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--Lt. Louis Zamperini. Captured by the Japanese and driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor.
The rest of the story, as they say, is history. What Laura Hillenbrand has done, much as she did in Seabiscuit, is to bring to life Zamperini’s story of tremendous courage against unlikely odds, as a castaway and a Japanese POW, and his struggle, after the war, to deal with the memories of his horrific experiences.
And what a story it is. As the narrative unfolds you can’t help but wonder how these young men coped with the shocking conditions they endured at the hands of their captors. But I won’t go into that because Hillenbrand is just so skilled at what she does and the story is so compelling that I’m sure that, like me, you will have a hard time putting this book aside even for a little bit. Very highly recommended.
Louis Zamperini was an Olympic runner in the 1930s, who joined the Air Force during World War II. He was extremely rambunctious as a child, but when he discovered running, it became a passion for him. After competing in the 1936 Olympics, he joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier. One day, on a search mission for another plane, his plane went down in the ocean. He and two others survived, and spent the next month and a half drifting on a raft in the Pacific Ocean. They were picked up by the Japanese, and spent the rest of the war in Japanese POW camps.
I can not imagine the strength of will that it took for Zamperini to survive all that he did. The "Resilience" of the title was the most amazing part of the book. And he is still alive and kicking.
Although some of the descriptions of the torture in the book are intense, I would recommend this book to anyone.
This amazing story finds Louie battling sharks, sadistic inhuman prison guards, starvation and later, alcoholism. Somehow this man continues to survive.
Hillenbrand came on the scene in 2002 ,with a little book called “Seabiscuit”, not only introducing us to a wonderful racehorse but giving the non-fiction world a real boost. She does it again here, with her irresistible narrative style and sharp eye for detail. Another winner all the way!
Zamperini, son of Italian immigrants, made a name for himself in southern California during the 20's and 30's by being a very fast runner. Those in the know were convinced that he would be the runner to break the four minute mile barrier. Louis himself wanted nothing else. His speed earned him a scholarship to USC In the 1936 Olympics, he finished 8th in the 5000 meter race, but had the fastest finishing lap, an achievement that earned him an invitation to meet Adolf Hitler. He returned to the states determined to train to make the next Olympics and break world records. The war intervened.
In September 1941, Louie enlisted in the Army Air Force, got a commission as a 2nd LT, and was subsequently posted to Hawaii to serve as a bombadier. Flying in a B24, his plane was shot down on a search and rescue mission over the Pacific Ocean. Louie, the pilot and the engineer were the only survivors of this horrific crash, and spent the next 47 days floating in life rafts, drifting over 2000 miles, subsisting on rain water, raw fish, and ever rawer courage.
When they were finally rescued, their joy was shortlived--their rescuers where Japanese. Hillenbrand paints the story of their horrific experiences as POWs in a matter-of-fact prose that, along with Hermann's equally matter of fact narration, allowed me to get through the cruelty without feeling that I couldn't handle it. I normally do not read violence this graphic, but somehow had, by this time in the story, become so intent on knowing how Louie handled his captivity and whether he survived and then got on with his life that I had to keep on.
This is an inspiring and affirming story of incredible humaneness as well as staggering inhumanity and cruelty. Louie's life on his return to the living is as interesting and inspiring as his POW service and his athlete prowess. The story transcends generations, genders and readers. It is a 5 star must read.
Unbroken is a very personal story; since Zamperini is still alive, Laura Hillenbrand had direct access to him and to his scrapbooks and other memorabilia. Through Louie she learned a great deal about his beloved crew members and soldiers he met in the camps. She also learned about the man Zamperini came to fear most: a Japanese guard nicknamed "The Bird," whose brutality landed him 7th on the list of war criminals sought for trial after the war. The result is an emotional page-turner that sometimes made me smile, more often made my stomach churn, and occasionally brought tears to my eyes.
