The third haunting book I’ve read in recent months is Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken is the true story of Louis Zamperini, a man who lived a life that can only be called “larger than life.”
During his boyhood in California, Louie Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent. To keep Louie out of trouble, his older brother made him take up running, and Louie became a world class long-distance runner. He broke records in the U.S., and competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Although he did not medal, he impressed Adoph Hitler, who requested a personal meeting with Zamperini.
When World War II began, Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier on B-24s in the Pacific Theater. His plane was shot down over the Pacific, and he and two men from his crew survived weeks in a small raft with minimal food and water. They were attacked by sharks and strafed by the Japanese.
One of the three men died, but Zamperini and the B-24 pilot spent 47 days on the raft, only to be captured when they finally ran into land – which unfortunately was an island occupied by the Japanese Army. The two men then found themselves in worse circumstances than the open ocean, as the Japanese moved them from one POW camp to another, and in all the camps cruelty was routine.
I learned of the Japanese Army’s brutal treatment of POWs as a child when watching one of my mother’s favorite movies, Bridge Over the River Kwai. And I was equally impressed by the horror of Nevil Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice, which included a story of the Japanese Army’s treatment of women and children forced to march in Malaysia.
I later learned that both these stories were not historically accurate, but they were always presented as fiction. Unbroken is non-fiction. Moreover, Hillenbrand scrupulously footnoted her book with both personal interviews and many statistics and government sources.
Unbroken takes place in the middle of war, to be sure, and war is always violent. However, under international law and the Geneva Conventions (Japan had signed the Geneva Conventions, but not ratified them), prisoners of war were to receive basic necessities, they were not to be beaten, and there were restrictions on what kind of labor they could be forced to perform.
The Japanese soldiers in Zamperini’s camps violated all these rules, and some of them took sadistic pleasure in doing so. One man in particular, known to the POWs as “the Bird,” made Zamperini a daily target of vicious attacks. The Bird was one of the Japanese soldiers sought for war crimes after WWII ended, but he was never tried.
Zamperini survived the war, but came home suffering from what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, Hillenbrand cites studies showing that over 80% of Pacific Theater POWs suffered from PTSD (page 346 of hardcover edition).
After the war, Zamperini turned to alcohol, and almost destroyed his marriage. Still, in many ways he was “unbroken.” At his wife’s insistence, he attended a Billy Graham revival and became actively engaged in Christianity. He became an inspirational speaker, with his talks focused on forgiveness. He wrote memoirs of his WWII experiences. He even returned to Japan and spoke with many of his Japanese captors from the POW camp.
And in 1998, at age 81, Zamperini carried the Olympic torch for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. His life had come full circle.
Each phase of Zamperini’s life would have made a compelling story – Herculean training to become an Olympic athlete, bleak weeks on the open Pacific struggling for survival, constant battles against the cruelty of inhuman POW guards, daily efforts to cope as a civilian after the war.
To hear all these experiences in one man’s life does indeed make for a haunting tale.
What I remember most from Unbroken are the years Zamperini spent in the POW camp. While the weeks adrift on the open ocean were dreadful, that experience was part of the vicissitudes of war. It wasn’t a personal attack on his humanity, as were the degrading acts of the POW guards, most notably the Bird.
One statistic from Hillenbrand’s book (page 315 of hardcover edition) sticks in my mind – 37% of American POWs held by the Japanese died, while only 1% of Americans held by the Germans died. That statistic alone shows that the Japanese guards’ behavior was somehow far more egregious than what was required in war.
Weeks after finishing the book, I continue to ask myself why the guards behaved so viciously. Did they believe that the mostly Caucasian POWs were somehow less human than the valiant Japanese? Did they feel worthless in their society, and so feel compelled to exercise power where they could – over the POWs?
The cruelty of the Japanese toward the POWs is almost unfathomable, if we didn’t know it happens all too frequently in this sad world of ours. During the same years Zamperini was in the Japanese prison camps, the Germans were annihilating European Jews. Just after WWII, Stalin sent countless Russians to the gulags. Last week, I wrote about the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians during World War I. In more recent decades, we have seen one slaughter after another – Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan . . . . The list goes on.
Man is so often less than human.