August 19, 2011

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

Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of Unbroken (if only it was getting more coverage or was by a better-known author. Oh, wait. I guess I just completely missed the boat on this one).

Then, while visiting Bart's family in Utah, I saw it sitting on the kitchen counter, read the first chapter, and promptly requested it from my library to finish once I got home.

I knew absolutely nothing about Louis Zamperini. All I knew from the jacket flap was that his plane went down during WWII and he survived on a life raft for quite a ridiculously long time.

But there's so much more than that. First, there is his childhood, where he is a terror to his town, stealing, fighting, and generally convincing everyone that he'll come to no good.

Then, in high school, his older brother, Pete, steps in and gets him to join the track team. With somewhere to channel his excess energy, he discovers that he's actually a pretty brilliant runner. He qualifies for the Berlin Olympics, and there is a lot of talk that he'll be the one to break the four-minute mile (a topic I happen to be fascinated by, thanks to my dad's reading of The Perfect Mile a few years ago).

Although he performs well in Berlin, he really is a little too young to be a serious contender for distance running (apparently distance running is more of an older man's sport - who knew?), so he has his eyes set on the 1940 Olympics.

But then, of course, the war comes and the Olympics and his running dreams are put on hold and he ends up in the Air Force as a bombardier.

I hadn't realized how treacherous flying a plane in WWII was. In state side training, 15,000 Air Corps men died. When the real fighting started and bombing missions were going on, 36,000 died in non-combat accidents. Louis flew in a B-24 (the same plane my grandfather flew, also as a bombardier, although he was doing European missions, rather than Pacific missions).

In one mission, just weeks before his plane went down, Louis' plane sustained such intense fire that, when it landed safely (or, you know, safely enough) back at the US base, they counted 594 bullet holes in the plane.

Louis' luck didn't hold, though, and when he was sent on a reconnaissance mission on a plane known to be in poor condition, the engines failed and the plane dropped out of the sky, into the Pacific ocean. Of the eleven men on board, only three survived the crash.

And then Louis and the other two men begin a 47 day odyssey aboard an inflatable raft. There are some chocolate bars stored on it (made to be highly highly caloric and also very bitter so that the men aboard the planes wouldn't be tempted to eat them in a non-emergency. Two squares a day could keep you alive for a while), but in a panic, one of the men eats all three bars the first night.

The saga of how they survive the raft would be story enough, but then they're eventually picked up (after losing some 50% of their body weight) by Japanese soldiers who send them to POW camps on mainland Japan.

And suddenly the raft part of the story is sounding like the fun part.

There is so much I could talk about in this book - Louis' eventual conversion to Christianity, years after the war, as he reflects on the three times on the raft that they knew they'd die if it didn't rain within the next day, and he prays, telling God he'll dedicate his life to Him if his life will be preserved (all three times, it rains that night or the next morning); how a Japanese plane tries to shoot them out of the water and the bullets are all around the raft, and even between the two men lying motionless, but none of them are even grazed by a single bullet.

I can't stop telling my running partners about how, the morning of the crash, Louis runs a mile in the sand and clocks it at four minutes and twelve seconds. I've regaled Bart with stats about how for every US soldier killed in WWII, four were taken prisoner. For ever 120 Japanese soldiers killed, one was taken prisoner.

When the epilogue of the story talked about Louis continuing to love athletics throughout his life and taking up skateboarding at the age of seventy, I laughed and then I teared up.

In an NPR interview, Laura Hillenbrand says she rarely refers to him as a hero; instead she wants his story to stand as just one example of the experiences of many soldiers during WWII. And she does an excellent job doing just that.

Of course, Louis Zamperini's story is astounding, but I never once had the impression that either he or Hillenbrand felt like the only way he survived was because he was somehow stronger or braver or better than other men.

Near the end of the book, Louis' older brother, Pete, is quoted as saying that he never met someone who didn't like Louis. I felt just that way after reading this book - he's someone you'd want to know, with whom you'd want to be friends.

