To hell and back

Hillenbrand returns with harrowing yarn of a POW in WWII who survives 47 days at sea and brutal captors

Louis Zamperini’s homecoming in California in 1945. Louis Zamperini’s homecoming in California in 1945. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
By Maria Flook
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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In her best-selling book, “Seabiscuit,’’ about a scrappy, undersized race horse, Laura Hillenbrand showed us champion material. Her intense new book, “Unbroken,’’ is a harrowing portrait of an American POW who survived everything they could throw at him. This isn’t a horse story, but you better hold onto the reins.

Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Louis Zamperini grew up in a loving California family (during the war, his mother wore his airplane wings pinned to her nightie). Known as a “one-boy insurgency,’’ he played lawless pranks — deflating tires, greasing trolley car rails, and rigging church bells to peal at odd hours. “And then I ran like mad,’’ he explained. Zamperini became “the fastest high school miler in American history,’’ earning the nickname the “Torrance Tornado.’’ The Torrance Herald insured his legs for $5,000. “The youngest distance runner to make the Olympic team,’’ at the Berlin games, he not only met Adolf Hitler, he cajoled Joseph Goebbels to take his picture.

In 1943, Zamperini was a bombardier on a B-24, an aircraft that “had its own personality.” It had sticky valves, “oozed fuel into the bomb bay,” and one engine was “thirstier than the others, so the gauges had to be watched constantly.” It was nicknamed the Flying Coffin, because “for every plane lost in combat, six were lost in accidents.” Planes flew even when “honeycombed” with bullet holes and “cannibalized’’ for parts. On bombing missions, the Americans faced Japanese “Zero” fighter planes, described by Hillenbrand in tense action scenes. Gunners were “engulfed in scalding hot spent cartridges” as they fired back. Zamperini’s last flight was a rescue mission. Hillenbrand writes, “Search planes were more likely to go down than to find the men they were looking for.” Zamperini left a note in his foot locker that said, “If we’re not back in a week, help yourself to the booze.” They never returned.

From there, Hillenbrand, unrolls a grueling narrative that readers might not easily endure. On a life raft for 47 days, three survivors battled for their lives. Their first enemy was nature itself. Sharks were always nearby, the sun swelled their tongues and lips, and they had to paddle toward squalls to try to collect rainwater. They tore apart sea birds and ate them raw. Strafed by enemy gunfire, they jumped into the water with the sharks. One enchanting scene occurs when Hillenbrand describes a “tidal wave’’ that’s merely a school of dolphins approaching en masse. When one of the castaways eats their only food, a ration of chocolate, we wish that Zamperini had given in to that temptation as he’s almost too good to be true.

Zamperini’s journey into four consecutive Japanese POW camps with names like Execution Island and Punishment Camp is compelling — until the descriptions of torture overwhelm. POWs lived in deathly shacks filled with lice, rats, snow in winter, and floors covered in “wiggling maggots’’ in summer. Gruel was thin, and servings were often cut in half as punishment for any infraction. Zamperini shared his meager servings with other POWs. Evil overseers named the Weasel, the Quack, and the Bird are sadistic tormenters who administered unbridled beatings and unjust punishments to Zamperini. “Punctuating the passage of each day were beatings . . . Dozens of men were lined up and clubbed in the knees.’’ Zamperini was enslaved on coal barges and in salt mines where “the salt liquefied in his sweat . . . burning fissures in his skin.’’ He cleaned a pig sty with his bare hands. Hillenbrand writes, “Tragedy was inevitable’’ and “disaster struck,” but there is little insight into the murderous activities described.

POWs also lived knowing of Japan’s “kill-all’’ policy: All prisoners would be executed if rescue became imminent. Friendships developed between fellow POWs who faced the same monsters. But analysis is simplistic: Torture is numbing. We come to know the characters only as resilient victims. The reader desires more interior narrative from Zamperini. Especially when the guard named the Bird emerges as Zamperini’s personal nemesis. Attracted to Zamperini’s celebrity as a runner, the Bird obsessively punches Zamperini, “alternating right and left fists in a violent ecstasy.’’ Zamperini sees on the Bird’s face “an expression of sexual rapture.’’

Zamperini stands up to every assault. As a child he fell into an oil tank and survived being coated in oil with a similar nonchalance. Hillenbrand’s gruesome scenes of cruelty are stacked back to back. There is so much repetitive violence, it loses meaning. When prisoners were freed at war’s end, John Facolner, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, said of Hiroshima, “It was beautiful. . . . The end probably justified the means.’’ This doesn’t come from our hero. We never get such a direct statement from him.

Back home, Zamperini suffered flashbacks about the Bird. But his new wife introduced him to the Rev. Billy Graham at a Bible tent meeting. His government-issue Bible had “made no sense to him,’’ but “born again’’ his post-traumatic stress symptoms disappear. He earned a living as a Christian speaker on ocean liners and ran a nonprofit boys camp. He visited a Japanese prison to forgive his jailed captors. But the Bird was never arrested. The two never meet again.

Today, Zamperini is 93 and served as a primary source for the book. Finding God is an all too familiar ending. I’d prefer to remember Zamperini as a child who rigged church bells to chime the way he wanted. Hillenbrand describes a race horse named after Zamperini. At the track, the horse didn’t hold a candle to Seabiscuit.

Maria Flook, author of “Invisible Eden,’’ teaches in the graduate writing program at Emerson College. She can be reached at

UNBROKEN: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand
Random House, 496 pp., $27