Overview of the Story
The story begins with a normal family living in Torrence California. But amidst a normal family, Louie grew up as anything but a normal boy. He seemed to be a magnet to trouble and mischief of all kinds. He became so infamous as a thief, bully, and all-around menace to society that the policemen all knew him by name. He had an inordinate amount of energy and a thriving passion for life that seemed only to be quelled by random and extreme acts of mischief.
After many episodes with the police and public disdain, followed by many attempts at straightening his bent character out, one day in high school, his brother (Pete Zamperini) pushed Louie to run. He would get out and ride a bike behind Louie, whipping him the whole time just to keep his moaning carcass moving. Pete was an avid runner himself and loved the sport, and he knew the outlet would be good for Louie, so he pushed him on, even though Louie ran for an entire year loathing every step.
He ran straight through the loathing until one day he ran a race at school. The adrenaline, the shock and awe, and the sheer joy of it all hooked him deep—so deep, in fact, he went on to run so much that he broke the national high-school record for the mile, running it in 4:21.3. His record stood for nineteen years. His career blossomed into an Olympic career when in 1936 he ran for the American team in Germany, the youngest runner to ever make the team.
He ran well, but didn’t run well enough. On the trip over, he gorged himself on food, so much so that when they landed nine days later he had gained 12 pounds. These type things—a total lack of restraint—were common to Louie. They defined him. In Germany he cut the fool, stole a German flag, talked his way out of being arrested, and overall was just up to no good. The boy was now in the big leagues but he still struggled to walk the straight and narrow, to be hemmed in at all, at anything.
Training and Military
Louie trained for the next Olympics, which were to be held in 1940, but they were cancelled as Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg. In early 1941, Louie entered the Army Air Corps, and trained to be a bombardier. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and began his service in Washington state where he meets his crew, and was assigned to an airplane. His job was to sight and aim the bombs, which in those days of low-tech instruments required much finesse and ability. He excelled at that, just like everything else he did.
His friend, Phil, was his pilot, and he came to love his other crew members dearly. They dubbed their plane “Superman,” which was an ironic name since they had all wanted the indestructible B17. They flew it proudly, and one day made their mark in history by coming out of a battle with 594 holes in the plane. Some of the crew were severely wounded and the plane was almost un-flyable, but Phil coaxed it in for the final affirmation that they had chosen the right name for their plane, even if it was a B-24.
That mission was a huge success, but the next one proved less so. Another B-24 had come in from war and needed to be retired. It was the junk-plane from which mechanics harvested parts, and yet, the officer commanded Louie and his team to fly it. Phil resisted but finally gave in. They were off on a search-and-rescue mission with another B-24, but their plane was so slow (they named it the Green Monster), that they were forced to lag behind and let the other bomber fly ahead. Soon enough the plane lost power and they were forced to ditch it in the ocean.
Part 3 of the story begins with the crash and tells the story of their survival. Louie, Phil, and one other soldier, Mac the tail-gunner, were the only survivors. They floated on rafts, hoping for rescue. They discussed their situation, reasoning that if they could ration the food out to the bare-minimum amount, they could make it about a week. They had enough water for a few sips a day, and that would last about 4 days. But on the first night, Mac panicked and ate all the food. When Louie and Phil woke up, they found out and felt betrayed. They were without food and without any means of contacting rescuers. None even attempted a guess at how long they would be adrift.
Mac floundered, easily the weakest link of the three, often losing hope or crying out in despair. Louie and Phil consoled him, but he had a hard time fighting the despair once he had been so faithless and cruel that first night. The shame and regret ate at him, demoralizing him. He never recovered.
The three faced incredible hunger, thirst, fatigue, sharks, boredom and more on those rafts. At one point a Japanese plane happened upon them and began shooting at them. The plane took many attempts to kill them and yet it missed every time. Louie jumped into the shark- infested waters and repaired hundred of holes while Phil pumped up one side so that it wouldn’t sink. Mac courageously redeemed himself that day by beating the sharks away with an oar, spending his last strength on keeping Louie safe. He died later that night from starvation and exhaustion. The rafts were examined later and over 500 bullet holes were found, yet miraculously none had struck the men.
