This absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing book tells the absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing story of an absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing man named Louis Zamperini. And did I mention it was absolutely incredible, wonderful, and amazing? I did? Well, okay, then. Good. Let me tell you why.
Louis Zamperini was born to a family of Italian immigrants in New York in 1917. When he was but a wee two years of age, his family moved to Torrence, California. Because nobody in the Zamperini family spoke any English when they arrived in the Sunshine State, Louis, a somewhat passive, quiet kid, became a frequent target for bullies as he grew up. After grinning and bearing it for a few years, it finally occurred to him that the best way to silence those bullies was to put his fist through their teeth — and once he realized how effective that was, Louis spent many of the ensuing years getting himself in perpetual trouble.
Finally, his older brother Pete, exasperated by his younger brother’s behavior, tried to rein Louis in by getting him involved in sports. He talked Louis into joining him on the school’s track team, where Louis quickly discovered he had an incredible talent for running. During his high school years, he made and broke several national and international track records, and by the time he was 19, he was on his way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Louis didn’t win in Berlin, but he came close enough to know he was good enough to win next time if he kept at it. So he set his sights on 1940 and started training even harder. As war began to break out worldwide, however, the 1940 Olympics were first moved and then canceled. Then came Pearl Harbor, and Louis’s sights were redirected to a new target — war in the Far East.
Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in September 1941 and became a bombardier for the B-24 Liberator, one of the most deadly planes in WWII — for its crew, I mean, not just for those with the misfortune of being underneath one when it dropped a bomb.
Not only was the B-24 infamous for bursting into flame for no apparent reason (never MY favorite quality in an airplane), but its design made it nearly impossible to ditch or belly-land safely in an emergency — the fuselage almost always busted into pieces, busting the crew into pieces along with it. Shortly after the plane was introduced, there were several incidents in which the tails or wings just fell off in midair, also not a terrifically confidence-inspiring quality in a bomber. Many B-24 crew members began referring to the plane as “the Flying Coffin,” and for good reason: in the three months in which Louis and his crew trained to fly, 3,041 AAF planes met with accidents stateside, killing an average of nine men a day.
Overseas, so many B-24s went down during the war, and so often over the ocean, that the military began assigning ships runs below the air routes where the planes most commonly flew — an attempt to try to rescue more crash survivors from the sea.
Though Louis and his crew had a lengthy streak of good luck after joining the fighting, when their first plane was badly damaged in battle, they were assigned to the Green Hornet, a B-24 notorious among the other pilots for being a wreck in the sky, ready to fall apart if given so much as a sideways glance.
The Hornet quickly lived up to its reputation when Louis and his crew were sent out on a rescue mission looking for the crew of another plane that went down over the water. Mechanical issues forced the pilot, Louis’s friend Allen “Phil” Phillips, to ditch the Hornet in the sea. As predicted, the plane broke apart, killing almost the entire crew. There were only three survivors — Louis, Phil, and a new crew mate they barely knew, Frances “Mac” McNamara. The men managed to pull themselves into a lifeboat, but they had almost no supplies whatsoever — a few candy bars, a couple of small containers of water, a bunch of fish hooks, and that was about it.
Surrounded by sharks, including a few big ones that periodically tried to leap into the boat for a better chomping angle (OMG, EEP!), starving, dehydrated, and quickly covered in painful, festering salt-induced sores, the situation could not have been more dire. Yet somehow, Louis, Phil, and Mac managed to hold on. Quick thinking and quicker hands allowed them to catch some fish and birds to eat, as well as rain water to drink every now and then. They even managed — miraculously — to avoid getting shot when a Japanese fighter plane strafed them TWICE from above. Knowing that keeping their brains sharp was critical to their survival, Phil and Louis spent endless hours telling each other stories, quizzing each other on trivia, singing, and keeping each other’s spirits up.
The record for survival on a lifeboat at sea before Louis’s plane went down was something like 35 days. The Green Hornet’s survivors made it 47. (I repeat: FORTY. SEVEN. DAYS!)
Believe it or not, things only got worse from there. Because while they were, thank god, eventually rescued, their rescuers were a group of Japanese soldiers, who quickly shuttled the already-dying men off to a series of brutal POW camps in the region.
For four more years (I repeat: FOUR. MORE. YEARS.) the men were starved, beaten almost constantly (especially Louis, who was a favorite target of one particularly brutal guard), refused medical care for diseases like dysentery and malaria, and forced to work themselves nearly to death. Not only that, but once the Japanese found out Louis was a famous American Olympian, life for him became even more hellish. Knowing they could use Louis’s fame to their advantage, the Japanese didn’t report his identity to the Red Cross as they were supposed to, and instead let his family believe he was dead for years. Eventually, they tried to torture him into becoming a propaganda tool for the Japanese military. When he refused, he was starved and beaten even more.
AND, PEOPLE? THAT IS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE HELL THAT MAN ENDURED. I’ll stop there, though, and let you discover the rest of Zamp’s story on your own.
In all my many years of reading true stories about wars, veterans, heroes, and survival against all odds, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story more amazing than this one. Louis Zamperini is. . . I mean. . . seriously, words fail me. All I can come up with is “amazing.” I keep saying “amazing.” Because he is AMAZING. (Note, by the way, that I said “he is” right there. You may find that tense reassuring as you read — I know I did.)
That said, it’s not just the story of Zamp’s (amazing!) life that makes this book as impossibly hard to put down as it is. A huge part of the credit for that also has to go to author Laura Hillenbrand. I was familiar with Hillenbrand’s name — she wrote that extremely popular book about Seabiscuit a few years back — but I hadn’t read any of her work before. And WOW, no wonder Seabiscuit and Unbroken are both still bestsellers (Unbroken, in fact, has sold so many copies so steadily for so long that the publisher STILL hasn’t released it in paperback — why bother when the $30 hardcover keeps selling like hotcakes three-and-a-half years after being published?).
Hillenbrand is a phenomenally talented writer — it’s no stretch to say she’s one of the best non-fiction writers I have ever encountered, in fact. Her stunning descriptions of both place and people transport you right into their worlds, and her clear affection for her subjects creates an authentic emotional connection from the very first page (I can’t remember the last time a book made me work quite so hard to keep from crying all the time, by the way — and those were fought-back tears of both the sorrowful and joyous variety, depending on the chapter).
Additionally, there were times I came across a sentence in this book that was so finely crafted I had to stop and read it again (and sometimes: again and again). What a rare gift, writing like that. What utter, pure, complete pleasure that is. I cherished every single word of this wonderful book. and I can’t wait to read more by Hillenbrand as soon as possible (starting with Seabiscuit and ending with everything else she ever writes as long as we both shall live, amen). The lady is a goddamn genius.
Amazing man, amazing writer, amazing story, amazing book (soon to be what I hope is an amazing movie, by the way). If you read one book this year, MAKE IT THIS BOOK. I promise you, you will not be sorry. Louis Zamperini will change your life; he certainly changed mine. I turned the last page of Unbroken 3 weeks ago and I haven’t gone a day without thinking about it since. When was the last time you read a book like that? Such a gift, that man, his story, this book. I am beyond grateful.
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