Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Review: Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" reveals real-life heroism

Louis Zamperini would swipe the food, stealthily, and then run like hell. He ran from the cops; he ran from the store owners; he ran from angry residents brandishing guns. The notorious street tough outran them all. He'd steal any food he could get his hands on; he was always staging pranks and getting into fistfights. Friends and neighbors didn't expect him to live beyond his childhood years. And on numerous occasions, they were almost right.

The son of Italian immigrants growing up in Torrance, California, Zamperini was perpetually in hot water with authority. He was often escorted home late evenings by the police. Probably few, if any, of those who knew him expected the delinquent to grow up to become an Olympic athlete and one of America's greatest distance runners. Certainly, no one expected him to become a WWII bombardier, plane crash survivor, POW, and survivor of post-war turmoil.

But, that's exactly what happened. Laura Hillenbrand's extraordinary book, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," chronicles the incredible life story of a man who lived through one catastrophe after another and still emerged with his dignity and humanity intact.

It all started when his brother made him join the high school track team. Zamperini hated running, but after rigorous training, he soon realized he had the gift of speed. Running provided him the perfect outlet for his aggression; instead of using his fleet feet for mischief, he was now setting national and world records in the sport. He ran the mile in 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. Everyone expected him to be the first person to break the 4-minute mile.

In 1936, he ran for U.S. Olympic team in the 5000 meters in Berlin. Although he finished in eighth place, his final lap time of 56 seconds, an unprecedented time for a final lap of that distance, caught the attention of many people, including that of Adolf Hitler, who watched in his stadium balcony. The two met face-to-face. "You're the boy with the fast finish," Hitler told him while shaking his hand.

War ended his running career. Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941. One day, his plane experienced mechanical difficulties and it crashed into the ocean. He and his crew spent 47 days adrift at sea. They lived off albatross and fish they caught; they were shot at from above by Japanese bomber planes; they were hunted from below by sharks; they were nearly swallowed whole by a sea storm. By the time the Japanese Navy found them and took them to their prison camps, the men were emaciated shells of their former selves.

All of this is told in remarkably fast-paced and thrilling way. Hillenbrand, who also wrote "Seabiscuit," manages to give her readers the hard facts of history while fleshing out an absorbing and entertaining story. She avoids embellishing the facts and getting too carried away with the poetic license that biographers sometimes take when filling in the gaps of historical records. Nothing that is written in this book, she tells us in the introduction, is unsupported by historical evidence. She didn't make it up.

She didn't need to. The truth is incredible enough. Not many could endure what Zamperini did and even live to tell the tale. He is a shining example of true heroism. His is a story of how an ordinary kid from a troubled background can grow up to achieve extraordinary things. A tough and resilient man, Zamperini is still going strong. At 93 years-old, today he travels around the world giving lectures. The fast kid from Torrance is still as spry as ever.

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