In her landmark best-seller, ”Unbroken * * * A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”, Laura Hillenbrand (SEABISCUIT) takes on a subject few have plumbed to the depths achieved in this 2010 masterpiece. I have read it once cover to cover, and now again for the purpose of underlining, in-depth study and note-taking. Except for those who are super-young or emotionally fragile, I wish that all Americans would read it.
The story of American POWs is a many-told tale, and generally speaking, one that most of us have been exposed to. Mostly though, those stories revolve around the European Theater of operations in WWII, and then often with tongue-in-cheek as in the likes of “Hogan’s Heroes” or as dramatized in Hollywood’s version of “The Great Escape”. Only in “Bridge On the River Kwai”, and a handful of made-for-television specials have we focused on the suffering endured by those who had the misfortune to fall into the hands of our WWII Pacific enemies. It is something of an eye opener to realize that among POWs of the Germans and Italians, 5% were killed or died as prisoners. In Japanese prison camps on the other hand, 30% - three out of every ten – did not come home. What’s just as important is that for most of those who did, the trauma resulting from the brutality they had suffered haunted them for the remainder of their deeply damaged lives.
In researching her book SEABISCUIT, Ms. Hillenbrand kept running into sports headlines about a famous Olympic one-mile runner from Torrance, California by the name of Louis Zamperini, the first American to come close to clocking the “four-minute mile”. That led her to the story of his wartime experience, and the beginning of a writing project which would occupy the focus of her working hours for the next seven years. (And therein lies another story, quite as remarkable as the book which would follow.)
The arrival of war in the Pacific brought an end to Zamperini’s 1940 Olympic bid, and instead found him training as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps in a B-24 Liberator, a four-engine bomber often referred to as the “flying coffin”. By late Fall of 1942, Louie and the rest of the nine-man crew of a “Liberator” named “Superman” were flying regular combat missions out of Midway Island over the countless miles of open ocean in the Central Pacific campaign, at a time when the Empire of Japan had conquered and occupied virtually every piece of real estate from China to Hawaii, with Australia and New Zealand in their crosshairs, and America’s west coast soon to be within striking distance.
On May 27, 1943, the crew of “Superman” were awakened early with orders to join the search for a lost B-25 bomber. With their own plane so severely damaged in an air battle that it had been junked for spare parts, they were forced to take off in a bad luck Liberator known as the “Green Hornet”, whose engines were barely capable of getting the lame B-24 airborne. This was destined to be a bad luck day for the nine close friends and two passengers. Following the failure of first one, and then a second engine, the “Green Hornet” crashed into the sea, swiftly taking all but three of its crew to the bottom. (The high-winged B-24 was notorious for its inability to survive such an event.)
For the next forty-seven days, under constant attack from sharks, and living only on a few fish and seabirds and an occasional rain shower, Louis Zamperini and his pilot friend established an unprecedented record of survival as their tiny raft drifted westward for 2000 miles, sadly burying their waist gunner in the sea along the way. But the worst of their story still awaited them; ahead lay two years of imprisonment and enforced slave-labor at the hands of an enemy whose code of warfare looked upon surrender as the ultimate loss of face. For reasons which will never be completely explained, Louis Zamperini became the special target of daily dehumanizing brutality on the part of a Japanese NCO named Matsuhiro Watanabe – nicknamed “The Bird” by the POWs who quickly learned to despise and fear his psychotic behavior.
Already a skeleton weighing less than 70 pounds by the end of his ordeal at sea, the former American athlete then endured two years of daily beatings, torture and physical and mental trauma, in two of the most terrible of Japan’s 91 POW camps, where disease, malaria, beri beri, dysentery and starvation took their own unimaginable toll, even without the sadistic cruelty of guards like “The Bird”.
“Unbroken” is not just a chronicle of one man’s survival of war’s worst terrors, but of the long road to recovery and redemption which ultimately took him back – fifty years later - to the land of his suffering, and to the personal forgiveness of the very men who had robbed him of freedom and dignity.
Today, Louis Zamperini is 93, and has replaced his runner’s shoes with a skate board.
NOTE: In addition to seven years of meticulous research work, Laura Hillenbrand conducted 75 interviews with Louis Zamperini for the book, and yet has never met with him face to face; Suffering from a disease known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”, she lives her life as a highly productive, best-selling author within the confinement of a 1500-square-foot home, and counts a trip to an adjoining room as a great victory.
First Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, USAAF examines one of 594 shell holes perforating the skin of “Superman” after a day of deadly combat in the skies over a tiny Pacific island named Nauru, in April of 1943. The B-24 its crew had come to love never flew again after that engagement.
A faded archival photo of a Japanese soldier named Matsuhiro Watanabe (“The Bird”) reminds us of a time and a place when 140,000 Allied servicemen suffered behind barbed wire far from home in Japanese POW camps. An imperial order to kill all POWs on August 25th, 1945 was only interrupted by the atomic bombing of Japan. Avoiding capture and trial as a “war criminal”, Watanabe never apologized for his activities, and when invited to meet with Zamperini, he chose not to. He died in 2003.