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Biography recounts the life of a quiet hero

In “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Louis Zamperini certainly was not born great. When he was little more than a toddler, his immigrant family moved from New York to Torrance, Calif., where some neighbors actually petitioned the town to keep out the Italian Zamperinis. As he grew older, Louis became an incorrigible troublemaker with a wild temper, fighting anyone who crossed his path – he once shoved a teacher and another time pelted a policeman with rotten tomatoes – and engaging in acts of petty theft. In 1931, and in the eighth grade, he broke into the high school gym, stole tickets to athletic events, and sold them. On being apprehended, Louis was forbidden to participate in any high school athletic or social activities.

His older brother, Pete, stepped up on Louis’s behalf and convinced him to allow Louis to play a sport. The principal agreed, Pete had Louis put on the school’s track team, and his life turned full circle. Soon he was breaking school records, then state records, and by the time the Depression decade ended, he had participated in the Berlin Olympics, was nearing his goal of a four-minute mile and was training hard for the 1940 Olympics.

World War II brought an end to Zamperini’s dreams of winning a gold medal. In Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (ISBN 978-1-4000-6416-8, $27), Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the best-selling Seabiscuit, tells the story of how Louis Zamperini had greatness thrust upon him. Trained as an airman, though he disliked flying, Zamperini was assigned to a B-24 squadron flying out of Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific. On May 27, 1943, sent on a mission to search for a missing plane, Zamperini’s B-24 crashed into the Pacific. Zamperini, his good friend Phil, and another man, Mac, survived not only the crash, but Zamperini and Phil – Mac died on the raft – also survived more than 40 days at sea, living on birds and raw fish, surrounded much of the time by sharks who bumped and thrust at the rubber rafts.

When they finally spotted land, both men, by now skeletal and weak, thought that their salvation was at hand, but their ordeal was only beginning. The Japanese had occupied the island and now took them prisoner, and the bulk of the remaining pages of this fine book describe the torments which they and other G.I.s suffered at Japanese hands.

Here some of the descriptions turn truly sickening – both men were, for example, guinea pigs for a medical experiment, which they survived (the Japanese killed thousands of people in these gruesome experiments; the doctors were not prosecuted at the war’s end in exchange for handing over their medical “research” to their American captors). As prisoners of the Japanese, American soldiers suffered daily beatings, out-of-hand executions, savage tortures, and deliberate psychological degradation designed to strip away their humanity.

Zamperini survived the constant brutality by cunning and by maintaining a constant sense of resistance to his captors. He and the other Americans, forced to work for the Japanese, did what they could to slow the war effort, deliberately breaking machinery, pouring sand into gasoline tanks, and stealing supplies. Frequently forced into silence, they learned to communicate through hand signals, Morse code, and barely audible whispered signals.

Hellenbrand’s account of Zamperini follows him through the war and into his later life. She has interviewed many who knew him, and does a splendid job of giving us an account of his nightmare years after the war: a fall into alcoholism, continual depression, a tendency to let his temper flare. Two people saved Zamperini from a life of hopeless despair and possible suicide: his young wife, Cynthia, who never gave up on him, and Billy Graham, then just beginning his ministry at age 31, preaching out of a big tent in Los Angeles. Cajoled by Cynthia into attending one of these services, Zamperini began going back to hear more of Graham‘s message. With a newfound faith, he began at that time to rehabilitate his wreck of a life.

Hillenbrand adds much to her account of Zamperini’s life by following the post-war career of his chief torturer, a man named Watanabe. Here the contrast in these two men’s lives is glaring. Pursued by both Japanese and American authorities for his war crimes, Watanabe hid out for years after the war, protected by friends and relatives, and by the chaos of post-war Japan. Later, when amnesty was granted to war criminals, he emerged from the shadows, opened an insurance agency, lived in a luxury apartment, and owned a vacation home on Australia’s Gold Coast. When contacted by Zamperini, who had forgiven the guard for his daily tortures, Watanabe refused to meet, and though he apologized through various interviews to those he had killed and beaten, Watanabe seemed at his death largely unrepentant of his crimes.

Unbroken is a fine biography, filled with the history of the time and capable of arousing in its readers enormous respect for those who survive such ordeals and an enormous disgust for those who help create them.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 2010. 496 pages.

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