Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand
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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption Summary

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a novel by Laura Hillenbrand, which details the life of Louis Zamperini.

  • The 1940 Olympic Games were canceled due to WWII. Louis, who had been training for the games, was drafted.
  • In 1943, Louis and his crew crashed in the Pacific. They were rescued by Japanese soldiers, who shipped them to a POW camp.
  • Louis remained in the POW camp for two years. When the war ended in 1945, he was taken home to the United States to recover.
  • In 1998, Louis returned to Japan to carry the Olympic torch.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2169

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is the account of Pacific prisoner of war (POW) Louis Zamperini as told to and researched by Laura Hillenbrand. The book follows Louie’s life from his birth and upbringing to his glorious career as an Olympic track star, to...

(The entire section contains 2169 words.)

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is the account of Pacific prisoner of war (POW) Louis Zamperini as told to and researched by Laura Hillenbrand. The book follows Louie’s life from his birth and upbringing to his glorious career as an Olympic track star, to his time spent as a bombardier in WWII and as a Pacific POW, and through his long recovery back home in California.

Louis Silvie Zamperini, born in 1917, is the son of Anthony and Louise Zamperini. They were both Italian immigrants who settled in Torrance, California, to the distaste of neighbors who did not necessarily want an Italian family in their midst. Growing up, Louie suffered from pneumonia, which left his lungs compromised and his stature small. But as he grew into his teenage years, Louie became strong—and dangerous. Louie frequently stole and fought, and he had little ambition. His brother Pete, whom he idolized, begged the principal of their high school to allow Louie to join a sport to give him some focus. So Louie joined the track team and Pete coached him. Louie put all his effort into track and looked up to Glenn Cunningham, who (after a severe injury) was hailed as the greatest mile runner in America. Soon Louie began breaking records in races, and he took the title as the fastest high school miler in 1934 during the Southern California Track and Field Championship. Louie then set his sights on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Louie became the youngest distance runner to make the Olympic team, having qualified in a 5K trial race against some of the best in the sport. Louie was unseasoned, young, and twelve pounds heavier from having gorged himself on the trip to Europe. At the Games, he was no match for the Finnish runners; however, he put everything he had into the race and finished just shy of seventh place. He clocked in at 56 seconds for his last lap—a historic feat. As the Games in Germany came to an end, Louie could sense that something terrible was coming.

As Louie prepared for the 1940 Olympic Games, Japan and Germany began to exert power and control over other nations. The Olympic Games were cancelled, and Louie was drafted into the air corps in late 1941 to serve as a bombardier. Life in the armed forces was relatively quiet for Louie until December 1941: Louie was at the Pacific theatre when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Soon after, Japan seized many territories in the Pacific, and America officially entered the war. Louie and the other airmen were then called into duty, and Louie was sent on bomb raids. He manned his position with the Norden sight, a device that would assume the flight of the plane, calculate a target angle, and drop a bomb at the best moment. Louie flew with pilot Russell Allen Phillips, known as Phil by his fellow airmen. Phil, Louie, and the other members of their team made up crew No. 8 in the 372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, Seventh Air Force. They were given a B-24 plane, which they named Super Man. Their first mission came in December 1942—dismantle the Japanese base on Wake Atoll. The mission was successful.

As the training and missions continued, many men were lost, and Louie was dismayed by the disappearance and death of men whom he considered his friends. Airmen feared going out on the planes because the threats to their lives were many: enemy fire, technological malfunctions, flying accidents, bad weather, ill treatment and enslavement of POWs, insufficient provisions on life rafts, sharks, and harried search and rescue efforts. In 1943 during a raid of Nauru, the crew of Super Man took heavy fire from a squad of Japanese Zeroes yet managed to land—without brakes—on the island of Funafuti. The Japanese bombed the island that evening, but Phil and Louie survived by hiding in a bomb shelter.

Back at base in Oahu, the crew was reassembled and sent on a rescue mission in a poorly refurbished plane called Green Hornet. During the mission, the engines on the left side of the plane suddenly stopped working. Phil and his copilot, Cuppernell, tried to right the plane, but Green Hornet crashed into the Pacific Ocean near the Palmyra Atoll, killing the entire crew save Phil, Louie, and Mac, the crew’s tail gunner. Two life rafts had been ejected from the plane, and the men managed to climb aboard the rafts. Soon they were surrounded by mako and reef sharks, and the men had to figure out how to survive.

The rescue crew never found the survivors of the Green Hornet’s crash, and the men were lost at sea for forty-seven days. During their time on the raft, the men had to scavenge for food by catching albatross, terns, and pilot fish. They caught rainwater using makeshift funnels; they fended off sharks, including a great white that leaped at the raft. They bore the abuse of the sun, wind, and weather. They took enemy fire from a Japanese plane and struggled to repair the holes in the rafts. They suffered the death of Mac, who wasted away before their eyes. Finally, they pushed away the insanity that surely comes with being stranded at sea. Louie and Phil were ecstatic when on day forty-six they saw what they thought was an island. The “island” turned out to be a boat; Japanese officers and crewmen rescued Louie and Phil and nursed their wounds in the infirmary. The pair had drifted two thousand miles west of their crash site. They were taken to an atoll in the Marshall Islands, but the officers were required to handover Louie and Phil—now POWs—to the camp in Kwajalein, otherwise known as Execution Island. The sending officer told them that their safety could not be guaranteed.

