The really great thing about this book is that it deals with a theme that almost everyone can relate to. That theme is surviving and maintaining personal dignity throughout life.
Picture of Louie
The story is basically a full biography of Louie Zamperini. Louie grew up as a bit of a trouble maker, but his skills in running away from trouble were eventually put to better use. When he discovered running, his talent for fleeing quickly translated into athletic prowess, which enabled him to pursue a career as a mile-runner. Things were looking pretty good for Louie when he qualified for the Olympics, but unfortunately around that time World War 2 began.
It is in this World War 2 setting that the theme of ‘Unbroken’ hits its stride. Louie entered the US Air Force and served on B-24’s until he had an unfortunate accident on a search and rescue mission. The accident left Louie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with nothing more than a survival raft and two other survivors. However, rather than simply accepting his doom, Louie and Phil (his co-survivor*) fought tooth and nail to stay alive.
The really fascinating and inspiring element of this story was the attitude of the two survivors on the raft. Rather than surrendering to despair and hopelessness, Louie and Phil were confident that their ingenuity and determination would ensure their survival. This part of the book is particularly cool, as they use a lot of really clever techniques to survive in the Pacific Ocean. They spent their time discussing philosophy, their personal lives, and their favorite foods in order to keep their minds active and prevent mental decay. They did this while fending off the almost constant shark attacks, and even managed to survive an attack from a Japanese scout plane.
And after 48 days on the Pacific, they finally floated to land!
Which, unfortunately, was occupied by the Japanese.
This is the part of the book where it becomes really difficult to keep reading, as Louie’s life becomes so brutally difficult. Louie was already in poor health from his 48-day stretch in the Pacific, and is then forced to deal with two years of inhumane imprisonment. Not surprisingly, his time in the camps is a hell on earth, and is made even worse by the fact that a particular Japanese military official took an interest in trying to break Louie. He is forced to endure the Japanese attempts to eliminate his humanity via beatings, absurd rituals, and terrible living conditions.
The really impressive thing about this section of the book was how determined the Allied POW’s were to maintain their dignity. They took care of each other to the best of their ability, and created quite a few clever systems to hurt the Japanese war effort in whatever way they could. They would do things like making equipment safe enough to pass inspection, but have a hidden fatal flaw that would lead to its failure. They also stole whenever they could, and actually had a supply of rice that they would use for anyone that become (even more) dangerously malnourished.
Eventually, the war was finally ended thanks to the devastating power of the Atomic Bomb. This led to the POW’s release, and transport back home to the United States. Sadly though, this also led to the most depressing part of the book, which describes the PTSD that many of the soldiers faced after the war. Louie was no exception to the soldiers scarred by the war, and sunk into a destructive period of alcoholism.
Fortunately though, Louie had a happy ending to the story. I’m going to leave this part as a bit of a surprise, but rest assured it is worth reading through the hard parts.
Overall, the book excelled in the survival sections, and remained interesting and powerfully thematic even in the depressing sections. The book offers a fresh perspective on how precious life is, and the extent to which humans can fight to survive even the most impossible conditions.
It is an interesting read, and a fascinating historical insight into the lives of people who endured unbelievable hardships.