Friday, July 29, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand

The B-24, the predecessor of the mighty B-29

This is the second book I’ve read by Hillenbrand. She’s a talented writer of the true story and both of these books are worth a read!
by Charlie Leck

I started to call this a book review, but changed my mind. I know nothing about technically reviewing a book. Instead, this is just a book recommendation for you. I’ll say enough about it, however, that you’ll be able to determine if this is the kind of book for you.

A half dozen years ago, or so, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. It was a really well written and captivating account of the great race horse – and it was subsequently made into a very successful movie. From a pure enjoyment standpoint, I rated that first Hillenbrand book very highly.

Now she’s written UNBROKEN. It was recommended to me by a number of people whose opinion about books I trust. I, in turn, am recommending it to you. It’s one helluva book and one riveting story set during the pre-World War II years and also during the time of that war.

The book is a biographical account of the extraordinary athlete Louie Zamperini who had so desperately looked forward to the 1940 Olympics. He had intended to smash records there. He was already within a few seconds of the four minute mile many years before Roger Bannister finally cracked that heroic mark. Had the war not come, Louie would have accomplished the feat many years before Bannister.

The set-up information about Zamperini’s youth and his track success before and during the 1936 Olympics is all great fun and entertaining reading. However, the real story here is about Louie’s survival on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean for 46 days with no provisions other than a pint of water AND then of his survival in brutal Japanese prison camps.

Dozens of times you’ll want to say: “I don’t believe it!” Louie Zamperini and his buddy and pilot, Russell Allen Phillips (Phil) are the heroes of this great story. They survived on the mighty sea against all odds and they survived the wretchedness of the war prisons.

When the Japanese pulled them off their life raft, they each weighted less than 80 pounds. They had survived using every skill and every ounce of strength they could muster. When they realized what life would be like in the prison camps, they longed to be back on their tiny raft and floating aimlessly at sea.

Hillenbrand tells the story so well that you will go to these places with Louie and Phil and you’ll be gripped by the adventure in ways that you won’t believe. It’s an account about survival among the mighty sharks – and survival without food and water – and, even worse, survival when your human dignity has been stripped away.

“The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter. But on Kwajelein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live. One American airman, shot down and relentlessly debased by his Japanese captors, described the state of mind that his captivity created: ‘I was literally becoming a lesser human being.’”

So, this is a book broken into three parts: (1) Louie Zap’s youth and track success; (2) Louie’s and Phil’s survival at sea; and (3) Louie’s and Phil’s survival in the horrific Japanese prison camps. Your emotions will rise and fall in each section and there will also be many surprises for you. You’ll laugh at times and cuss at others. You’ll revel in victory and cringe at defeat.

“On one of the last days of October 1944, Louie pushed a wheelbarrow over the Omori bridge, through the village at the bridge’s end, and into Tokyo. With him were another POW and a guard; they’d be ordered to pick up meat for the POW rations. Louie had been in Japan for thirteen months, but this was the first time that he had passed, unblindfolded into the society that held him captive.

“Tokyo was bled dry. There were no young men anywhere. The war had caused massive shortages in food and goods, and the markets and restaurants were shuttered. The civilians were slipshod and unbathed. Everyone knew that the Americans were coming, and the city seemed to be holding its breath. Teams of children and teenagers were shoveling out slit trenches and tearing down buildings to make firebreaks.

“Louie, the other POW, and the guard arrived at a slaughterhouse, where their wheelbarrow was filled with horse meat. As they pushed it back toward Omori, Louie looked up at a building and saw graffiti scrawled over one wall. It said, B Niju Ku. The first character was simple enough, the English letter B. Louie knew that niju meant twenty and ku meant nine, though he didn’t know that ku carried another meaning: pain, calamity, affliction. Louie walked the wheelbarrow into Omori, wondering what ‘B twenty-nine’ referred to, and why someone would write it a on a wall.”

The incredible B-29 would bring the war to end in both Europe and the South Pacific. When Louie and Phil were taken prisoner, it had not yet begun to fly. After their long period of isolation at sea and after the attempts to break their minds and spirits in unbelievably cruel prison camps, the two airmen remained proudly unbroken. Their story is mind blowing and amazing! Hillenbrand tells it beautifully.


  1. After this review how can I resist not getting the book.Incidentally,thank you for your flattering comment on my last post.- Tony

  2. I highly recommend it and tip my hat to the author for her personal courage and tenacity in writing a great book.

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