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.

unbroken cover

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.

Louis-ZamperiniIf 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.

30 thoughts on “Louis Zamperini: Olympian and POW

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  1. I loved Unbroken – such a gripping story made all the more intriguing because it really happened. The part that bothered me the most is how the U.S. failed to try Japanese war criminals after the war. It seemed like a betrayal to all the POWs who suffered at their hands, but the decision was made to build a lasting peace with the Japanese after the atomic bombing. I guess it was a greater goal than simply punishing those guilty of such horrific acts, but it does help me understand why so many Americans of that generation still refer to the Japanese by a derogatory term…

    1. Yes, the historical context does help me to realize why many of that generation have different feelings than I do towards certain countries. Good point. Alas, we are all products of our time. Me included.

  2. A friend of mine recommended this book to me and at first I hesitated to read it as I normally don’t like war narratives but, like you, I really like this book. It’s a great read and a fascinating view into a moment in history and a man’s life.

  3. finished it a few months ago. terrific read! have heard rumors that they’re going to make it into a movie staring Jake Gyllenhaal, but that is certainly not authoritative, unfortunately. anyway, nice note, again. i totally enjoy reading your musings on writers. you’ve developed a far wider range of authors than i have. i, too, am very interested in writings re women, not exactly ‘feminist’ writers, but those struggling w/ teh roles of women. just finished a book by caitlin flanagan, who is great, about the changing roles of women, and am going to buy her ‘girl land,’ about the changing roles of girls. i also really like sandra tsing loh, who writes on the same stuff. anyway, just wanted to say hi & tell u to keep up the good work!! we still have to get together & have u come up here for lunch!!

    1. Yes, we do! I really want to see you (and others, I guess). 🙂 I’ve read some of Caitlin Flanagan’s essays, but I haven’t heard of Sandra Tsing Loh. I will look into her work. It sounds like you ARE a budding feminist, even if you don’t want to admit it. I suspect most people are, since we live in a time where we are enjoying the changes the feminist movement wrought. It really isn’t a dirty word! Thanks for reading! I love knowing that you are reading.

  4. I also listened to the audio version on a drive from Oklahoma to New Jersey. I love stories of people who overcome challenges and am fascinated by WWII, so it was a pleasure. I saw recently that a movie version is in the works with Angelina Jolie directiing? We’ll see. thanks for the post!

    1. I am glad to hear that somebody had a similar experience to me of “reading” it. How fun. And I’m so excited that the rumor about a movie may possibly be true! I would definitely want to see this one in the theaters and not wait for Netflix to get it.

  5. I always had a passion for this, but never had any spare time to do what you do. I get bored easy so this helps me keep my mind occupied i must say you have a pretty awesome blog here. Keep up the good work. thanks for enlightening me.

  6. I bought “Unbroken” for my dad, who is a huge WWII buff. I snagged it back from him (just to read) as soon as he’d finished it, and I loved it. I’ve never tried listening to a book, honestly, but the words were so alive on the page it almost seemed like I was hearing the story as it happened. Louis Zamperini came to my church at the end of January (he flew out on his 96th birthday, if I recall correctly), and it was even more incredible to see and hear this man who not only defied odds with his athleticism, courage, and character, but wove that into a story that will inspire purpose, love, and forgiveness for generations. Great review!

  7. I come from an American, Chinese and Japanese family and how I want to read this book…but I know I won’t be able to get through the torture scenes.Thank you for writing such a fair review (I noticed how you never made it about “us” versus “them”). For now I think I will need to make do with the inspiring reviews and summaries of this story 😉


    1. Cecilia, I feel truly complimented that you found my review to be fair. I do think that the book portrays those binary attitudes of the time, but from a perspective of distance. Also, Louis works his way to forgiveness, which is ultimately what makes his story so inspiring. It would be easy to hate, but he doesn’t. Thank you for the comment!

  8. I read this book last fall and marvelled all the way through at Louis’ courage, perseverance and even humour! I felt very strongly that more people should read it and come to appreciate the things he and many others have endured so that we might have the freedoms that we do. I, for one, take too much for granted.

    1. Yes, what you say is true. It did help to put into perspective how lucky we are to have the freedoms that we have and just to live in a time where war doesn’t require such sacrifice of its citizens. We may in future years hear more stories of courage from current wars, but we are too close now, I think, to make sense of it and to recognize what is really happening. I also like that Louis’s story is the story of one, not of an entire nation or an entire war.

  9. I also read Unbroken and it really stroke me as a gripping story. Even though Louis’s adventures were sometimes hard to stomach, I really had to keep on listening. I think the audiobook format brings a sense of reality which the printed edition fails to quite grasp.

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