So why did I rate it only 3.5 stars? There was a tinge of American exceptionalism running through this book that bothered me. Early on, Hillenbrand described the Nanking Massacre, which laid groundwork for an "Americans are good, Japanese are bad" theme. Other more subtle cues appeared elsewhere in the text, as when one of Louie's crewmates describes a failed Japanese bombing as "inept." The last straw for me was near the end of the book after the Japanese surrender, as Hillenbrand summed up the war. Of Japan's role in the conflict she wrote, "In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination." She then went on to cite casualty figures that, frankly, were nowhere close to the casualties from the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And a few pages later, describing those horrific bombings, she quoted a serviceman who felt "the end probably justified the means." I'm telling you, it turned my stomach.
And yet, I would still recommend this book as a first-hand account of the realities of war. Just be forewarned.
I also can't believe the idea promoted through the story of Louis Zamperini that god doesn't give you any more than you can bear. He did survive through torture, beating and starvation, and it's wonderful that he got his life back. But thousands and thousands of people didn't. Does that mean that god did give them more than they could bear? Did he miscalculate their mortality whilst putting them through the test of their faith? I'm very disappointed that she promotes such thinking.
I can't say I'd recommend this book to anyone except evangelical christians. For them it's perfect.
- the narrator's voice does not get in the way of the story
- the action - the drama - the anticipation
- while the text is focused on one main person, the writer does a good job of presenting other people in the story including their thoughts/psychology
What I did not like as much:
- At times, I skim read because I was a bit bored and I just wanted to know what happened next
- I usually read fiction, so find the style of bios lacking in poetry
1) It's really starting to get boring. There's only so much you can say about the brutality of POW camps. Repetition leads to boredom leads to callousness. Louis got up.. The Bird beat him... Louis went to bed... The Bird beat him... Louis got up....etc etc. This AFTER pages on pages of description of life in Ofuna, which was AFTER pages on pages of descriptions of his cell and mistreatment on Kwajalein, which was AFTER about 100 pages of descriptions his 47 day ordeal in a raft. As I said, I have the audio version so perhaps this isn't as long or as big a part of the book as it seems when listening to it.
2) Some stories are somewhat unbelievable. One example is the one Louis describes about running a race against a Japanese athlete and how he somehow found the strength to come back and win the race. For which of course he got beaten. Since Louis' specialty was intermediate distances (the mile or longer), one assumes that this race was at least a mile long. This race supposedly occurred AFTER 47 days in a raft with little food or water, AFTER several weeks on Kwajalien with the described horrific conditions and AFTER several months in Ofuna with daily beatings, little food, and rampant disease. Forgive me if I doubt that any man in those conditions would be able to 'run' any distance, let alone win a race against an athlete not subject to those same conditions.
3) Finally... I can see where this story is going. I knew it when I read the reviews, but I hoped that it wouldn't be so blatant. Forgiveness is one thing... but this is more than unbelievable. A 92 year old man has just been convicted of being a brutal prison guard in Nazi Germany. Yet Isohuro Watanabe is forgiven and forgetten? (I'm speculating at this point since I haven't finished the book... but I did look up Watanabe, and it appears that he's never been arrested for his crimes, and the general consensus is that it wasn't his fault. Or something.) One wonders if there would be so many 5-star reviews if Billy Graham and Louis' conversion story were replaced with a different ending.
I may go back and finish the story later. I did enjoy the Olympics description and the stories of Louis' childhood. But the rest... not so much.
This is one of those rare books that combines superb writing, biographical and historical significance and a message of hope, inspiration and joy. I purchased the Kindle edition on an impulse, because I wanted something to download to my brand-new Kindle on Christmas morning. What a stroke of luck! All during Christmas activities, I kept creeping back to try to finish the book because I couldn't stand the suspense of not knowing what was going to happen next.
