is the story of a soldier who came home but for whom the war was not over until he found a path out of the need for vengeance.

From the title, I did not expect the book to spend significant time on the periods of time before and after the war. That was unexpected. About a hundred pages focus on his life before the war. It was challenging to get through that section in anticipation of getting to the "World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption." Louis Zamperini is not a particularly likable young man at that time; the strength of his family and the dedication of his brother Phil channel his energy into the productive outlet of running, leading him to become the youngest American to qualify for the Olympic 5,000 meter race.

The most compelling of the sections are the horrors of war - battle, survival, prison, torture, illness, death, starvation, destruction, and more. The author's powerful words create images that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. Yes, images are seen through the words in this book. The experiences are so extreme and the descriptions are so vivid that they place the reader visually and emotionally in the heart of the horror. Once read, it cannot be forgotten. Even if I want to, I will never forget the scenes described in this book - the one perfect day on the ocean, the camps and conditions, the soldiers, and the city of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.

The third part of the book is the heartbreaking reality that the war does not end for soldiers when they return home. Those soldiers fortunate enough to come home bring the horrifying experiences and memories home with them. The inescapable reality of what he lived through came home with Louis Zamperini. Even with the love of his family around him, he floundered, suffering nightmares, the need for vengeance and retribution, the inability to find a path through which to move forward. Faith brought him out of that downward spiral and enabled him to go on productively, positively, and with love instead of hate.

What makes this section of the book even more interesting is the fact that the book speaks in parallel of fate after the war of Matsuhiro "the Bird" Watanabe, Louis Zamperini's worst abuser and number 23 on General MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted Japanese war criminals. The war may have ended, but it was not over for Louis Zamperini for a long, long, long time.

I leave this book, awed by Louis Zamperini's story, and even more overwhelmed but the thought that this is the story of one soldier - one out of thousands and millions who risk everything to serve their country. As the author's note states, "Finally, I wish to remember the millions of Allied servicemen and prisoners of war who lived the story of the Second World War. Many of these men never came home; many others returned bearing emotional and physical scars that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I come away from this book with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity. It is to them that this book is dedicated."

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