Book: Unbroke:A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Where: Rachel’s House
When: February 27, 2014 @ 7pm
Summary: From the 1936 Olympics to WWII Japan’s most brutal POW camps, Hillenbrand’s heart-wrenching new book is thousands of miles and a world away from the racing circuit of her bestselling Seabiscuit. But it’s just as much a page-turner, and its hero, Louie Zamperini, is just as loveable: a disciplined champion racer who ran in the Berlin Olympics, he’s a wit, a prankster, and a reformed juvenile delinquent who put his thieving skills to good use in the POW camps, In other words, Louie is a total charmer, a lover of life–whose will to live is cruelly tested when he becomes an Army Air Corps bombardier in 1941. The young Italian-American from Torrance, Calif., was expected to be the first to run a four-minute mile. After an astonishing but losing race at the 1936 Olympics, Louie was hoping for gold in the 1940 games. But war ended those dreams forever. In May 1943 his B-24 crashed into the Pacific. After a record-breaking 47 days adrift on a shark-encircled life raft with his pal and pilot, Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, they were captured by the Japanese. In the “theater of cruelty” that was the Japanese POW camp network, Louie landed in the cruelest theaters of all: Omori and Naoetsu, under the control of Corp. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a pathologically brutal sadist (called the Bird by camp inmates) who never killed his victims outright–his pleasure came from their slow, unending torment. After one beating, as Watanabe left Louie’s cell, Louie saw on his face a “soft languor…. It was an expression of sexual rapture.” And Louie, with his defiant and unbreakable spirit, was Watanabe’s victim of choice. By war’s end, Louie was near death. When Naoetsu was liberated in mid-August 1945, a depleted Louie’s only thought was “I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!” But as Hillenbrand shows, Louie was not yet free. Even as, returning stateside, he impulsively married the beautiful Cynthia Applewhite and tried to build a life, Louie remained in the Bird’s clutches, haunted in his dreams, drinking to forget, and obsessed with vengeance. In one of several sections where Hillenbrand steps back for a larger view, she writes movingly of the thousands of postwar Pacific PTSD sufferers. With no help for their as yet unrecognized illness, Hillenbrand says, “there was no one right way to peace; each man had to find his own path….” The book’s final section is the story of how, with Cynthia’s help, Louie found his path. It is impossible to condense the rich, granular detail of Hillenbrand’s narrative of the atrocities committed (one man was exhibited naked in a Tokyo zoo for the Japanese to “gawk at his filthy, sore-encrusted body”) against American POWs in Japan, and the courage of Louie and his fellow POWs, who made attempts on Watanabe’s life, committed sabotage, and risked their own lives to save others. Hillenbrand’s triumph is that in telling Louie’s story (he’s now in his 90s), she tells the stories of thousands whose suffering has been mostly forgotten. She restores to our collective memory this tale of heroism, cruelty, life, death, joy, suffering, remorselessness, and redemption.
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