Louis Zamperini was a California kid, son of Italian immigrants, whose outstanding athletic abilities saved him from a childhood fraught with turbulence and downright juvenile delinquency. He qualified for the 1936 Olympics and should have been the runner to break the 4 minute mile, if WWII had not intervened. This is only the first part of his amazing life. Hillenbrand takes us through Louis' WWII career with the Airforce, culminating with being one of only three men to survive his plane's crash into the Pacific, 40+ days on a rubber raft fighting off sharks, starvation and madness.
The real heart of the story takes place during Louis' internment at several POW camps in Japan. The brutality, dehumanization and sheer cruelty of the experience was shocking to read. At one point, Louis realizes that the camps' goal was to break down and erase his very humanity. I think this insight really is the main theme of the book -- and the remaining story details how Louis fights to remain "Unbreakable" -- both as a POW and throughout the remainder of his life.
I feel so lucky--- really honored-- to have read this book.
As fascinating as Zamperini's life is, Hillenbrand's writing is equally impressive. Not having read Seabiscuit, this was my first exposure to her straightforward but beautiful prose. Her descriptions, ability to create suspense, and unmelodramatic style kept me turning pages in a "just one more" sense of anticipation.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters on his running career and his war experiences, but the story of his childhood sets the stage for understanding later behaviors. I found the last chapters, detailing his life after the war to be the least interesting, but it is important to hear the homecoming stories, as too often I feel that part of the story is glossed over. I wish, however, that Hillenbrand had spent more time on his post-war running.
All-in-all a fabulous and surprising read that I would recommend to everyone.
“All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louis Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.” (Preface)
Louis Zamperini was a hell-on-wheels adolescent, always looking for trouble, and always finding it. His older brother, Pete, hatched a plan to harness Louis’ energy productively. In a few short years, Louis had morphed into a world-renowned Olympic runner. He competed in 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the pursuit of further world records was waylaid by the outbreak of WWII. Louis enlisted in the American Air Force (AAF) as a bombardier. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the next five years of Louis’ life would be hell-on-Earth.
Hillenbrand writes breathtakingly of AAF missions in the B-24 bomber, an aircraft notorious for its mechanical deficiencies and known amongst crewmen as a “flying coffin.” Crewmen also knew that most downed men were never found. Pacific rescue searches netted only dismal results, and airmen’s survival would be tested by hunger, thirst, exposure to blistering sun by day and chill by night, and insanity. But the worst fear was capture by the Japanese – the Rape of Nanking firmly entrenched in recent memory. For Louis Zamperini, this worst fear materialized. He would spend more than two years in the infamous Japanese POW camps of Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu. He would survive the ordeal, but he, and thousands like him, who finally returned home did so as torn-down men: humiliated, beaten, tortured, and dehumanized beyond the imagination of civilians. Repatriation would prove to be as perilous as the Pacific POW camps; many would not make it. “For these men, nothing was ever going to be the same.” (Ch 34)
Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is an exceptional read. Edward Herrmann does an exemplary job of narrating this audio edition. I can’t recommend this one highly enough!
Louie was a defiant and delinquent boy. Growing up in Torrance, California, he was the scourge of the neighborhood; stealing pies from neighbors, assaulting other children, running away from home, failing in school. With the encouragement and coaching of Pete, his older brother, Louie began running track. His focus and abilities soon brought him medals and renown.
During World War II Louie was in the Army Air Force. After his plane crashed in the Pacific, the survivors drifted for weeks until being "rescued" by the Japanese. Louie spent the remainder of the War as a POW. He was treated brutally by guards and other prison camp personnel, both civilian and military. He suffered through beatings, starvation, illness, degradation and forced labor.
This book details Louie's struggles, and tells how he survived. That Louie is alive and well to this day is a testament to his strength, faith, and optimism. Unbroken is well-written, well-researched and truly inspiring.
This is an inspirational tale of the human will to thrive, of refusal to give up and give in. It is also a story of genuine forgiveness.
Definitely recommended reading.
