UNBROKEN, an incredibly true WWII story by Laura Hillenbrand, reviewed by Samantha Seto

Laura Hillenbrand’s story is a narrative history that reflects the American experience during World War II and the cruelty of the Japanese. While the body counts mount in the middle east in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq in a military tally, the war is wrenching, tragic, and poignant as it quietly proceeds. Every day more than seven hundred veterans of World War II die, and with each one goes a war story. In an era of Americans using Japanese products such as Toyota, the political conflict has almost been entirely forgotten in the United States. The Japanese sensitivity remain sufficiently high. It is also a testament to the courage and ingenuity of America’s Greatest Generation, along with its wonderful, irrepressible American-style irreverence that the POW’s bestowed on their guards makes you fall in love with the soldiers.

Hillenbrand is very well-suited to tell this inspiring tale due to her experience in writing within the historical nonfiction genre. As the author of Seabiscuit, Unbroken is a different story, and far less important, kind of miracle. Apart from a rocky beginning in which she lacks confidence in her main character, she is intelligent and restrained, and wise enough to let the story unfold for itself. Unbroken is a captivating, gripping read in an almost visually cinematic way. In only one sense it is a historically accurate tale that takes place during World War II, but it is most important that Hillenbrand creates the portrait of the hero.

The hero of the story, Louie Zamperini, grew up in Torrance, California, and he became adept at breaking into homes, then fleeing the police. He develops into a world-class runner. He ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (even Adolf Hitler, The Führer, commented on him) and later, at the University of Southern California, ran a four-minute mile. His coach said the only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit. As war approached he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In Hawaii, he was the bombardier on a B-24 called the Green Hornet when it went down over the Pacific while searching for a missing plane. Of the eleven men on board, only three including Louie Zamperini; the pilot, Russell Allen Phillips; and the tail gunner, Francis McNamara survived, clinging to a canvas raft left amid the wreckage.

The men save themselves by eating unwary albatrosses that used the raft as a perch. Zamperini catches an occasional fish. They cut up fabric from a second raft to protect themselves from the burning sun. Many storms raged on the waters. Throughout the story, sharks float alongside and beneath them, rubbing their backs against the raft and at times lugging onto it. The men beat them off with oars and even manage to kill a couple to eat.

Hillenbrand elaborates on the war suffrage and describes the atrocities and sweeping illness over the soldiers, victims, and prisoners of war. She discusses the goal of saving lives and restoring peace in an effort to end the war. On the thirty-third day at sea, Hillenbrand reveals the tragic death of McNamara. The others had resorted to cannibalism. Zamperini and Phillips simply cast McNamara’s body overboard. The two men pass the days, and maintain their sanity by asking each other with questions, cooking imaginary meals, and singing “White Christmas.” On the forty-sixth day they spot land known as the Marshall Islands. Further, on the forty-seventh day, Zamperini and Phillips are surprisingly picked up by Japanese sailors. Zamperini and Phillips were taken to Omori and Naoetsu. Mutsuhiro Watanabe of the imperial Japanese army gives Zamperini a beating to destroy him yet Zamperini does not die.

The story deeply connects to human geography because it relates to World War II, which ties into culture, development, and social interaction between people. The war began in September 1939, with Germany and Slovakia invading Poland. The Axis powers launched an invasion of the Soviet Union. Japan aimed to dominate and attacked the United States and Europe in the Pacific Ocean to conquer the region. It was a global military conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, which involved most of the world’s nations, including all of the great powers. During World War II, two opposing military alliances formed known as the Allies and the Axis. It was a major war in history, with more than one hundred million military personnel established. In a state of “total war,” the entire economic, industrial, and scientific knowledge and work was served in the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. The historical context of World War II in Hillenbrand’s book is marked by mass death, including the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust and the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. The war became the deadliest conflict in our shared world history.

The war, pertinent to the story, ends with the capture of Berlin, Germany by Soviet and Polish troops and the German surrender in 1945. The Japanese navy was defeated by the United States. Japan surrenders in 1945. The Allies declare victory over Germany and Japan in 1945. Hillenbrand points to the widespread conflict and torment as a result of the war. Zamperini suffers mentally from PTSD. He marries Cynthia Applewhite and tries to live a normal life. Yet Zamperini is haunted by the painful memories of war although he wishes to forget. Zamperini’s triumph makes him a hero who has survived the war.

Unbroken is composed of a historically noteworthy story due to the fact that World War II truly altered the political alignment and social structure of the world. Most countries whose industries had been damaged moved towards economic recovery. Political integration served as an effort to stabilize the postwar relations. The Soviet Union and the United States emerged as rivals, leading to the Cold War. The European powers declined while the decolonization in the continents of Asia and Africa began. The United Nations established international cooperation to prevent future conflict.

To conclude, this story shares a journey of war, pain, suffering, and life of a young man who heroically overcomes great struggle and survives a major war in history. Hillenbrand’s nonfiction beautifully captures the war as if in a black-and-white photograph. I have connected to the leading character in addition to learning a good deal of the true history and human geographical studies of World War II. The strength that Zamperini finds amidst loss and death in the war is admirable. Hillenbrand genuinely teaches the reader the greatest moments in history through a fascinating war story.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. New York, New York: Penguin Random House, November 2010/August 2018 (paperback reissue). 720 pages. $17.00, paper.

Samantha Seto graduated with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor at the Johns Hopkins University. She is a third prize poet of the Whispering Prairie Press. Samantha has published in many journals including Ceremony, Soul Fountain, Black Magnolias Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Breadcrumbs, and Chicago Literati. She lives with her cat in Washington, D.C.

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