Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book review: "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Even if you think you know all about World War II, you'll see a slice of it you never knew in "Unbroken."

Author Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic-class distance runner called into service, like so many young American men, to fight the Japanese.

After Zamperini's plane crashes in the Pacific, he and the pilot survive for 47 harrowing days in a raft, battling hunger and thirst, fending off attacking sharks and avoiding the bullets of dive-bombing Japanese planes. And from there it gets worse: They are captured by the Japanese and spend two years in POW camps, suffering horrific abuse and torture.

Hillenbrand, the author of "Seabiscuit," is meticulous in her research and she offers up well-chosen details to give us a sense of time and place beyond Zamperini's story. While the soldiers called to battle were eager and determined, she notes, they were often young men of just 20 or 21 placed in charge of warplanes of questionable quality. Far more planes, Hillenbrand writes, were lost to accidents than combat.

In the POW camps, prisoners were kicked and beaten by guards, and Zamperini was tormented by a particularly sadistic nemesis known as "The Bird." Prisoners were tied to trees for days in only their underwear in the dead of winter. They were forced to do push-ups over trenches of human waste. Enlisted U.S. prisoners were forced, one after the other, to hit their American officers in the face (if they didn't hit hard enough, they were beaten). Food was scarce; disease rampant. Hillenbrand reports that a third of Americans held by the Japanese died in POW camps, compared to just 1% of Americans held by Germans in World War II.

Hillenbrand notes that the Japanese justified their mistreatment of captured Americans by calling some of them "unarmed combatants" rather than prisoners of war. Since they weren't POWs, the Japanese contended, the men had no rights at all. I guess this idea didn't originate in Guantanamo Bay.

As painful as it is read the POW camp accounts, the remarkable thing is that Zamperini and others manage to persevere and survive. They get small portions of revenge by playing jokes, smuggling in food or sabotaging the work they were supposed to doing.

The book is perhaps 5% too long, which isn't that bad, but at times, you may want to skim ahead. I read an Advance Reader's Edition, which did not have any maps. It would be better if the final version has maps.

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