During World War II, a plane crash landed in the Pacific. Three men survived, and took refuge in the two rubber rafts that had been deployed moments before the plane hit the water. They had a bar of chocolate, some fishing hooks, a patching kit for the ramp, and almost no fresh water. Although rescue planes were sent out to look for them, they were not found. Sharks circled the rafts. Forty-seven days later they landed on an island…occupied by the Japanese.
What some of you may not know is that my bachelor’s degree is in History, and that I’ve done coursework in a Master/PhD program in History (although I dropped out when I realized that becoming a History professor was not my calling). I’ve always been drawn more to the history of gender, race, and sexuality than wartime history (except to talk about how the war impacted life for women and people of color in the US). So Unbroken isn’t normally the kind of book I would pick up. However, I stumbled across an excerpt from the book in a magazine and had to know what happened next. This is the kind of story that drew me to history in the first place–a story so crazy that no one could make it up.
I am somewhat ashamed to say that I learned more about the Pacific front of World War II, why the Japanese were involved in World War II, and what life was like for a soldier in the Pacific than I ever did in any history class–K-12, college level or graduate school. Living in Singapore made the story that much more real to me…I’ve been to Hong Kong, to Thailand…and I’ve heard the stories of Changi Prison whilst touring around Singapore.
At its most simple, the book is a biography of Louis Zamperini. A kid who seemed destined for an American Prison if he kept up his petty theft, he was turned onto track and became a record breaking runner. Many think that had World War II not happened, he would have been the first man to ever run a four minute mile. World War II did come, though, and Zamperini enlisted. He became a bombadier stationed in Hawaii. One day his plane was sent out to look for a plane that had crashed…the engines went and the rescue plane itself crashed. Of the crew, only Zamperini and two others survived. Improbably they survived long enough to arrive at a Japanese occupied island some 2,000+ miles west of where they’d crashed, after surviving almost twice as long as the previously documented survivors adrift at sea. They were immediately taken Prisoners of War. The Japanese never shared his name as a POW, so Zamperini was declared dead…until he was liberated from the POW camp in Japan.
I literally could not put the book down. Hillenbrand’s writing style makes you feel as though you’re there with Zamperini, when he feels the back of a shark rubbing under the vulnerable rubber life raft. She gives backstory (such as why Japan was fighting and what cultural motivations might be behind the treatment the POWs got) without taking away from the narrative. You feel Zamperini’s mother’s heartbreak when she gets the news that her son has been declared dead. The brutality of life in a Japanese POW camp is shown without flinching, and you see why while only 1 in 100 POW’s died in Europe, 1 in 3 would die while a POW of the Japanese.
Even if history, or wartime history, or biography isn’t your usual genre, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Read an excerpt here.
Here is the official “book trailer”