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Olympian Adrift in World War II Makes for Compelling Tale

Jesse Owens, Dorothy Hamill, Shannon Miller, Bonnie Blair, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps. Stories of the lives of most famous American Olympians center on their amazing successes: their speed, their grace, their perseverance over physical limitations and the toughest competition.  

But the most enriching life stories and mind-boggling achievements of former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini didn’t unfold on a track or during training. They took place while he drifted in a blow-up raft, lost at sea without provisions for 47 days. They happened while he endured daily beatings in Japan’s prison camp during World War II, the knowledge of pending execution haunting his every hour. 

Zamperini’s greatest struggle wasn’t pumping his legs to reach that four-minute mile — it was trying to stand up after losing half his body weight from starvation. And the award for his achievements wasn’t a medal — it was survival.

Award-winning author Laura Hillenbrand has done it again. After winning hearts and inspiring readers with her New York Times-bestselling book about a horse named Seabiscuit in 2001, she’s hit the bull’s-eye again in her new narrative of Zamperini’s life, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” 

The first chapters of the book detail Zamperini as fellow athletes knew him growing up. At 2, he slipped through his parents’ hands, ditched his house and ran stark naked around his small California hometown. As a young boy, he sprinted his paper route and jogged to and from school. By 16, he outpaced — by far — all area high school runners, the local junior college track team and UCLA’s Southern California cross country athletes.

In 1934, Zamperini completed the mile in 4:21.3 minutes and set a national high school record that would remain unbroken for 20 years. Two years later, he became the youngest distance runner to make the Olympic 5,000-meter race team, and though he placed eighth that year in Berlin, he set a world record for the fastest final lap, which he ran in 56 seconds.

Beloved by fellow Americans, Zamperini was projected to become the one-mile “four-minute man” at the 1940 Olympics. But after Hitler stormed Poland and Japan attacked China, he never had the chance. 

Where his athletic career ended, Zamperini’s heart-wrenching story began. “Unbroken” zeros in on his war experiences, from enlisting in the Army Air Corps to dive-bombing Japanese bases in the Pacific with a B-24 airplane. The war on Japan on the Pacific front unfolds through his eyes.

Hillenbrand’s character development in the book is outstanding, bringing Zamperini and his fellow soldiers to life on the pages. She details the jokes they made and pranks they played, the nicknames they gave their decorated airplanes, the pornographic pictures they hung in the bathroom and the love letters they wrote to girls back home. 

But most of them would die when the plane carrying Zamperini and 11 men malfunctioned, engines buckling and spiraling toward the ocean on May 27, 1943. Only three, including Zamperini, resurfaced from the crash, and one would die on the raft.

The book describes the two months the men drifted idly in the Pacific. Running out of food and water after the first few days, they drank rainwater caught in tin cans and were occasionally successful in baiting seagulls and fish. They fought off sharks that probably smelled blood on the injured men, and eventually they drifted into enemy territory and were captured by the Japanese. 

Zamperini had lost more than 70 pounds, but his suffering had only just begun. “Unbroken” follows the Olympian to the Japanese internment camps, where the Geneva Conventions dictating “proper” conduct of war were ignored. He was interrogated, tortured, beaten daily and forced into slavery. Bloody diarrhea and disease, lice, hunger and thirst were regular challenges in the POW camps, but his battle to keep dignity and sanity was even more onerous.

After the war ended, Zamperini suffered nightmares and flashbacks, resulting in violent behavior and fights, heavy drinking and an abusive marriage. But through it all, he managed to break through a cycle of misfortune and find inner peace. 

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