Louie Zamperini grew up in Torrence, California. He was an intrepid and curious child who fearlessly forged his way through the world. Difficult to manage, always in some sort of trouble, and a talented thief from an early age, Zamperini seemed destined for the criminal life. Luckily, he had an older brother, Pete, who saw greatness in him and steered his energies towards running. Louie was a natural talent and found himself qualifying for the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5000 at only nineteen years old. Although he failed to medal, he finished a respectable seventh place in that event and caught the eye of none other than Adolph Hitler. And then WWII unfolded, drawing Zamperini into the military where, despite his fear of flying, he trained as an Army Air Forces bombardier. Sent to the Pacific, he began flying missions aboard a B24 bomber. In June of 1943 while on a rescue mission, Zamperini’s plane went down. He and two crewmen drifted aboard a life raft for more than thirty days, surviving huge waves, hot and unrelenting sun, starvation, dehydration and aggressive sharks…before drifting into Japanese waters and being taken captive. Unbroken is Zamperini’s story of survival against all the odds, but it is also the story of the War in the Pacific, the brutality which thousands of POWs faced as captives of the Japanese, and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Laura Hillenbrand brings the war to the reader with impeccable research and a talent for narrative that is hard to find in many nonfiction books. She spent seven years writing Unbroken, and has introduced a hero who is hard to forget. Hillenbrand peppers first hand accounts with facts about the war to tell Zamperini’s chronological story which is mesmerizing. There were many things I learned that I had not known before…for example, I was stunned to learn that trainees were killed at an astonishing rate before even seeing any combat. For every plane lost in combat, six planes were lost in accidents.
Pilot and navigator error, mechanical failure and bad luck were killing trainees at a stunning rate. In the Army Air Forces, or AAF, there were 52,651 stateside aircraft accidents over the course of the war, killing 14,903 personnel. – from Unbroken, page 61 -
A report issued by the AAF surgeon general suggests that in the Fifteenth Air Force, between November 1, 1943, and May 25, 1945, 70 percent of men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action. – from Unbroken, page 80 -
Perhaps even more shocking, the ability to rescue men in downed planes was dismal. Not only were planes poorly equipped for emergencies prior to mid-1944, but search planes were even more likely to crash than combat planes.
The most difficult part of this book to read was that about the lives of prisoners of war. Hillenbrand does not spare her readers any of the brutality and inhumanity which faced servicemen captured by the Japanese. She attempts to explain why those POWs captured in the Pacific theater were the most-ill treated of any prisoners.
Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. – from Unbroken, page 183 -
The statistics support this cultural phenomenon – indicating that for “every Allied soldier killed, four were captured; for every 120 Japanese soldiers killed, one was captured.”
Hillenbrand provides a balanced look at what happened in the POW camps – showing readers that although many Japanese soldiers delighted in the torture and debasement of prisoners, there were those who heroically tried to help POWs…and in so doing, probably saved many lives. She also provides wonderful stories of internal sabotage orchestrated by prisoners. Survival for many, depended on maintaining their dignity, helping others, and actively undermining their enemies.
I raced through this book, reading almost 300 pages in less than 24 hours (a fast pace for me). Hillenbrand is a gifted author, one who carefully uncovers the essence of what it means to be human in the face of cruelty, degradation, and hopelessness. Although graphic at times, I could not stop reading this amazing book.
The book also takes a look at the US decision to drop the A-bomb. A long controversial subject, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is something that I have always steadfastly criticized. Unbroken didn’t necessarily make me change my mind, but it did offer a view from the other side.
