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

March 27, 2011

If you wanted to write a story about the archetypical American hero, you might start with an independent young boy, a boy who grew up in poverty but developed a means for standing out. A boy who was mischievous, but good at heart.  A boy who showed athletic prowess—so much even that he became a local and then national hero. Who became a young man with a bright future, then sacrificed that to fight for his country in one of the great American wars. A man who possessed courage, mental and spiritual fortitude. A man who was generous, humble and big in all the ways that make a person a hero. While conducting the research for her bestselling book Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand came across such an improbable man. His name was Louis Zamperini.

Had a person written a novel about Louie, it would have seemed borderline absurd, a modern tall tale, something along the lines of Forrest Gump. All of that stuff can’t possibly happen to one man. But it did.

Zamparini , the son of Italian immigrants, was born in New York but moved with his family to Torrence, California in the early 1920s. There, he made a name for himself as an overly energetic boy, a consummate prankster and petty thief. But his energy eventually found a constructive outlet in distance running. He shattered local records in track and field events, then began to gain national attention. He competed in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin and was thus present for Jesse Owens’ historic performance in front of Hitler and the world. After the ’36 games, Zamparini set his sights on the 1940 Olympics and began closing in on the world record and the four-minute mile. Then World War II broke out.

Zamparini enlisted and found himself in the south Pacific, the bombardier on a series of notoriously unreliable planes. After surviving several hairy air battles with the Japanese, Zamparini was on a B-24 that went down in the ocean during a search and rescue mission, setting him on course to break an even more daunting record—most days at sea aboard a life raft. Zamparini and his raft-mate were finally rescued, if one could call it that. After drifting for thousands of miles over 47 days, the current had carried them deep into enemy territory.

Zamparini’s life breaks down like a well-structured epic. Any of its five acts would make for an amazing story in itself. His childhood, Olympic glory and time spent adrift at sea are each more outstanding than the previous, but the final two acts would be his most heroic. Act IV is about his time in Japanese prison camps under Japanese men who would be later recognized as war criminals for their cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners. And the final act is his post-war life, in which he struggled to process his experiences and searched for a way to use them as a source of inspiration rather than a destructive force in his life. As brutal as the section about the prison camp is, it’s this final act that I found the most courageous and inspirational.

Hillenbrand does a fantastic job in allowing Zamparini’s story to be as amazing as it is. Although she does gush at a few points, and although the writing feels a tad Hollywood at others, it is fitting for such a story. You would be hard-pressed to find a story of a greater American hero, real or otherwise. The fact that Louie’s story is true makes it that much greater.

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