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

By Laura Hillenbrand

Random House | 2010

Reviewed (Book & Movie) by Jane M McCabe

Laura Hillenbrand

When a good friend told me that I should read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand I didn’t hesitate downloading it onto my Kindle and begin reading it. I had been curious as to its longevity on the best seller’s lists.

Though I appreciated the fortitude Louis Zamperini displayed when he was yet a young man, winning the 1939 Olympics in track, I wasn’t drawn into the story UNTIL it told of the United States entering World War II in 1941 when Louie enlisted and became a bombardier in the Pacific theater.

Laura Hillenbrand’s writing style is like that of a reporter, in that she states the facts, one after another with little embellishment.   Louie Zamperini  had a remarkable memory as he told her his story. I was impressed by the immediacy of the writing, especially in the scenes where his plane was being bombarded and riddled with bullet holes.

I didn’t know who Laura Hillenbrand was as I had not read her other best seller, Seabiscuit.

Returning on the Megabus from the Bay Area to Los Angeles after Christmas, to make up for having spilled coffee on me, the gentlemen next to me gave me two issues of The New York Times magazine. I was pleased to find in the December 21, 2014 issue an article on Ms. Hillenbrand titled “Unbreakable.”

Reading it, I learned that Ms. Hillenbrand is 47 and has what is sometimes called “chronic fatigue syndrome,” but which is more accurately known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Because of the debilitating illness, she rarely leaves her home in Washington, D.C.—she is as secluded as the great hermetic novelists; her seclusion brings to mind that of the great poet Emily Dickenson.

By the time Ms. Hillenbrand embarked on writing Unbroken in 2003, Louis Zamperini was 86 (he died just last summer at the age of 97.) Since he lived in California and no longer traveled, they couldn’t easily meet. “Over the next seven years, as she researched and wrote ‘Unbroken,’ they would speak by phone hundreds of times but never meet in person…”

On May 27, 1943, the Green Hornet, the plane Louie and his comrades were commandeering, crashed in the Pacific. Louie and two other air force officers, Phil and Mac, survived the crash. For the next 47 days they were adrift on two rubber life rafts, often surrounding by cunning sharks, who would have liked nothing better than to make lunch of them…

Now my attention was riveted. The life rafts were poorly provisioned. They had neither food nor containers with which to catch rain water. To survive, they caught and ate raw the occasional albatrosses that lit on the rafts. They battled the sharks, Phil and Mac smacking their noses when Louie was overboard. They kept their sanity by playing memory games and by recounting in minute detail dishes their mothers had prepared. I vowed never again to complain about whatever minor physical deprivation I might be subjected to…

All told they drifted nearly 3000 miles to the west across the Pacific before they were finally rescued, only I use the word “rescued” lightly because they were found by Japanese sailors. Their rescue was a case of “out-of-the pot and into-the-fire.” For the next two years they were held in various Japanese camps, where their treatment was deplorable. They were nearly starved to death, subjected to back-breaking work and tortured.

Under the Third Geneva Convention, (actually, this version was not ratified until 1949) prisoners of war (POWs) must be:

All of these stipulations the Japanese summarily ignored.

Reading Unbroken was for me a life changing event! I had no idea of the brutality American/British POWs were subjected to…

One guard was an utter psychopath. When he learned Louie had been an Olympic athlete he targeted him and made his life hell. The man’s name was Watanabe, but the POWs called him “Bird.”

When someone is tormented over a length of time and lives with the fear that his tormentor will eventually murder him, he doesn’t walk away free and clear when the abuse has ended. Talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! Being repeatedly degraded and humiliated but not being able to retaliate for fear it will bring about his death if he does so, so worked on Louie’s psyche that his mental anguish continued.

He was so haunted by violent dreams that he became an alcoholic; his only comforts were inebriation and his plan to return to Japan, hunt down the Bird and kill him.

The paradox of vengefulness is that is makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them. They believe that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.

Four years after returning from the war, Louie was living in an apartment in Hollywood, lost in alcohol and with plans to murder the Bird. His wife, Cynthia returned from Florida but was staying only until she could arrange a divorce. They lived in glum coexistence, each one out of answers. When Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on one of his crusades, Cynthia went alone to hear him and was moved what he said.

