When I was younger, one of the genres of movies and television that was quite popular was stories from World War II. While I wasn’t alive for it, of course, many in my parents’ generation had fought or knew those who had. Indeed, on a wall in my house is a framed picture of my uncle, A.L. Dodd, Junior, who was killed a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe; he was in Germany, in the Ruhr valley, when he was shot by a German machine gunner. So, the war was quite real to us. We enjoyed the stories, because they were entertainment, but knew that the war had affected most everyone in America.
After seeing the film Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, I was telling my sister about it, and she said, “Clearly, you don’t know the whole story. Read the book.” And, with lots of other reading and a bit of teaching, it was almost six months after hearing that advice before I got around to reading the book by Laura Hillenbrand. OMG, why did I wait so long? The movie is very good, but the book is great. Maybe I waited, in part, because I don’t usually like biographies.
As told by Hillenbrand, Louis Zamperini was quite a character, from his earliest days. His parents didn’t quite know what to do with him, and he might be described as a juvenile delinquent. His brother convinced the school authorities to allow Louie to get involved in sports, and Louie was gifted in running. So gifted, in fact, that he became an Olympic runner, and a very good one. He might have known even more fame as a track star, but World War II got in the way. After his plane crashes in the Pacific, Louie and two other Army Air Force survivors were adrift for a very long time. Then, on the brink of death, they were captured by the Japanese. Yes, Louie was still alive, but he faced incredible brutality.
One of my elderly friends is a survivor of a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. She was interned there as a child, one of several children of a missionary who fled there from China, because the parents thought that being in a U.S. territory was safer for their children. The treatment she and other family members endured was brutal, and toward the end of the war, the prisoners were scheduled to be executed before the Japanese withdrew. She was saved because some American volunteers broke down the fence and escorted the POWs to safety. My friend, to this day, cannot understand Americans can embrace Japan as our friends and allies. To her, they were a barbaric enemy, who starved her family and killed far too many non-combatants.
Hillenbrand does explain the brutality, through Louie’s account, and accounts by other prisoners. But she reinforces the brutal nature of the Japanese POW camps with survival statistics. According to Hillenbrand, only 1% of American POWs held by the Germans or Italians (the European theater) died, but in Japan 37% died. She also goes into the cultural differences which led to the cruelty, not as an excuse, but to let readers know more about the “why” which must come to the mind of her readers.
The film, Unbroken, closes with the end of the war. That is a good stopping point for a Hollywood film; the audience can go home knowing Louie made it out alive and was welcomed home by his loving family. But, as my sister noted, there is more to the story. The book has a subtitle Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and it is appropriate. While I do not fault Jolie for leaving out the “redemption” part, the story is incomplete without Louie’s problems adjusting to “normal” life after the horrific experiences he had in Japan and how finding religion gave him the peace he desperately needed. The author continues to cover multiple story lines, including “Phil” the pilot to “the Bird” who was the most sadistic of the Japanese prison guards.
The entire story is important, and those who watch the movie get only the middle, so I encourage readers to tackle the book by Laura Hillenbrand. While it isn’t a quick read, it is certainly worth your time.