Louis Zamperini: Olympian and POW
Almost a year ago, one of my good friends suggested that I read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand. I immediately put my name on the list at the library and just recently got a copy of it. It’s a popular book, and I ended up listening to the audio book version while driving to school.
The book is about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who ends up only getting to compete in one Olympics. The next Olympics, at which he had a good chance of winning gold, were cancelled due to WWII. Louis instead serves his country as a bombardier.
The conflict of this true story begins when Louis’s plane goes down in the Pacific Ocean, and he ends ups sharing a life raft with two other men for some forty days or so on the open sea. They scramble for water whenever it rains and try to fish when they can. They also grab albatross and eat the stinking bird meat. One of the men dies, and the remaining two finally sight land. Before they can get to it without being detected, they are picked up by a Japanese boat. They become prisoners of war.
Because surviving on a life raft wasn’t enough, Louis spends the next few years in brutal prisoner-of-war camps. The torture described is horrific, and honestly, I could barely stomach listening to most of it. When it got to be too much for me, I let my mind wander and focused on the images of the canyon (and many snowstorms) outside of my car instead of the horrors Louis and other prisoners endured at the hands of sadistic guards. These guards did not follow the Geneva conventions, and many of them were eventually tried and convicted of war crimes.
Except for The Bird. This was the nickname Louis and the other men in camp gave to brutal guard Matsuhiro Watanabe, who seemed to get sexual pleasure from beating and humiliating the prisoners. Unfortunately, Louis suffered most of The Bird’s wrath because of Louis’s reputation as a high-achieving Olympian. The Bird would single him out for punishment, beat him across his head with a belt buckle, demand that he hold a heavy piece of wood above his head all day in the hot sun, and just generally beat him whenever he saw him.
While this story of atrocity in POW camps plays out, Hillenbrand’s narrative flashes back to the family of Louis, who is reported dead. His family is told that he is at first missing in action, and then they are told that he is confirmed dead. Yet, his mother Louise never believes it and does not give up hope. There are miraculous events that eventually allow Louis to make a radio broadcast, in a ploy to get him to spread Japanese propaganda, but the miraculous part is who hears the broadcast and how his family eventually hears it.
Now, I don’t feel that I am spoiling anything by revealing that Louis makes it home alive. I mean, it wouldn’t be a book if he didn’t, right? Who would’ve told the story? So, knowing the outcome isn’t the point of this tale. Hearing how he makes it through is the point of the narrative. With that in mind, once Louis makes it home, he is far from ready to live as if nothing had happened. He suffers from PTSD, tries to cope with alcohol, and even dreams of murdering his former captors. How he makes it out of that dark place is where he triumphs.
If you are interested in nonfiction narratives that feature people of extraordinary courage, then you’ll like this book. It will also appeal to history buffs or anybody intrigued by the human side of historical events, especially war. I was gripped by it, disgusted by it, moved by it, and ultimately delighted by it. Louis Zamperini lives well into his 90s (he is still alive) and has a long, active, happy life. He is invited to many Olympics to carry the torch and to be honored, including in Nagano, Japan, near where he was held captive in one POW camp. He is an inspiration and a model of how to live a good life, even when life gives you the worst circumstances possible. If he can do it, any of us can.
If you’d like to see a short video about Louis’s experiences in his own words, click here.