I first learned of Louis Silvie Zamperini in early July, 2014 when I read of his passing in the Plain Dealer. It referenced the book Unbroken, his true life experiences. I saved the obituary to make sure I read the book. When I did read it I learned his incredible story of a troubled childhood, competing in the U.S. Olympics, surviving a World War U.S. Army Air Force Pacific Ocean air crash, being adrift in a life raft for forty seven days, capture by the enemy, beatings, torture, freedom, anger, despair, alcoholism and eventual redemption. Now that I’ve read it I can only say his life story moved me deeply. Author Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote Seabiscuit, spent seven years researching, interviewing and writing his story. She, like Zamperini, is also an amazing human being.
Louie, as he’s called, was born in Olean, New York to Italian immigrant parents Anthony and Louise. Because he contracted pneumonia when two years old, Louie’s physician-recommended a warmer climate. West went the family, all the way to the Torrance, California of 1919. Like many other irascible young boys, his childhood was marred by continuous troubles he created for himself. The police knew him by name from the numerous situations he found himself in. His brother Peter tried to be his mentor by encouraging him to compete in school sports, especially track events. With his attention and energy finally diverted to positive activities, Peter’s support paved the way for Louie to develop into a world-class runner. It lead to winning a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic Team. The nineteen year old “Torrance Tornado” ran in the 5,000 meter race in Hitler’s Berlin, finishing 8th.
With Germany’s military rampaging in Europe, he saw war clouds drifting towards the U.S. By then he was a student at the University of Southern California. Although he was focused on the entering the 1940 Olympics in Japan, he had learned that learned that anyone who enlisted before being drafted could choose their branch of service. Early in 1941 Louie went for the Army Air Corps. Events, however, interceded. The Olympics in Japan were cancelled when America was attacked later that year at Pearl Harbor, drawing us into World War Two.
Training as a bombardier, Louis was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Author Laura Hillenbrand takes the reader through his training and assignments in Iowa, California, and Hawaii. He was assigned to the 372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, Seventh Air Force. He had hoped to be assigned to a B-17 but instead he found himself in the bomber nobody wanted, Consolidated’s B-24 Liberator, nicknamed “the Flying Boxcar,” a plane plagued with mechanical problems.
On May 17, 1943 a rescue mission was formed to hunt for a lost B-24. The only plane available for Louie and a scraped-together crew was an unreliable B-24 nicknamed the “Green Hornet.” Although it had “passed inspection”, they were wary to fly it. On that mission it failed its crew and crashed in the Pacific. Only two others survived, Indiana native and pilot Russell A. Phillips (“Phil”) and Ohio tail gunner Sergeant Francis P. (Mac) McNamara. After Louie secured the two rafts that floated free from the plane, Mac began wailing “We’re gonna die,” words that later, unfortunately for him, proved prophetic. However, Mac emerged from his semi-comatose state of shock and redeemed himself by using one of the raft’s oars to fight the sharks that attempted to leap aboard the tiny raft and pull them into the sea. Forty seven days later, after having been strafed by a Japanese fighter and using his ingenuity to survive, survivors Louie and Phil were captured by the Japanese. That began an torture ordeal that few could survive and only ended in August, 1945 when the war ended.
Unbroken’s story doesn’t end there. Upon his return home he descends into alcoholism to deal with his despair, anger and other spiritual demons. He has constantly recurring nightmares of the torture and beatings by his Japanese nemesis Watanabe. After his wife and friends persisted in getting him to go hear a Christian evangelist named Billy Graham , who was preaching the word of God in Los Angeles, he eventually is able to discard his anger and negative lifestyle. Only then did his nightmares disappear, as did the murderous hatred he had for his tormentor.
As I read through this book I discerned parallel stories woven between the covers by its author, Laura Hillenbrand. Her storytelling gifts are numerous, beginning with her attention to the myriad technical details about life in the Army Air Corps of the Pacific wartime era. She tells of its men and equipment, their suffering, joy and remembrance, all of which puts the reader inside their flight jackets, living quarters, aircraft and their lives, before, during and after captivity. She contributes the real-life experiences of courageous men who went through it all and lived to tell her about it. And she manages to also tell the story of the thousands upon thousands lost at sea and land.
The movie version of “Unbroken” is being released on Christmas Day, 2014, directed by Angelina Jolie. I plan on seeing it. Movies, through my eye, can never do a good book justice. In this case I hope I’m wrong. After you see it make sure you pick up the book as well. It will, I’m sure, complement the movie.
For information on where to purchase the book go to: http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/
To watch a trailer of the film go to: http://youtu.be/rGlsxVfCSyQ