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The 'Unbroken' Spirit Of An Ordinary Hero

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House
List Price: $27

Read An Excerpt

Laura Hillenbrand is shaping up to be the Woody Guthrie of contemporary narrative historians. It's not just that she has an affinity for singing the ballads of dark horses, who through tenacity, luck and a lot of heart turn themselves into folk legends. It's also that Hillenbrand has a gift for recovering the spirit of mid-20th century America — its despair, sure, but also its humor and its graceful refusal to put on airs. Seabiscuit, of course, was an almost impossible act to follow, but as Hillenbrand says in the acknowledgements to her new book, Unbroken, she knew she had found her next subject when she spoke to a then-octogenarian Louis Zamperini on the phone and the wisecracking spirit of that bygone age came through loud and clear: "I'll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit," Zamperini said, "because I can talk."

He sure can and sure did — for seven years' worth of interviews with Hillenbrand. The tale Zamperini has to tell, augmented by mountains of diaries, letters and official documents, is a stunner. Zamperini's story, in a nutshell, is this: He was born in 1917, a son of working-class Italian immigrants who made a life for themselves in Torrance, Calif. Louie was a juvenile delinquent from the get-go, always stealing food from neighbors' houses and concocting homemade explosives. Louie's older brother saved him by forcing him to try out for track in high school; all those years of scampering from the cops turned out to be excellent training, and Louie eventually competed in the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens. Hitler even gave Louie a congratulatory nod.

Laura Hillenbrand i

Laura Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The book inspired the Academy Award-nominated film Seabiscuit. Washington Post/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Washington Post/Getty Images
Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The book inspired the Academy Award-nominated film Seabiscuit.

Washington Post/Getty Images

When World War II broke out, Zamperini joined the air corps as a lieutenant stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to operate the bombsight on a B-24, an unwieldy plane known to flight crews as "The Flying Coffin." His pilot, Russell Allen Phillips — known as "Phil" — was respected as "a damn swell pilot" by the other men, and Hillenbrand vividly describes a few knuckle-biting bombing missions in which Phillips' skill nursed the injured plane back to base, sans brakes or fuel. But Zamperini's and Phillips' luck ran out on May 27, 1943, when, on a rescue mission in the middle of the Pacific, an engine died and their plane went down, killing everybody onboard but Zamperini, Phillips and a guy named "Mac," the tail gunner.

For a record 47 days, the men floated on two, then one, rubber raft. Sharks circled constantly, scraping their fins under the bottom of the rafts. Water came, when it did, from the skies; food consisted of raw fish and a couple of unwary albatrosses that alighted on the rafts. They were strafed by a Japanese fighter; thrown into a typhoon. The men lost half their body weight, and drifted for some 2,000 miles on open water. Mac didn't make it; the other two men survived to become prisoners of the Japanese — subjected to starvation, torture and slave labor. Because of his Olympic fame, Zamperini became the special target of a sadistic Japanese corporal who dedicated himself to shattering Zamperini's spirit.

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Hillenbrand writes here with authority and her distinctive sensual intensity: You smell the stink of the maggoty fish the prisoners of war were forced to eat; you feel the horror of the void out on that raft. But Unbroken aims for something beyond vicarious secondhand suffering. Through the lens of Zamperini's story, Hilllenbrand explores how people fight to preserve their essential selfhood — their dignity — in the most extreme circumstances. She describes how the prisoners of war fought back against their captors: stealing newspapers to find out news of the war; passing gas when they were forced to bow to the emperor. She gives ample space to the home front, too: the everyday courage of Zamperini's mother, who refused to believe he was dead; his father and brother, who schemed to buy a boat after the war and search every island in the Pacific until they found him.

Louie Zamperini is still with us. He even ran with the torch at the Olympics in 1998 in Japan. He has lived on into an age where we're more skeptical about heroes. Inspiration is considered an attribute of "middlebrow" popular literature, not the highbrow stuff. Maybe that's why, as I couldn't help but notice, The New York Times buried its review of Hillenbrand's moving and, yes, inspirational book deep in the middle of the Sunday Book Review.