At Kwajalein, Louie and Phil were put into squalid cells and were soon covered in lice and mosquito bites. They were given little food and water and endured daily beatings. They lived in continual fear that they would be executed like the nine marines who were previously kept in the camp were. The Japanese officers interrogated Louie, wanting to know about the design of the American bomber planes. Louie told lies and gave the locations of fake airfields in Hawaii. Afterward, Louie and Phil were moved to another interrogation center called Ofuna, where “high-value” men were taken and tortured to persuade them to divulge military secrets and information. The Japanese officers argued that the men kept at Ofuna were not POWs but rather “unarmed combatants” against Japan; therefore, they were not subject to the protection of international laws. Here, the men were given as little as 500 calories per day in food rations while the officers stole provisions and sold them on the black market to line their pockets. Dying of starvation, disease, and abuse, the captured men only looked forward to hearing news of the progression of the war in hopes that the end was near.

At the end of September 1944, Louie was told that he and some other men were being taken to a new camp; Phil was sent to a camp in Zentsuji. Louie and the other men were sent to Omori, a POW camp on a small island in Tokyo Bay. Here, Louie would endure a fearful oppressor who would haunt him for much of his life—Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Rejected for positions of higher authority, Watanabe, whom the POWs at Omori nicknamed the Bird, took out his rage on the POWs. He labeled Louie “prisoner number one” and took to abusing Louie at every possible moment; no one could explain the erratic rage he directed toward Louie. Other POWs at Omori were forced to work on dangerous sites and sabotaged elements of the camp whenever possible, overturning equipment and stealing provisions. Soon Louie found out why he had been spared—producers from a Japanese broadcasting company arrived at the camp and asked him to send a message home through their radio show. The Zamperini family, who had been informed that Louie was missing at sea and considered dead, were shocked and happy to hear his voice on the radio. The producers asked Louie to give another broadcast, but this time the producers wrote his message, and Louie realized that the government intended to use him, an American celebrity, as a tool for propaganda. Louie refused to cooperate and was told that he would be sent to a punishment camp.

The officers were distracted by the sudden appearance of American B-29 bomber planes flying over Omori to other parts of Japan. As the days went on, more and more planes were seen overhead. Tension mounted. The Bird became more and more vicious but was transferred before the New Year to another POW camp. Life in Omori became more bearable after the departure of the Bird, but on the Bird’s request, Louie was again transferred to another camp, Naoetsu, the camp to which the Bird had been relocated. At Naoetsu, many Australian POWs were kept and many had already died, the boxes of their ashes stacked up the barracks. At this camp, the Bird ordered the men to perform grueling work shoveling coal. The Bird’s treatment of the POWs was so demoralizing that a group of them, Louie included, constructed a plot to murder him. But the POWs soon learned that Germany surrendered in the war and that only Japan was left to bear the Allied forces.

The POWs at Naoetsu feared that as Japan lost the war, the “kill-all” order would be issued against the POWs as it had been in other locations. On August 1, 1945, the POWs watched as the largest air raid of WWII was staged overhead. Five days later, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; three days after that, another was dropped on Nagasaki. The cities disappeared. The following week, Louie became gravely ill, suffering from beriberi, a disease caused by thiamine deficiency. Bloody stools caused him severe dehydration, and he lost more weight from an already ravaged body. Louie left the barracks and saw that all the Japanese officers had fled the camp. The war was over.

Louie and POWs around Japan were taken by train and plane to Okinawa, where they received care and food. Announcements were sent to their families. Louie was sent first to a hospital in Honolulu and then to another in San Francisco. His brother Pete met him at the latter, and then they traveled home together. Louie had not seen his family in four years.

Adjusting to life after the war was not easy for Louie. On the outside he seemed well enough, but he was haunted by nightmares, especially of the Bird coming after him. Evidence of the war crimes committed by officials in the Japanese military surfaced, and a list of forty war criminals topped by Hideki Tojo was released by the supreme commander of the Allied powers. But Louie’s tormenter, Watanabe, had fled and hid in the countryside to evade punishment.

In March 1946, Louie went to Miami Beach for the two weeks of rest and relaxation that were awarded to all returning servicemen. There he met and fell in love with Cynthia Applewhite; two weeks later, the two decided to marry. Cynthia’s parents begged them to wait, but following their hearts, the couple married in a small ceremony on May 25. After the marriage, Louie tried to train for the next Olympic Games, but he pushed himself too hard and exacerbated a leg injury that he sustained during abuse in Naoetsu. He was told he would never run again. Frustrated by the erasure of his dreams, unemployment, and continual nightmares, Louie fell into a serious state of alcoholism that damaged his life and his marriage. He began having flashbacks and was consumed by a desire to murder Watanabe. Unable to bear the stress and fear of living with Louie, Cynthia left with their infant daughter, Cissy, and returned to her parents’ home. Later, Cynthia returned and urged Louie to attend a sermon by the Evangelical preacher Billy Graham. After a few visits, Louie renewed his vow to turn his life around—he stopped drinking and smoking and put his faith in God. Cynthia and their daughter went back to Louie, and they began their life together again.

In 1950, Louie returned to Japan to visit the Sugamo Prison where the POW camp guards were jailed. He felt relief and forgiveness for these men. He was told that the Bird was dead, but many years later, Louie learned that Watanabe had just been hiding in the countryside. When he was found, the Bird expressed remorse over his violent behavior but said he did everything in the name of his country. He ultimately declined a meeting with Louie.

Louie went back to Japan again years later—this time to run the Olympic torch in 1998. Now, instead of misery, all Louie saw were smiling faces.

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