She persuaded Louie to attend one of Graham’s sermons.

Graham preached from the 8th chapter of John—the story of the woman taken in adultery. Jesus says, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”

Graham asked his listeners how long it had been since they had prayed in earnest. He said that God takes down your life from the time you are born to the time you die. And, when you stand before God on Judgment Day, you might say, ‘Lord, I wasn’t such a bad fellow,’ and then they will show a moving picture of your life, from the cradle to the grave. You’re going hear every thought that was going through mind every minute of every day, and you’re going to hear the words you said. Your thoughts and your deeds are going to condemn you as your stand before God on that day, and God is going to say, “Depart from me.”

And Louie knew he was a good man but he also knew what he had become.

When he went again to hear Graham, Graham asked, why is God silent while good men suffer?

What God asks of men, Graham said, is faith. His invisibility is the truest test of that faith.

As Louie listened, he recalled praying when he was lost at sea and promising God that if He would save him, he would dedicate his life to Him.

Right then and there he renewed his pledge. He returned home, threw out all of his alcohol and cigarettes, and, perhaps most importantly, because Christianity asks believers forgive those who have wronged them, HE FORGAVE THE BIRD FOR WHAT HE HAD DONE TO HIM.

In that moment his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness fell away.

The letter Louie wrote to Watanabe might be used as a model for people who wanted to confront those who have harmed them and offer them forgiveness.

Louie states in a forthright manner what was done to him without belaboring it. Then he tells the consequences of that abuse: “The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble…but, thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, ‘forgive your enemies and pray for them.’”  He ends his letter by saying, “I forgave you and now hope that you will also become a Christian.”

The Bird was not punished. Knowing that he would be brought to justice when the war ended, he went into hiding. On December 30, 1958, as part of the reconciliation between the United States and Japan, prison guards guilty of crimes against the POWs, were granted amnesty. The Bird then emerged from hiding, married, fathered several children, and became a successful business man.

When Louie returned to Japan in 1950, he was informed that the Bird was still alive! Louie wanted to convey his forgiveness in person, so he sent a message to the Bird, asking to see him.  The Bird refused.


In order to make a movie of a book so rich in content as Unbroken inevitably a certain amount of cutting and shaping must be done. It’s a matter of emphasis, how to best illuminate a book’s essence. Here I felt the movie fell short…perhaps, I should say that, if given the chance, I would have done it differently, for the movie mostly focuses on Zamperini’s experiences as a bombardier, the 47 days he and his comrades were adrift in the Pacific, and his experiences as a POW in Japan, where he was tortured by the psychopathic Watanabe (had the war existed for a week longer Zamperini may not have survived.) All of this is great stuff but I don’t think the movie did justice to his redemption.

I also didn’t think the actor who played Watanabe was well cast. He was too effete, haughty but without the brute, sexual strength described in the book. I would have welcomed if his mental illness had been dramatized more fully—after he beat prisoners within an inch of their lives, he would suckle up to them and say he was sorry—he derived sexual pleasure from his sadism—but soon he returned to his sadistic ways.

No mention was made in the movie that the war ended when the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9th, which, of course, caused Japan to immediately surrender. The POWs feared when the war ended that the Japanese would kill them all, but, thankfully, it seems that they were so demoralized by their defeat that they lost the will to carry through on this evil intent.

The only attention paid to the war’s aftermath was in the form of postscripts added at the film’s end, therefore, Louie’s torment, his desire for revenge and his redemption were pretty much ignored.

The best of works of art are those that bring about a change in the viewer. Some years ago, when I was seminary student, I determined that the only way peace would ever be achieved on earth was when people, no matter how gruesome the offense, forgave the perpetrators. I continued to believe this but often lacked examples which show the transformative power of forgiveness. Unbroken personifies this principle.

Louie died last summer at the age of 97, 69 years after he was released from the Japanese prison camp. He had spent the last two-thirds of his life building and helping run camps for underprivileged children, a happy man.

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