Don't let the cynics intimidate you. Zamperini's story — and Hillenbrand's unforgettable new book — deserve pride of place alongside the best works of literature that chart the complications and the hard-won triumphs of so-called ordinary Americans and their extraordinary time.

Excerpt: 'Unbroken'

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House
List Price: $27

The One- Boy Insurgency

In the predawn darkness of August 26, 1929, in the back bedroom of a small house in Torrance, California, a  twelve-year-old boy sat up in bed, listening. There was a sound coming from outside, growing ever louder. It was a huge, heavy rush, suggesting immensity, a great parting of air. It was coming from directly above the house. The boy swung his legs off his bed, raced down the stairs, slapped open the back door, and loped onto the grass. The yard was otherworldly, smothered in unnatural darkness, shivering with sound. The boy stood on the lawn beside his older brother, head thrown back, spellbound. The sky had disappeared. An object that he could see only in silhouette, reaching across a massive arc of space, was suspended low in the air over the house. It was longer than two and a half football fields and as tall as a city. It was putting out the stars. What he saw was the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin. At nearly 800 feet long and 110 feet high, it was the largest flying machine ever crafted. More luxurious than the finest airplane, gliding effortlessly over huge distances, built on a scale that left spectators gasping, it was, in the summer of '29, the wonder of the world. The airship was three days from completing a sensational feat of aeronautics, circumnavigation of the globe. The journey had begun on August 7, when the Zeppelin had slipped its tethers in Lakehurst, New Jersey, lifted up with a long, slow sigh, and headed for Manhattan. On Fifth Avenue that summer, demolition was soon to begin on the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel, clearing the way for a skyscraper of unprecedented proportions, the Empire State Building. At Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx, players were debuting numbered uniforms: Lou Gehrig wore No. 4; Babe Ruth, about to hit his five hundredth home run, wore No. 3. On Wall Street, stock prices were racing  toward an all- time high.

After a slow glide around the Statue of Liberty, the Zeppelin banked north, then turned out over the Atlantic. In time, land came below again: France, Switzerland, Germany. The ship passed over Nuremberg, where fringe politician Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party had been trounced in the 1928 elections, had just delivered a speech touting selective infanticide. Then it flew east of Frankfurt, where a Jewish woman named Edith Frank was caring for her newborn, a girl named Anne. Sailing northeast, the Zeppelin crossed over Russia. Siberian villagers, so isolated that they'd never even seen a train, fell to their knees at the sight of it.

On August 19, as some four million Japanese waved handkerchiefs and shouted "Banzai!" the Zeppelin circled Tokyo and sank onto a landing field. Four days later, as the German and Japanese anthems played, the ship rose into the grasp of a typhoon that whisked it over the Pacific at breathtaking speed, toward America. Passengers gazing from the windows saw only the ship's shadow, following it along the clouds "like a huge shark swimming alongside." When the clouds parted, the passengers glimpsed giant creatures, turning in the sea, that looked like monsters.

On August 25, the Zeppelin reached San Francisco. After being cheered down the California coast, it slid through sunset, into darkness and silence, and across midnight. As slow as the drifting wind, it passed over Torrance, where its only audience was a scattering of drowsy souls, among them the boy in his pajamas behind the house on Gramercy Avenue.

Standing under the airship, his feet bare in the grass, he was transfixed. It was, he would say, "fearfully beautiful." He could feel the rumble of the craft's engines tilling the air but  couldn't make out the silver skin, the sweeping ribs, the finned tail. He could see only the blackness of the space it inhabited. It was not a great presence but a great absence, a geometric ocean of darkness that seemed to swallow heaven itself. The boy's name was Louis Silvie Zamperini.

Excerpted from Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand  Copyright 2010 by Laura Hillenbrand. Excerpted by permission of Random House Inc.

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