Unbroken is the incredible story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose plane went down in the Pacific during World War II. He and his pilot Phil (Russell Allen Phillips) survived many days on a small raft only to be captured by the Japanese and interred in a series of brutal POW camps.
The book begins with Zamperini’s childhood in California as an almost feral creature who was always in trouble for stealing and other mischief. His unconquerable spirit served him well through his travails in adulthood but caused problems for his parents and himself when he was a child. His unruly years were ended, or at least subdued, by his brother Pete’s interest in training him as a runner, as he had always been the kid who ran away from his pranks the fastest. Once Louie began to take the sport seriously, he became a very fast runner and began winning medals. Although he only finished 8th at the 1936 Olympics, he ran his last lap in 56 seconds, and his dream was to return to the Olympics and medal.
After Pearl Harbor Louie became a bombadier and made many flights in dangerous and ill-equipped planes until his B-24, known as a lemon, went down during a search for another missing plane. I was particularly surprised at how unsafe the planes were and how ill-equipped the men were when their plane went down. Their raft contained only some chocolate and a few flares, and its repair kit pieces were ruined because they weren’t kept in a waterproof envelope. The three men who survived the crash had no equipment to make drinking water from sea water and were reduced to attempting to catch rain water. They had no food except the chocolate (which one of the men ate the first night). Braving strafing by a Japanese plane, shark attacks, dehydration, starvation, and a typhoon, Louie and Phil survived more than 40 days at sea. The other man died.
Their raft landed on an atoll in the Marshall Islands, where they were immediately captured by the Japanese. At first treated kindly, once they were transferred to POW camps, they encountered unbelievable brutality. Aside from being routinely starved–while Red Cross shipments intended for them were stolen by the Japanese–they were forced into hard labor and regularly beaten. Louie in particular because of his ungovernable nature became the scapegoat of an insane, brutal guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe.
About half of this book is devoted to the men’s experiences in the camps, with the focus on Louie after he and Phil were separated. Eventually, though, the men were saved with the end of the war. The rest of the book related Louie’s trials with PTSD and alcoholism and how he overcame those problems to live a productive life. The book ends with his accomplishments even in an active old age, including carrying the torch at the 1988 Olympics in Nagano on his 81st birthday.
Overall, this is an interesting book, but I found the descriptions of the brutality at the camps overwhelming. Although I am not squeamish by any means, I kept reading a few sentences only to have to put the book down. I read it for a book club, and the other members reported having the same difficulty, even skipping over complete sections. The writing was excellent–Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit is a favorite–and the story compelling, but the details difficult to absorb.