Louie proved invaluable even on that raft with Phil, catching birds, fish, and even a couple sharks for food. When it rained, he brilliantly found a system of catching the water by ripping open the only material they had—the storage cases for the air pumps—and forming little bowls out of them with which he would funnel water into the canteens. Later these pieces of material became hats to help shade them from the harsh sun.
All-in-all, Louie and Phil were on that raft for forty-one days before they were captured by the Japanese. They survived against all odds, setting the record for the longest time at sea, given their provisions. Most men went crazy after so much time in that condition, but Louie and Phil experienced more mental acuity than ever before as they quizzed each other day-by-day about everything from mathematics to food recipes. Their will to live was unmatched, and Louie was mainly to credit for that.
Part 4 tells the story of their imprisonment by the Japanese. This is the biggest section of the book, taking up 16 chapters (where the other parts take up just 5 to 7). And truly, this was the worst, the hardest, the most inconceivable time of his life. Over the course of two and a half years, Louie would be tortured, starved, and humiliated by the cruelest Japanese officers of the entire war. The same officers who tortured Louie were the ones condemned to death by war courts for murder and hundreds of indictments of their blatantly breaking the Geneva convention.
Louie and Phil were treated very well on board their rescue vessel. But once they reached the mainland, they were transported to what Japan called “secret interrogation centers,” facilities like prison camps but unknown to locals and unchecked by officials. What went on in those camps were unlimited evils, far outside the reach of law and common decency. Here the Japanese actively sought to strip the men of their dignity, dehumanizing them with every passing moment. They were kept originally at Kwajalein, “Execution Island,” and were only allowed off the island alive for some unknown reason. After forty-two days there, they were both brought to Yokohama, a port on the Eastern side of Japan’s central island, Honshu.
The first “secret interrogation center” they were brought to was Ofuna where prisoners weren’t treated as POW’s but as “unarmed combatants.” Here the men faced brutal beatings from guards who were just wash-outs from the regular army, men too dumb or too sadistic to do anything else. Disease spread throughout the camp and the men lost almost half their body weight. In spite of this, the Japanese forced Louie to race a local, native runner in a foot race. Louie found himself more capable than he thought and, despite the obvious repercussions, gave into the cheering of his fellow prisoners and beat the man. This brought a shower of beatings, but to Louie and the men, it was worth it. When they brought another man to race him, he bribed Louis with food to throw the race, and he did.
During all this time the Zamperinis never gave up hope. Even when they received the official letter announcing his death, they refused to believe it, even though it came from the military themselves. Friends and family called them crazy for holding onto hope, but they just couldn’t let go.
Meanwhile, Louie and a few others were transferred to Omori, another prison camp, where the worst of Louie’s war was to take place. The most cruel among his Japanese captors was a man named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, whom the men code-named “the Bird” in order to talk about him without suspicion. He wasn’t the commanding officer at the prison camp in Naoetsu, but he acted like it, and so they let him do what he wanted. And what he wanted was to subdue and torture this American Olympian, Louie Zamperini. Out of all the prisoners, he singled out Louie for special treatment.
The Bird made it his mission to destroy Louie and his dignity, making him do inhuman things, but unbeknownst to Louie, he had an ulterior motive: Louie was being groomed to be their propaganda speaker against the American government, against his own people. That is why he and Phil were originally saved from Kwajalein. But even after all he had been through, he refused. Through it all he held onto the hope that America would win the war and he could go home.