A few of the trains slipped past Hiroshima. Virtually every POW believed that the destruction of this city had saved them from execution. John Falconer, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, looked out as Hiroshima neared. “First there were trees,” he told historian Donald Knox. “Then the leaves were missing. As you got closer, branches were missing. Closer still, the trunks were gone and then, as you got in the middle, there was nothing. Nothing! It was beautiful. I realized this was what had ended the war. It meant we didn’t have to go hungry any longer, or go without medical treatment. I was so insensitive to anyone else’s human needs and suffering. I know it’s not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn’t. But I believed the end probably justified the means.” - from Unbroken, page 320 -
Hillenbrand provides a copious bibliography and explained that she cross-checked individual accounts against the historical record to ensure accuracy of reporting. The result is a touching biography of a resolutely courageous man. Unbroken will surely be a favorite read for book clubs – it provides much to discuss. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
As she did in her previous book, Hillenbrand draws readers in by her careful layering of facts. Starting with a framework of a specific decade for example, she builds her house, brick by brick, with historical data of how much things cost, what sorts of jobs were available to families like the Zamperinis, how other relatively unknown people were doing, all the way up to the roof with what the famous were accomplishing at the same time. By the time Hillenbrand has completed the house, the reader can open the door, walk in, and immediately feel at home because everything has been so meticulously crafted that we know how each piece fits into the whole. Hillenbrand has the gift of making readers feel like participants and not just observers.
Zamperini's life is absolutely fascinating. The way he behaved as a child makes it clear that this man was a survivor. He didn't like the word "no", and if someone told him he couldn't do something, he immediately set out to prove that person wrong. It's this attitude that turned him into an Olympic runner who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and it's this attitude that helped him survive the crash of his bomber, being adrift on a life raft for weeks, and-- the ultimate test of all-- a Japanese POW camp.
The sections about his childhood and his competitive running are strong, as is the part about his early days in the Army Air Corps. Once his plane goes down, the story becomes riveting, and it's altogether too easy to forget that what you're reading is true. When Zamperini finally returns home, his nightmare is anything but finished, and some of what he experienced during this period is eerily similar to what my own grandfather went through.
More credit to Zamperini that he was eventually able to vanquish his demons, to be happy and to make those around him happy as well. He should be an inspiration to us all-- and Hillenbrand deserves thanks for sharing this man's life with the world.
Louis Zamperini was a delinquent teenager who was used to running from the local authorities. His running would one day bring him to the grandest stage of sports excellence, the Olympics. Although he did not win any medals at his first appearance, the fire and the passion for competing was lit. All was to be dashed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, and the United States was thrust into the chaos of World World II. This trouble making youth from Torrance would defy the odds stacked against him, becoming a hero in every sense of the word and a testimony to the inextinguishable flame that is the human spirit.
For the longest time, I've heard about the hype and buzz surrounding Unbroken and in all honesty, it never captured my attention just because of the label nonfiction. As good as it sounded, a nonfiction book conjures to mind just an endless rattling of facts and statistics which to some may seem fascinating, but to me was a remedy for insomnia. On top of that, the book is about war. So you have a generous dosing of doldrum information coupled with the inevitable gruesome realities of war and I just couldn't see myself finding such a book readable, let alone enjoyable. I was wrong. Unequivocally and unashamedly wrong! From the very first page, I was held captive by Zamperini's story. I could not come up for air fast enough or long enough. Hillenbrand does a brilliant job of balancing the facts (which there is a wealth of, evidenced by her extensive Notes and footnotes section) that give the book creditability and substance, but never over powering the heart and essence of the story itself. It is a very human story, with a flawed main character, but one who from the moment you are introduced to, cannot help but cheer and root for. With an average LT rating of 4.46, don't make the same mistake that I did. Pick up this book and read it now because it is one of those rare gems lives up to all the hype surrounding it. I can't recommend it enough!
I kept ploughing through it but it's difficult to understand the rave reviews the book has garnered. Hillenbrand's writing is pedestrian and without the nuances of a natural storyteller. The very nature of the story was distressing, but particularly protracted description of torture. A good writer knows that this type of detail is unnecessary to get the point across. As well, Hillenbrand includes information that could not possibly be known by anyone, adding a fictional element. And although I'm glad Zamperini found some relief from his misery, the crowning annoyance was the "born again" ending, reinforcing the American (read Christian) good, Japanese bad. I do not recommend this to anyone.
Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is an amazing study in resilience, defiance and strength that takes you on the journey of one man’s lifetime. Zamperini was an incorrigible child, a natural runner, and a man who would not be broken. He survived unspeakable torture and deprivation at the hands of his Japanese captors only to find himself being tortured by his memories after returning home at the end of the war.
Being over taken with the reoccurring tortures that resided in his mind, Zamperini turned to alcohol. He reclaimed his life after hearing an inspiring speaker in a tent on a street corner in Los Angeles. That speaker was Billy Graham. Graham taught him about total forgiveness. It was then and there that Louie was able to release the hatred and take hold of his own life and destiny.
Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, brought the story of depression era wonder horse to us all. Now she brings us the story of Louis Zamperini, who as of this writing is ninety-three years old and residing in Los Angeles. Hillenbrand said that she came across an article about Louis Zamperini while doing research for Seabiscuit and set it aside. I’m glad she went back to Zamperini’s story. In one of her countless interviews with Mr. Zamperini spanning seven years, he assured Hillenbrand that “I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit, because I can talk.” Although Unbroken is over 450 pages in length, but there’s never a dull or lagging moment, just the opposite. The story flows quickly and the suspense keeps you turning the pages.
Zamperini’s struggle to reclaim his life is beautifully told by Hillenbrand. In Unbroken, Hillenbrand captures the spark of a man determined to survive what he had to and to come out the winner he’d always been.
If I gave stars, I'd give this one a big 5 out of 5. I received this book as an advance readers copy upon my request to the publisher. I like it so much, I'll be at the brick and mortar book store Tuesday to buy a copy to add to my own library.
Author Laura Hillenbrand does a workmanlike job of telling the story. She certainly did her research and her writing does not get in the way of Zamperini's story. But nor does she make this remarkable story sing. The reader is told about amazing feats of survival, without ever feeling as though they were there. It's as though the very eventfulness of Zamperini's life reduces the force of any one of them. This is a page-turner of a book, but only because of the facts; the story-telling, while thorough, never brings any of the facts to life. Maybe it doesn't need to, maybe in the hands of a story-teller this book would be too intense to make for comfortable reading and maybe the sheer amount of things that happened to Zamperini meant that there was simply no room for amplification, but I the lack did leave a hole in the heart of what is an amazing story about the human spirit.
First, I must admit that I was hesitant to pick up this book. Not an avid reader of non-fiction, WWII, POWs, and running are not topics that I usually rally around. Laura Hillenbrand, though, did the impossible. She made me love all these topics, and she made me tear through this book almost as fast as Zamperini himself. I couldn’t put it down. I just had to know what happened to him, and the wording of the Unbroken forced me to look deeper into the sacrifices of our American servicemen.
Louis Zamperini is a man who has lived a thousand lives in one, and even in the brief moments when he failed Hillenbrand wrote so eloquently that I cheered for him nevertheless. Similarly, unlike a lot of non-fiction Hillenbrand coupled Zamperini’s story with only small amounts of data. By using data and statistics sparingly, the new information became all the more powerful. The material, for example, about the lives of POWs was both fascinating and tragic.
Simply, Unbroken is a book that won’t leave you quickly, and I can honestly say that it made me appreciate a topic-and thousands of people-who I didn’t think much about before. I took men like Louis Zamperini for granted. Thankfully, Laura Hillenbrand has brought him, and all the men like him, back into the spotlight.
Somehow he remains Unbroken. The journey is riveting for the reader, with both the depths and heights of the human spirit on display. This book also provided a view of WWII new to me, from Pearl Harbor to the Pacific theater to the mistreatment of POWs to the end of the war in Japan. It's impeccably researched and written. She relates that Louie once told his friends, "When I want to know what happened to me in Japan, I call Laura." We can see why.