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Unbroken tells the life story of Louis Silvie Zamperini, known as “Louie,” a man who gains national attention for competing as a runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Louie is later reported to be dead after a military plane crash in the Pacific Ocean during World War II and surprises the world by returning home alive after the war.
Louie is a man with incredible endurance who miraculously survived many trials, including a long sea journey on a raft and then years of cruel treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war. He survives through a combination of inner strength, luck, and camaraderie with other POWs. His great friend Russell Allen Phillips, known during the war as “Phil,” experiences many of the same hardships that Louie faces, including the plane crash, raft journey, and cruel treatment in POW camps. Phil and other soldiers serve important roles in the story, as do members of Louie’s family. Much of the book focuses on Louie’s wartime experiences in Japan.
The American public is stunned to learn of Zamperini’s ultimate survival. He is again a celebrity. But upon returning home from the war, Louie struggles with the war demons and with alcohol abuse. He is full of anger and desires revenge on those who had dehumanized him, particularly the sadistic POW camp leader Mitsuhiro Watanabe, whom Louie and others call “the Bird.” Louie’s marriage nearly falls apart. Then Louie encounters Billy Graham and finds religion to be the ultimate antidote for what ailed him. This helps him save his marriage and find bliss with his wife and children. He spends the rest of his life full of joy, devoted to sharing his life story, spreading religious messages, and helping others. He is physically and mentally active into his nineties.
Author Lauren Hillenbrand tells Louie’s story against the backdrop of the war years. Hillenbrand’s book is informed by interviews with numerous veterans and their family members, along with extensive historical research. While focusing on Louie, the book tells a great deal about the history of World War II in the Pacific, in Japan, and at home. It brings to life the personal experiences, tragedies and sacrifices that affected the country and the world.
Unbroken is a story about the capacities of human beings to survive, to serve others, including their country. It is also a story about the capacities of human beings to inflict pain and harm on others, through killing, deprivation and other acts of cruelty.
Part One of the book focuses on Louie’s mischievous boyhood and his unexpected development into an Olympic runner. This section explains how Louie’s background and personality prepared him to do what came next, during the war and after. This section shows how tough, determined and resilient he was, even as a very young child. With help from his brother Pete, he takes up running and miraculously performs well enough to travels to Berlin for the 1936. In Berlin, he has the first experience of the coming war. He also has occasion to meet Adolf Hitler.