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

It’s Olympics week here on Bargain Sleuth Book Reviews, so what’s a story of World War II soldier who was lost at sea for 47 days have to do with the Olympics? Because Louis Zamperini, the focus of the book, was an Olympian at the 1936 games, a sure bet for Olympic medals in the 1940 games that were cancelled because of the war. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption (Amazon) is a must read book. This is the third time I’ve listened to the audiobook, narrated by the late great actor and narrator Edward Herrmann.

“On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.”

Louis Zamperini had no focus in his early life. He was a ruffian, a delinquent, until he discovered he was good at running. Really good, in fact. Running distances. Through his hard work and perseverance, he made it to the 1936 Olympics, the same one that Jesse Owens ran in. Louis was young, though, and inexperienced, and faced tough competition. He finished out of the medals, so to speak. But he didn’t let that get him down. He worked hard for the next three years and was nearing his peak following the 1939 collegiate season.

But war broke out in Europe, cancelling the 1940 Olympics. Louis did what most able-bodied men did: he enlisted in the army air force division and became a bombardier, the guy who actually releases the bombs from planes over their targets.

In 1943, the plane Zamperini was in was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. He and two other men survived the crash and had a life raft and some minor provisions. They expected help to come the next day, but it didn’t. They expected help to come, though, so they tried to hang on. One of the survivors ate all the rations in one fell swoop, leaving no food, and no prospects of rescue anytime soon. The Japanese discovered them one day and shot up their inflatable raft, but Louis was able to manage to repair it with a patch kit. And still they drifted in shark infested waters.

The men were able to kill some terns that just happened to land on the raft, and soon devised a way to kill some of the smaller sharks circling the boat. It rained infrequently, so the men were starving and thirsty. Finally, 47 days after their plane crash, they were “rescued” by the Japanese. It turns out they drifted nearly 2000 miles, right into the heart of enemy territory.

What happens next is a horror story. Being a prisoner in a Japanese camp was horrific, no two ways about it. Some of the more brutal parts were difficult to get through, but it’s told in such a compelling way that you can’t turn it off, you have to keep going, just like Zamperini and the other men did. Any attempt to make the story less brutal would have diminished the book and what prisoners of war endured.  It was hard to listen to, but not as hard as it must have been to live through it. I think you can handle it, too.

What happens after the war ends, after Zamperini returns home, becomes an alcoholic, couldn’t hold a job, lousy to his family, that’s tough to listen to as well, how someone with so much promise became broken for a time. But then, there’s redemption and forgiveness and a completely different outlook on life for Zamperini, after the urging of his wife, he heard Billy Graham speak. It changed his life forever. His PTSD disappeared. The nightmares stopped, the drinking stopped, he opened his heart to God and became a different man.

I haven’t seen the two movies made about Zamperini’s life, but plan to after the Olympics are over. I doubt they’ll have the same impact that the book had on me, but who knows? If you haven’t already tackled this book, which Time magazine named book of the year in 2011, there’s no time like the present.

This is the 51st Audiobook I’ve listened to as part of my 2021 Audiobook Challenge.

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