Finally, the Bird was transferred out of Omori and Louie was given some respite. It was a God-given improvement. But it wasn’t to last. Soon enough, Louie and several others were selected for transfer. They entered the office at the Naoetsu POW camp and were confronted with a familiar man. Louie passed out. The commander of Naoetsu was The Bird. Louie remembered this as the darkest moment in his life. The Bird had broken him in the past with such force that his dreams, his idle thoughts, his entire life revolved around his rabid desire for revenge. While his friends were transferred to fill holes in the POW command chain, Louie was extraneous. Some of the others speculated that the Bird had chosen him to be transferred for himself, to torment for his sheer pleasure.
With the introduction of the B-29, the American Air Force was able to barrage Japan’s mainland from their position in the Pacific islands. Louie would see the planes fly over as he was forced to work all day in hard labor, suffer chronic dehydration and malnutrition, and face the Bird, day after day. Miraculously, Louie and company made it through alive, and were rescued in the end of 1945, after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Just days before the surrender, the Japanese were to destroy all prisoners—as they had done to hundreds of POW’s before—but the American B-29’s came streaming through, bombing Japan into submission.
By the time Japan surrendered, the entire country was ruined. Their civilians were fed just as little as the 80-100 pound POW’s. Were it not for the B-29’s and the atomic bombs, Louie speculated that Japan may never have surrendered. They were utterly blinded by pride and a cultural hatred for surrender and shame.
Louie returned home in October of 1945, which kicks off Part 5, the last segment of Unbroken. But he soon learns, with deep anguish, that home is not as easy as he thought it would be. He has flashbacks, regrets, and hatred. He staggers through life, wondering how he can live with these dreams and this pain, until one day he met a girl with whom he fell in love and engaged within two weeks.
But even marriage couldn’t solve his problems. The Bird followed him to America, haunting his dreams, ruining his marriage. He was so scarred emotionally from his experiences that he ended up turning to alcohol, drinking and staying drunk all day and all night. When he was drunk he could cope with the PTSD, the flashbacks, the hatred, the anger, the memories. At first he tried to drown his sorrows by running, but as he was getting faster and faster, putting more and more stress on his ankle—the Bird had shattered it during the war—he re-injured it so that the doctor said he would never run again. It was at this point that he became chronically inebriated. This started a new period of life defined by a new emotion. Louie became what he had never been before: completely hopeless.
His marriage in tatters, Cynthia happened into a tent-meeting where Billy Graham was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. She heard it, believed it, and converted to Christianity. She stayed with Louie, telling him of her religious awakening. This made him even more bitter towards her, but soon after, she convinced him to go to the camp meeting with her. After two meetings, he too gave his life to Christ.
His conversion gave him what he had never had before: peace and forgiveness. At that point, he was free from his anger. He was free from his hatred. The flashbacks stopped as he let go of the Bird and his desire for revenge. It all melted away into the cross as he experienced real forgiveness for the first time in his life.
Laura Hillenbrand, herself a close acquaintance with pain and suffering, crafts Louie’s story into 5 parts and 39 chapters. Each part tells the story of one period of Louie’s life. Part 1 covers the time period from boyhood to enlistment, part 2 from enlistment to the fateful plane crash, part 3 from the crash to capture, part 4 from capture to his return home, part 5 from home to his conversion. An epilogue follows, telling the story of his friends and his reconciliation with his captors, his enemies.
The major theme is probably that of hope and resilience. Against all odds Louie and his friends survived. While so many lost hope, gave up, and let go of life, Louie hung on all the way to the end, never giving up hope. This sort of hope is such a wonderfully Christian idea, for only within the Christian worldview is there hope in all things. Louie was able to find hope and meaning in life after his conversion like he’d never had before because for the first time in his life he had a narrative in which deep pain and horrible evil made sense.
Louie Zamperini went on to live a loving, Christian life, even reaching out to his former captors in forgiveness. The Bird never met with him, but Louie wrote him a note, forgiving him of everything. The Gospel is manifest brilliantly in his story in so many ways, but the foremost being that of hope, meaning in life, forgiveness, and peace. So much can be learned from his experiences, and I look forward to many more re-reads and posts uncovering more magnificent nuances in the future.