They nicknamed their B-24 Liberator, “Super Man.” Yet, in a twist of fate, mere mortals Louis Zamperini (Louie) and Russell Allen Phillips (Phil) became the real superheroes. Neither nature, nor sadistic Japanese prison guards, could break their will to survive. Their bodies wrecked, their mental state floundering, these World War II Army Air Corps officers held tight to the vision of a better tomorrow. “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand, gives readers a front-row seat to their extraordinary wartime experiences. This enthralling page turner proves the human spirit can overcome monumental adversities. Super Man is milk toast compared to these guys!
Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit,” took seven years to write this epic. Judging by the citations, many of those years were consumed by in-depth research and conducting numerous interviews. Still, the action is so fast and furious that I found myself checking her reference notes while reading. Sure enough, the book reads like a fantasy WW II movie, but it’s a true story!
She builds “Unbroken” around Zamperini’s life, a brilliant move on her part because his colorful past makes him a most unlikely hero. Getting to know his parents and siblings early in the book is essential to understanding what kept Zamperini alive throughout his ordeal. Readers learn the agony those waiting back home experienced through his relatives’ viewpoint and that of Phillips’ fiancée, Cecy.
Born to Italian immigrants, Zamperini began life as a wild, skinny kid running roughshod over the streets of Torrance, Calif. Whether stealing pies or scrap metal, his fast feet kept him one step ahead of the police. Convinced by his older brother, Pete, to put his running ability to better use, he joined the high school track team, where he quickly discovered his skills reaped another kind of booty – girls.
In 1936, Zamperini raced for the gold at the Olympics in Berlin. While Jesse Owens’ fame far overshadowed Zamperini, his strong finish in the 5,000-meter event impressed the Führer. After the race, he was escorted to Hitler’s box, where a picture was snapped as the two of them were shaking hands. This was one of the many ironic events in Zamperini’s life.
During his college years, he became friends with Japanese student Kunichi James Sasaki. Going their separate ways after college, their next encounter was at Ofuna, a Japanese interrogation center “where ‘high-valve’ men were housed in solitary confinement, starved, tormented and tortured to divulge military secrets.” Sasaki was actually 10 years older than he pretended to be when he was planted at the University of Southern California, so he could spy on nearby military bases.
While running occupied a lot of Zamperini’s time, it didn’t entirely curb his wild streak. He barely escaped Germany without being arrested; women came and went, and he still loved to knock back a few too many.
Phillips, on the other hand, was a good guy from day one. While his background is far less colorful, his flying skills were unfathomable. Zamperini lucked out by being assigned to his crew, and Hillenbrand justifiably credits Phillips with saving both of their lives numerous times. Reading about their safe return from an air battle over Wake Island was thrilling, only to discover it was a cake walk compared to their mission over Naura, an island about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Encountering heavy flak, Phillips managed to land Super Man safely on Funafuti, in spite of a missing right rudder, damaged elevators, almost no hydraulic fluid; and with 594 holes riddled throughout the plane, including four caused by cannon fire that were “as large as a man’s head.”
I began to think of these men as “Jonahs” when the Japanese bombed Funafuti to smithereens just a few hours after they landed. Yet, I hadn’t even reached the heart of their amazing survival story. With stellar prose, Hillenbrand gives readers a sneak preview to what happened next in the preface of “Unbroken.” In June 1943, three skeletal men were adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was day 27. “Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting. The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins.” Hope suddenly appeared on the horizon – a plane. Unfortunately, it was a Japanese Zero, hell bent on shooting their rafts out from under them.
I’m giving nothing away by saying Zamperini and Phillips survived their ordeal at sea for an additional 19 days. No, the crux of this story occurs after they were rescued. Undeniably, the devil is in the details of this book, with Mutsuhiro Watanabe being one demon I wanted to see prosecuted for the war crimes he committed. Find out who in the U.S. government let him off the hook. Discover why Tokyo Rose haunted Zamperini for years after the war. Learn how these prisoners of war triumphed over what can only be described as a living hell.
Read “Unbroken” – I promise you – there’s a happy ending. Then put it on the top of your Christmas gift-giving list. Hillenbrand has already sold the production rights to Universal Studios, with a rumored release date of early 2013. But as we all know, the book is always better than the movie!