‘Unbroken’, By Laura Hillenbrand, Random House, 473 pages, $27.
To call Laura Hillenbrand a finder of long forgotten stories is something of a disservice. The former Washington Post reporter turned non-fiction author is really so much more.
Hillenbrand not only tracks down figures and events from decades ago that for one reason or another are relegated to the margins of history, but she returns them to center stage. It’s a feat accomplished with a superb blend of exhaustive research, endless questions, a keen eye for the nuances of a story and suspense-inducing prose.
Her first book, the highly acclaimed “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” took on the story of a California-bred racehorse that for a brief time in the 1930s reached mythical status despite never running in a Triple Crown race. In “Seabiscuit” Hillenbrand used everything at a reporter’s disposal to paint an indelible image of a time and people. The horse is merely the conveyance for a fascinating story about the unlikely partnership between a millionaire businessman, a trainer and jockey. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award and is widely thought to be among a handful of the best non-fiction books about sports ever written.
Topping the success of “Seabiscuit” would be daunting enough. But Hillenbrand is further challenged by a severe form of chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness that ended her career as a newspaper reporter. As a result, Hillenbrand’s meticulous work takes time to complete.
Seven years later, Hillenbrand is back and this time with a book of far greater scope and import than “Seabiscuit.”
The results are the same.
“Unbroken” is Hillenbrand’s latest, a story she first unearthed while researching “Seabiscuit.” As she pored through newspaper archives of California newspapers, Hillenbrand saw the name Louis Zamperini crop up time and again. The reasons were brutally simple. In the mid-to-late 1930s, the Torrance, Calif. native was among the best distance runners in the United States. As a student at The University of Southern California he qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a miler.
That was just the start of what was supposed to be a brilliant track career. Observers of that time thought Zamperini might be the first to crack the four-minute mile barrier.
But World War II interfered. Zamperini, like many men of his generation, was never the same. In fact, he was altered in ways most could never fathom.
Zamperini’s World War II story is one of those astonishing footnotes of heroism to one of the bloodiest conflicts in global history. In fact, any number of his experiences alone would make a noteworthy book.
A B-24 bombardier, Zamperini and his crew in 1943 went down due to failing engines in a rickety aircraft while on a mission to find another lost airplane and crew. Only three men survived the initial crash into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and one ultimately perished in the raft while waiting for help that would never arrive.
Together Zamperini and pilot Allen Phillips survived with almost no food or potable water for a remarkable 47 days. They endured high waves, a typhoon, a Japanese sniper and eating whatever raw fish or birds the could snare.
Ultimately, they washed ashore on an island that was under enemy control. The Japanese held them, first as unreported and tortured captives and later prisoners in some of the most brutal POW and labor camps seen in wartime.
That’s where the real nightmare begins.
Hillenbrand does a remarkable job of putting all of these pieces together to develop a sense not only of place but of time. Who knew, for example, that during World War II more than 35,000 Army Air Forces planes were lost in either combat or accidents — and only a fraction of those were in combat. Missing airmen, in either training or battle, were a common occurrence.
For members of the Army Air Forces, the idea of being killed during a crash was preferable to the alternatives: Consumed by sharks or imprisoned by the Japanese. The latter were ritually starved, beaten or forced to work for the Japanese war machine. Zamperini and others have hellish tales about brutality at the hands of their captors. Many who made it home never recovered.
Hillenbrand’s research includes years of going through newspaper accounts, diaries, long-forgotten notebooks and the documentation of war crimes trials in Japan. Her interviews with men in their 80s and 90s uncover layers of harsh memories.
Part of Hillenbrand’s work includes listening to audio tapes recorded in 1952 of a then little-known North Carolina preacher named Billy Graham so she could document the exact words Graham used during a series of tent revivals, words that eventually saved Zamperini from a host of demons that might have otherwise cost him everything.
The book jacket touts “Unbroken” as a “World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption.”
It is all of that and then some.