Unbroken – Book Review

All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. – from Unbroken, preface –

Louie Zamperini grew up in Torrence, California. He was an intrepid and curious child who fearlessly forged his way through the world. Difficult to manage, always in some sort of trouble, and a talented thief from an early age, Zamperini seemed destined for the criminal life. Luckily, he had an older brother, Pete, who saw greatness in him and steered his energies towards running. Louie was a natural talent and found himself qualifying for the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5000 at only nineteen years old. Although he failed to medal, he finished a respectable seventh place in that event and caught the eye of none other than Adolph Hitler. And then WWII unfolded, drawing Zamperini into the military where, despite his fear of flying, he trained as an Army Air Forces bombardier. Sent to the Pacific, he began flying missions aboard a B24 bomber. In June of 1943 while on a rescue mission, Zamperini’s plane went down. He and two crewmen drifted aboard a life raft for more than thirty days, surviving huge waves, hot and unrelenting sun, starvation, dehydration and aggressive sharks…before drifting into Japanese waters and being taken captive. Unbroken is Zamperini’s story of survival against all the odds, but it is also the story of the War in the Pacific, the brutality which thousands of POWs faced as captives of the Japanese, and the resiliency of the human spirit.

Laura Hillenbrand brings the war to the reader with impeccable research and a talent for narrative that is hard to find in many nonfiction books. She spent seven years writing Unbroken, and has introduced a hero who is hard to forget. Hillenbrand peppers first hand accounts with facts about the war to tell Zamperini’s chronological story which is mesmerizing. There were many things I learned that I had not known before…for example, I was stunned to learn that trainees were killed at an astonishing rate before even seeing any combat. For every plane lost in combat, six planes were lost in accidents.

Pilot and navigator error, mechanical failure and bad luck were killing trainees at a stunning rate. In the Army Air Forces, or AAF, there were 52,651 stateside aircraft accidents over the course of the war, killing 14,903 personnel. – from Unbroken, page 61 –

A report issued by the AAF surgeon general suggests that in the Fifteenth Air Force, between November 1, 1943, and May 25, 1945, 70 percent of men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action. – from Unbroken, page 80 –

Perhaps even more shocking, the ability to rescue men in downed planes was dismal. Not only were planes poorly equipped for emergencies prior to mid-1944, but search planes were even more likely to crash than combat planes.

The most difficult part of this book to read was that about the lives of prisoners of war. Hillenbrand does not spare her readers any of the brutality and inhumanity which faced servicemen captured by the Japanese. She attempts to explain why those POWs captured in the Pacific theater were the most-ill treated of any prisoners.

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. – from Unbroken, page 183 –

The statistics support this cultural phenomenon – indicating that for “every Allied soldier killed, four were captured; for every 120 Japanese soldiers killed, one was captured.

Hillenbrand provides a balanced look at what happened in the POW camps – showing readers that although many Japanese soldiers delighted in the torture and debasement of prisoners, there were those who heroically tried to help POWs…and in so doing, probably saved many lives. She also provides wonderful stories of internal sabotage orchestrated by prisoners. Survival for many, depended on maintaining their dignity, helping others, and actively undermining their enemies.

I raced through this book, reading almost 300 pages in less than 24 hours (a fast pace for me). Hillenbrand is a gifted author, one who carefully uncovers the essence of what it means to be human in the face of cruelty, degradation, and hopelessness. Although graphic at times, I could not stop reading this amazing book.

The book also takes a look at the US decision to drop the A-bomb. A long controversial subject, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is something that I have always steadfastly criticized. Unbroken didn’t necessarily make me change my mind, but it did offer a view from the other side.

A few of the trains slipped past Hiroshima. Virtually every POW believed that the destruction of this city had saved them from execution. John Falconer, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, looked out as Hiroshima neared. “First there were trees,” he told historian Donald Knox. “Then the leaves were missing. As you got closer, branches were missing. Closer still, the trunks were gone and then, as you got in the middle, there was nothing. Nothing! It was beautiful. I realized this was what had ended the war. It meant we didn’t have to go hungry any longer, or go without medical treatment. I was so insensitive to anyone else’s human needs and suffering. I know it’s not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn’t. But I believed the end probably justified the means.” – from Unbroken, page 320 –

Hillenbrand provides a copious bibliography and explained that she cross-checked individual accounts against the historical record to ensure accuracy of reporting. The result is a touching biography of a resolutely courageous man. Unbroken will surely be a favorite read for book clubs – it provides much to discuss. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Highly recommended.

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    • Anna on June 7, 2011 at 11:51

    This sounds fascinating. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book, and I’m sure I’d learn a lot, too. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • Laura on June 7, 2011 at 12:33

    It’s a fascinating story isn’t it, Wendy? I liked this book too, although not quite as much as you. I do think Hillenbrand worked hard to strike balance, but I still had a hard time with that quote from p. 320, and some other aspects where I thought her balance was “off”. I think I’m in the minority on that, however.

  1. This sounds like a must read! It sounds like those men were incredibly brave.

    • Liz V. on June 7, 2011 at 17:55

    Read this book. Excellent.

    • Lisa on June 7, 2011 at 19:10

    Aw man, I had to return this one unread today. I just ran out of time. I’m back on the hold list though, so maybe next time it comes around to me I can actually read it.

  2. Weird thing, I was just thinking of this book before I clicked over to your site and saw that you had reviewed it. I really want to read this one and have had it on my shelf for awhile. It sounds excellent, and any book that you have trouble putting down is one that I know I will get enveloped in too. Fantastic review!

    • Trish on June 8, 2011 at 09:43

    I actually just learned this book was out when I was talking to my dad. I’m always a bit embarrassed when people ask, “have you heard anything about XYZ” and I have to admit that I haven’t! Like I should know all because I blog books. 😉

    Anyway, it sounds fantastic and I’m glad to hear that it’s one of your favorites of the year. I read Seabuscuit years ago and loved Hillenbrand’s diligent attention to detail and writing.

  3. UNBROKEN is on my wish list … now you’ve made it more of a priority; perhaps I’ll pick it up to bring on summer vacation.

    That’s a huge testament to Hillenbrand’s writing – that you kept reading at such a pace, even when the graphic treatment of the subject became more difficult to take in. The authenticity of her research must show in the narrative!

    • Aths on June 8, 2011 at 19:38

    I so can’t wait to read this! I read a couple of chapters when this book came out at my local B&N and was so mesmerized by the writing.

    • Wendy on June 13, 2011 at 06:49

    Anna: Thanks for the link up 🙂

    Laura: I remember your review. I think it was probably hard for Hillenbrand to maintain any balance since she spent so much time with the POWs involved…I was glad she did show that not all the Japanese were these monsters.

    Kathy: I think it is definitely a must read!

    Liz: Glad you also loved it.

    Lisa: Sorry you didn’t get to finish it – maybe you can borrow it again?

    Heather: Can’t wait to read your thoughts on it!

    Trish: I really need to read Seabiscuit! I know what you mean about people thinking you know about every book out there just because you blog books *laughs*

    Dawn: She is a fantastic writer – this would be a great book for the summer!

    Aths: You know that when you get mesmerized in the bookstore, you should get the book!

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