But even a fantastic story and subject needs more than that to stand on. Happily, Unbroken has it all. I tend to judge non-fiction on how well it integrates background information into the storyline. Does the author seem to be bent on cramming in every piece of trivia they rounded up while researching? Does the author appear to believe every reader has a PhD level understanding of biology?

This book gave an enormous amount of background on the war, Louis' family and the families of those he came in contact with, the Air Force, planes, prisoner of war experiences, and other people who survived (or didn't survive) on rafts in the ocean. And yet I never felt like it was extraneous. It always served the purpose of making Louis' story more real, and more understandable. Not once did I think, "Why is THIS in here?"

I listened to this one on audio and it was phenomenally done. I particularly like listening to non-fiction and history because I'm not making up my own pronunciation.

It really is a brilliant book. It's informative, moving, inspiring, educational, and sometimes even funny. What more could you possibly ask for in a book? I couldn't ask for more.

[Edited to Add: Julie correctly noted that, due to the subject matter, there are some fairly graphic and violent aspects to the book. I never felt like it was gratuitous, but keep in mind that it is a war story and a POW experience at that].

Book checked out from my local library's Overdrive audiobook collection


  1. You've sold me. Sounds great.

  2. I loved the book as much as you but I also think it is worth noting that it is intense and graphic and it is going to be too much for some readers.

  3. Wow. I've heard this book is really good, but I had chills after reading your review. I'm putting my name on the list at the library right NOW. Thanks!

  4. I've read great things about this book, and now thanks to your gushing tweets and review, have requested the audiobook from my library. Now to wait until it finally comes in for me!

  5. Um, wow. I am adding this to my list right now.

  6. Wow this sounds phenomenal. I'm going to request it right now.

    Let me get this right - over 15,000 men died just in TRAINING? I thought it was bad that 1 potential Navy SEAL died while testing to become a SEAL. That is insane. Thank heavens for safter aircraft these days.

  7. My grandpa was Jesse Stay (my little boy is named after him). There were 16 officers in his first barracks when he first arrived in Hawaii. By the end of the war, my grandpa was one of 4 that were still alive and 2 of the 4 had been POWs for 2 years. Louie Zamperini was one of the two who had spent time in the Japanese POW camp. He and my grandpa remained good friends throughout his life. Grandpa always thought very highly of him. He told me the story of the 594 bullet holes before he died. They were such amazing men!

    I'm two people away from getting this book from the library! I can't wait.

  8. My very favorite read of the summer. Almost every adult in my family has read this book now. I found myself not only emotionally connected and cheering for Louie but for "Phil" as well and for all the "boys." I thought the range of emotion expressed in the book, even though it was presented in somewhat of a dry voice was phenomenal. It made me want to read Seabiscuit. I also loved how Louie talked about being saved by forgiveness. One of my favorite quotes from the book was "The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer."

  9. I listened to this book on It was so good and so glad that I listened it. I have told several people what a good book this it. It is one that is not easily forgotten.

  10. This looks really good---thanks for the recommendation!

    As a side note, I didn't know you were a runner. This makes me like you even more!

  11. I KNOW, RIGHT?!

    I, too, listened to the audiobook and Edward Herrmann does a *fantastic* job with the narration. His voice is just right for the part - kind of a classic feel to it, like my grandpa's sitting and telling me the story. (Of course I might think that because I always think of him as Rory's grandpa on Gilmore Girls...)

  12. War is something which can never be understood by those who weren't in it, but we have to do our best in trying to avoid it at all costs.

  13. I have heard about the airplane with 597 bullet holes but that's it! I'm so getting this one as I've always been obsessed with WWII.

    North Meets South

  14. Was trying to decide which audiobook to request and was considering this one. Came over because I vaguely remembered you reviewing it. Thank you, and done.

  15. Yup. Sold. I'll be reading that tomorrow. :)
    You seem to like the non-fiction/ motivating/ thought provoking books. I whole-heartedly recommend "Led by Faith" by Immaculee Ilibagiza. She is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. It is her story of how she discovered God and how to truly forgive while shacked up in a closet for 3 months with 5 other girls. The book goes from the closet hiding to her life afterwards. Remarkable, inspiring, and mind-blowing. Seriously, check it out. :)

    Chaun from


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