Everybody loves an underdog story, which is why readers thrilled to Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand‘s unexpected megaseller about a prizewinning horse in the Depression. But while she was researching that book, Hillenbrand kept coming across references to another underdog: Olympic runner and WWII POW Louis Zamperini. Now she offers his biography in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
Zamperini’s story, superbly told by Hillenbrand, begins in typical underdog fashion: the future Olympian was a juvenile delinquent with a history of theft and violence. What saved him was running. Inspired (and goaded) by his older brother Pete, “Zamp” began training seriously in high school, then ran the feet off the NCAA while an undergrad at USC. He made the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a 19-year-old, placed 7th in what everyone expected was a warm-up race for the next Olympics, and set his sights on a gold medal in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.
Zamp made it to Japan, but not as an Olympian — he spent the latter part of World War II there as a prisoner of war in some of the most deplorable conditions imaginable. The men were starved, beaten without mercy, enslaved as laborers for the most dangerous wartime jobs, and tortured. According to Hillenbrand, 37% of American servicemen who were P.O.W.s in
Japan died there, compared to only 1% who were P.O.W.s in Germany.
But I’m skipping ahead, because before he even got to Japan as a P.O.W., Zamp endured the crash landing of his B-24 and over a month — a month — of drifting on a raft with two other survivors, without food or water. I had to skip reading a couple of times because I was so frightened about what was going to happen to Zamp’s companions — obviously, from the title of the book, you know Zamp is going to make it. I wasn’t so sure about the other men.
Hillenbrand doesn’t stop with Zamp’s 1945 liberation or his joyous reunions at home with the loved ones who never stopped believing he was alive. She continues the story through the dark years after Zamp’s return, when the demons he had kept at bay for so long in order to survive plagued his days and nights, and he turned to the bottle. Keep a box of Kleenex at the ready.
Zamp is still with us at age 93, his life a testimony to the resilient human spirit. Read the book! You can also check out his story on YouTube.