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

Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken Summary

Louis Zamperini is a true American hero. He was born in Torrance, California to Italian immigrants and was a high school track star. In 1936, he represented the United States at the Olympic Games in Berlin, taking seventh in his race.

  • Unrest in Europe resulted in the 1940 Olympic Games being canceled. Louie, who'd been in training, was drafted into the air force, where he served in the 372nd bomb squadron.
  • In 1943, Louie and his crew crashed in the Pacific. The men were lost at see for forty-seven days, during which time they drifted two thousand miles. Louie and the remaining survivors were rescued by Japanese soldiers, who treated their wounds before shipping them to a POW camp on Execution Island.
  • For two years, Louie struggled to survive in the POW camp. When the war ended in 1945, he was taken home to the United States to recover. It took Louie many years, but he was finally able to come to terms with the abuse he suffered during the war. In 1998, he returned to the Olympics—this time carrying the Olympic torch.


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...

(The entire section is 2169 words.)