Saturday, 12 April 2014


Think you’ve had a hard day?  This book might just give you a new sense of perspective…

Unbroken is that rare species of book which, if it had been a work of fiction rather than a biography, would quickly be dismissed as utterly unbelievable.
Louis Zamperini, an American WWII airman and Berlin Olympic athlete, is simultaneously one of the most, and least, fortunate men in human history. Somehow surviving the lethal indifference of nature as a castaway, and then the repugnant excesses of human sadism as a captive, Zamperini found a superhuman ability to endure even while his torture and disease wracked body continued to deteriorate under unimaginable hardship. This is the story of an extraordinary man finding himself circumstances which tragically were all too ordinary for thousands of prisoners of Japan, and does not make for easy reading.

Zamperini (left) finishes his record-breaking final lap at the Berlin Olympics.
Growing up in California, Zamperini discovered a gift for running which not only pulled him back from a life of delinquency (which taught him how to make a quick getaway) but eventually saw him represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, meeting Adolf Hitler after finishing the final lap of his 5000m event in an unprecedented 56 seconds.  Many believed Zamperini had the ability to become the first sub-four minute mile runner in history until, like so many others, his aspirations were sidetracked by the outbreak of war.

 Zamperini served as a bombardier based at Oahu, Hawaii and saw plenty of action until a tragic series of miscalculations onboard an unreliable B24 bomber resulted in a fatal crash into the Pacific.  Despite being entangled in wreckage, he became one of only three men to survive, living on rain water and anything they were able to catch, while the sun and sharks constantly assailed them, a Japanese Zero strafed their raft and they drifted ever deeper into enemy territory.
Covering two thousand miles in a hellish 47 days, this account of the survivor’s ingenuity and determination would make an astonishing book on its own.  Unfortunately for Zamperini, this unparalleled feat of endurance was to be a mere prelude to what awaited him after his immediate Japanese capture.

Zamperini inspects one of the 594 holes left in his plane after a bombing raid.
 To attempt to summarise his experiences here would reduce them to a mere list of brutalities, leaving no room for the moments of quiet and ingenious defiance, unexpected humanity on both sides and strength of spirit beyond all imagination. It can’t be trivialised or barely even described – Hillenbrand’s sensitive but unflinching account deserves and demands to be read in full – but be prepared for a harrowing time.
Zamperini was to suffer 27 months of abuse and deprivation before the two most deadly mushrooms in history finally brought the war to an end.

‘Hospital-hopping’ his way back to America, his former athletes body gradually recovers, but like so many returned servicemen Zamperini finds that the most lasting damage is psychological. His brief happiness and recent ‘story-book’ marriage begin to disintegrate as he realises that his ordeal is far from over - the final, hardest part of his struggle must be against himself.

Like all great stories, Unbroken is a triumph against unimaginable odds and you may even find yourself re-evaluating your own life and assumptions, after having briefly walked in Louis Zamperini’s shoes through this thoroughly engrossing, and ultimately uplifting book.
Not so bad in the end?  Zamperini's story is currently being filmed by Angelina Jolie,
for release at the end of this year.

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