SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Laura Hillenbrand writes big, great books about exceptional athletes that the world sometimes forgets. "Seabiscuit" appeared in 2001 and has been on bestseller lists ever since. Now she's written the story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who became an American airman. But the true laurels he would win were the result of trials, endurance and will far from any stadium.
Louis Zamperini became a bombardier whose plane disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. He survived sharks, starvation and strafing only to be rescued by a Japanese boat. He spent the rest of the war in prison camps and endured cruelty so profound, it's painful to repeat.
The story of Louis Zamperini's extraordinary survival in the contest of life is at the heart of Laura Hillenbrand's new book, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption." We joined Laura Hillenbrand at her home last week.
Thanks so much.
Ms. LAURA HILLENBRAND (Author, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption"): Thank you so much for coming.
SIMON: Louis Zamperini, he was spirited to the point of delinquency as a kid in Torrance, California.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: He was the Artful Dodger of his hometown from a very early age. He was a serial runaway, he was a brawler, he was a prankster. He stole anything edible he could find. He would break into housewives' kitchens and steal their food just before it was going to go on the table. He was a very difficult boy. I think he was a challenge for his parents.
SIMON: But running saved him.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Running saved him. He was strong-armed into it by his brother, who recognized that he had the one thing that a good thief has: getaway speed. And it turned out Louis had world-class, historic speed and would become the fastest high school runner in history and a man that everybody thought was going to get the four-minute mile.
SIMON: Louis Zamperini becomes a bombardier during World War II serving in the Pacific. It's extraordinary how you recount how truly deadly the air war in the Pacific was, almost aside from combat.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: It was incredibly dangerous just to fly these bombers. Fifteen thousand air corps trainees died in training stateside. And then once you got into the combat theaters, 36,000 airmen died in non-combat accidents. And that was because there were problems with the planes. Navigation was really difficult, and it's really hard to find really flat islands in these huge, huge oceans with the equipment they had at the time.
So it was extremely deadly just to fly in these things much less go into combat.
SIMON: So in May 1943, Louis and his crew fly a plane called the Green Hornet, not even their plane, which is under repair, to look for a downed plane. The Green Hornet began to fall apart and they ditched. Help us understand how daunting it was to find the wreckage of a ditched plane in 1943.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: The odds of being rescued if you ended up on a life raft were terrible. It was very, very hard to find people. The rafts were very poorly equipped. The raft that Louis ended up on was especially badly equipped. It had a few cans of water and a few bars of chocolate. It had no knife, and for some reason it had a set of pliers and screwdrivers. And Louis sat there looking at that thinking, why do I need a set of screwdrivers on a raft?
They were in desperate, desperate trouble the minute they hit the water.
SIMON: How did they live?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: It took a lot of ingenuity to stay alive, just the physical part of it. One of the things Louis did is there were air pumps on the rafts in case they sprung leaks, and he took the cases that they came in and made little rain catchers out of them, because white caps kept slopping over the edge of the raft and spoiling the water, 'cause you couldn't drink any seawater.
He couldn't just hold the water in the bowls. He would have to constantly suck it out and spit it into the little cans of water they had in the raft. And that's how they hydrated themselves. They barely got along that way. And in terms of food, a few birds landed on their heads and they caught them. Louis actually used his lieutenant's pin as a fish hook. He tied fish hooks to his finger and grabbed a fish once. And they actually wrestled sharks onto the raft and killed them with the pliers.
SIMON: They were rescued by a Japanese boat. Crew kind of identified with them and treated them well, but then - then they were sent to prison camps.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: They were held in cells that we referred to as a dungeon. And their food was balls of rice that was thrown in onto the floor. And there was feces on the floor and there were maggots and they would have to pick the rice out. Their water was a tiny cup of tea every day. They were so desperate, they wished they were back out on the raft.
SIMON: And of course they were beaten.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: They were beaten. Medical experiments were conducted on them, and they were actually very fortunate to survive them, because the Japanese conducted medical experiments on tens of thousands of people - prisoners of war and civilians - and killed most of them.
SIMON: We're speaking with Laura Hillenbrand about her new book, "Unbroken."
I have to ask you about the Bird.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: The Bird was Mutsuhiro Watanabe. The name the Bird was given to him by the POWs because Watanabe didn't want to be spoken about, so they chose fake names for all of their captors and that was his name. And he was a very handsome, very wealthy young man, prominent person in Japanese society. He had failed to make officer himself and he had an obsession with POWs who had made officer with those who were prominent in civilian life and with those who were defiant.
Louis was an officer, he was a lieutenant, he was a world-famous Olympian, and he was a ferociously defiant man. And once these two met, it was more or less a showdown for the rest of the war between the two of them. He singled Louis out for terrible brutality and their relationship would end with a murder plot.
SIMON: We don't give away(ph) anything from the book, but the prisoners decide there must be a way, we're going to kill this man.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Of killing this man, yeah.
SIMON: Even if it means we're going to die, we're going to kill this man.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: There was a lot going on with the prisoners of war in terms of maintaining their dignity and finding ways to push back. The most important thing in terms of survival was not being able to eat or drink or sleep or have shelter or to be even healthy; it was to maintain your dignity. And they did that by pushing back.
And one of the ways they did that was they hatched a murder plot against this man.
SIMON: Louis Zamperini returns home to California after the war and he's lionized as a war hero, deservedly, but the Bird stays with him.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Once the war is over physically, it's not over emotionally, not nearly. And Louis came home a deeply, deeply haunted man, and this manifested itself in the form of nightmares. Very vivid terrible, terrible nightmares, where Louis would wake up screaming and they were generally involving fighting with the Bird - being beaten by The Bird or trying to strangle the Bird. He actually ended up one night straddling his pregnant wife, waking up strangling her, thinking she was the Bird.
SIMON: How do I make sense of the fact of somebody who clearly, heroically, figured out exactly what he had to do to survive should be so flummoxed by peace?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I think what he was dealing with when he was in crisis in the war, these were all physical things that he had to get over. He had to figure out how to get water on the raft. He had to figure out how to catch that next fish. And these are all kind of immediate concerns that he could deal with physically. And, you know, meanwhile the damage was being done to him emotionally.
It was something, I think, a lot of these men could kind of put off at the time in the crisis, but once the crisis was over, that's when it all kind of exploded inside them.
SIMON: Louis Zamperini's still alive.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Yes, he is, very much so.
SIMON: And I think, can we say - 'cause it was a big public event - he carried the Olympic torch at one point when the Olympics returned to Japan.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: He returned to Japan for the Nagano Olympics in 1998 and he carried the torch through the town of Noetsi, where he had been held prisoner.
SIMON: And there were people cheering for him.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: There were many, many Japanese people cheering for him. And there were actually Japanese soldiers there, there were many children there, and they were all clapping for him and taking pictures of him. And it was a beautiful experience for him to come back and have that closure and have all of that hatred behind him.
SIMON: I don't think you use the word hero a lot in the book.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I feel like anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic. I mean, that's an amazing self-sacrifice. And I think Louis's definitely a hero. And what he did for this country is something that really moves me.
I don't, though, want to separate him from all the other men around him who did the same thing. They're all extraordinary and I want him to be representative of all of them rather than somebody who stands apart from them.
SIMON: Laura Hillenbrand. Her new bestseller: "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption." Laura, thanks so much.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And to read an excerpt from "Unbroken," you can come to our website, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.