New Maine Times Book Review 25 May 2011

Posted Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review 25 May 2011
By Laura Hillenbrand.
Random House, 2010.
473 pages, $27.00.
ISBN 978-1-4000-6416-8.

Reviewed by William D. Bushnell

In 1943 Lieutenant Louis Zamperini was a hot-shot B-24 Liberator bombardier flying bombing missions in the Pacific in World War II.  His two greatest fears were crashing into the ocean and being captured by the Japanese.  Then on May 27, 1943, his worst fears became his worst nightmares.
UNBROKEN is award-winning and best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand's gripping true story of one of World War II's most incredible odysseys, how one man triumphantly survived the horrors of war and the brutality of his captors.  Hillenbrand is also the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed non-fiction book, SEABISCUIT, about the Depression-era racehorse.
Here she tackles the complex biography of a man whose wild childhood and college years, and his world-wide fame as an Olympic long-distance runner equipped him with the ingenuity, courage, and stamina to endure a crash-landing at sea and a year and a half as a defiant prisoner of war in a notorious Japanese prison camp, Camp 4B, "one of the blackest holes in the Japanese Empire."
Hillenbrand spent seven years researching and writing this book, working closely with Louis Zamperini who quipped, "I'll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit because I can talk."  The result is an inspirational story of high adventure, a testimonial to the strength of the human spirit, and a fitting tribute to the Amerian and allied POWs who suffered terribly during the war.
As Hillenbrand reveals, Zamperini grew up in Southern California where he was a wild kid, a delinquent prankster with a sassy mouth and a penchant for petty theft.  He became a famous track star and long-distance runner in high school and college, breaking records and competing in the 1936 Oympic Games in Berlin (where he admits he shook Adolf Hitler's hand).
By 1943, however, he was a B-24 bombardier in the Pacific, still brash and cocky, and a very good aviator.  His nightmare ordeal began when his bomber crashed into the sea and he and two other crewmen barely survived 47 days in a life raft, drifting 2000 miles into Japanese captivity at Kwajalein Island, known as "Execution Island" for grim reason.
As a prisoner Zamperini is beaten and starved, suffering horribly for a year and a half, shuttled to various camps, each worse than the last.  Hillenbrand spares no gruesome detail in telling how Zamperini and hundreds of other American and allied POWs are brutalized by sadistic, murderous guards - subject to deliberate torture, starvation, disease, medical experiments, daily beatings, humiliation, and extreme cruelty.  Many prisoners died, some simply went mad.
She also wisely and poignantly tells of the families of the POWs, loved ones waiting for word that never comes, knowing only that their men are "missing," but praying they may still be alive.
She vividly describes the POWs' joy at the end of the war in 1945, and the long road home, the freedom, food, medical care, and humane treatment so long denied by the Japanese.  Sadly, many POWs succumb to their injuries, both physical and mental, with alcoholism providing their only escape from trauma and despair.  And while many of their Japanese captors are convicted and hanged at war crimes trials, Zamperini's chief tormentor escapes the hangman.
This is a powerful, visceral story, revealing that these POW survivors "had an intimate understanding of man's vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it."  Zamperini is still alive, in his 90s, living in California.
For other interesting reading about American prisoners of the Japanese during World War II, see Jim Lehrer's fascinating novel, THE SPECIAL PRISONER (Public Affairs, 2001).       
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