Warning: this post contains spoilers. If you still want to be surprised, just go read this book right now. I'm just dying to talk about it with/to someone.
If you've been around me since then, chances are you've heard me talking about this book. Oh, my. I haven't been able to shut up about it. I've probably described it, in varying levels of detail, to at least ten people (number one being my husband who is probably weary of hearing the summary over and over... and over again.) So instead of talking the ears off of even more people, I decided to be efficient and blog about it. =) Buckle up, folks. It's a long one.
Unbroken is the biography of Louis Zamperini, known throughout the book as Louie, a boy from an Italian family who got a pretty rough start in life. Growing up in California, he was constantly in trouble and pretty much terrorized his neighbors, teachers, and friends. Louie was bullied at an early age and decided, as just a little boy, to never let anyone beat him down again. And as the local troublemaker- from stealing to fighting- he refused to be overcome by any obstacle. He simply figured out a way around the problem. This defiant spirit, although misplaced, would eventually serve him well in much more serious pursuits.
By the time Louie reached high school, his parents were terribly worried that he would end up in prison (or worse.) So his older brother Pete began training him to run track, and by the time he graduated, Louie was the fastest high school runner in the country. He now had a purpose in life and set his mind to another goal- the 1936 Olympics, hosted in Berlin. Louie qualified and made it to Germany. He did not win his race, but ran his last lap so fast that Adolf Hitler himself personally demanded to meet him after the race, calling him "the boy with the fast finish."
Soon Louie had to put his dreams of running on hold as the world went to war. Joining the U.S. Air Force, he became a bombadier and, along with his crew, completed several dangerous missions while stationed in the Hawaiian Islands. After one terrible flight, Louie's crew was horrified to count over 500 bullet holes in their plane, a B-24. Ironically, it was on a fairly routine reconnaissance mission- not in combat- that Louie, his best friend Phil, and the rest of a crew were shot down over the Pacific. Only Louie, Phil, and a gunner named Mac made it through the crash. Mac eventually died as well, but miraculously, Phil and Louie survived on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days with practically no provisions other than their own smart thinking.
After drifting over 2,000 miles in shark-infested waters, Louie and Phil made it to an island. Being stranded in the middle of the ocean with practically no food and only occasional rainwater had been a nightmare, but unfortunately, their hardships were only just beginning. Both men were captured by Japanese soldiers and imprisoned. They would be captive for over two years.
Louie had always held onto the indomitable spirit he had developed as a child, but even his enduring attitude and sharp intelligence could not lessen the agony of being a POW under the Japanese. His years of imprisonment held unspeakable acts of torture, cruelty, and injustice, not to mention the heartbreak of watching his fellow soldiers experience the same treatment, often fatally. One guard in particular was especially cruel, sadistically beating POWs as if it were a game. He was so deranged, in fact, that even though he was not actually an officer, those who outranked him deferred to his preferences because they were afraid of his violent, unpredictable mood swings that usually left at least one prisoner nearly dead from a beating or other punishment.
This guard, known among the prisoners as "The Bird," became almost immediately fixated on Louie. The Bird hated all officers, especially those with distinction, and since Louie was an officer and an Olympic athlete to boot, The Bird took a special pleasure in hurting and degrading him. All POWs agreed that physical pain, while brutal, was nothing compared to the loss of personal dignity. The Bird sensed Louie's defiant spirit and did everything in his power to break him. When The Bird was transferred to another prison camp, Louie got a brief reprieve, but The Bird, in his sick manner, demanded that Louie be part of a group to be brought to the same camp, and the torture continued, sometimes multiple times a day.
Finally, the war was over and, miraculously, Louie survived, despite multiple injuries, horrible diseases, and a broken spirit. His family welcomed him back with hysterical joy, having no idea the atrocities that he had been subjected to during his time as a prisoner (all the torture, starvation, and other inhumane treatment contradicted the requirements of the Geneva Convention and led to thousands of Japanese officers and guards being imprisoned for war crimes later on.) Soon Louie married and tried to start a new life, but two heartbreaking realities made it nearly impossible.
This photo was taken after the mission that filled Louie's plane, Super Man, with over 500 bullet holes. Later, his sister would be haunted by this image during the two years that the family had no idea whether Louie was dead or alive.
First, Louie's dream was destroyed. Having never been to college and living in a veteran-saturated job market, he turned his ambitions back to his passion- running. The 1946 Olympics became his new purpose. But a war injury that had seemed healed flared back up when his training began again, and a doctor told him that running competitively was out of the question. Louie was heartbroken and began spending his days fantasizing about returning to Japan, finding The Bird, and murdering him.
Louie was also plagued by terrible nightmares, or worse- flashbacks to prison camp, in which every sight, smell, taste, and touch of his time as a POW became extremely real to him. In these days before PTSD, no one knew how to treat this type of ailment, so Louie did what so many other POWs did... he began drinking. Soon he was an alcoholic and his marriage was falling apart. He had violent outbursts, fought for now reason, and did little during the day (or night) but drink and plan his revenge.
Then his wife Cynthia, who had already taken their baby girl and separated from Louie, went to a Billy Graham tent meeting. She came home eager to reconcile with Louie, for which he was grateful, but when she asked that he attend the meeting with her he wouldn't even consider it. What began as three-day meeting stretched out for over two weeks, and during that time Cynthia begged Louie to attend. Finally, he agreed. He was gripped with conviction throughout the message and left as soon as the invitation began. During the service, Louie kept thinking back to a time on the raft when, desperate for rain and fresh water, he had prayed fervently and promised God that if it rained, "I'll serve You all my life." When Cynthia asked him to return the next night, he made one stipulation: "We leave as soon as he starts praying at the end." But Billy Graham practically forbade anyone from leaving that night, and during the altar call, Louie stopped wrestling with the Holy Spirit, went forward, and gave his life to Christ.
This man of never-ending endurance, who had become a pitiful, usually drunken shell of his formerly vibrant self, was transformed. The bitterness and despair that had consumed Louie gave way to a new purpose: sharing the redemptive power and work that the Lord had done in his life. He had already been invited to graduations and other events for years, but now that he had a positive message to share, he eagerly accepted the invitations. At long last, he was able to fulfill the promise he had made in a desperate, thirsty moment on a raft in the Pacific Ocean.
One of the most amazing transformations Louie experienced was his feelings towards the Japanese officers and guards from the prison camps. In 1950, he traveled back to Japan and visited a prison where many of his former guards were being held for their war crimes. Of course, he inquired about The Bird, but no one had heard from him since the war's end. Still, Louie walked among the men with a smile, forgiving each one as he passed. It wasn't until decades later, at age 81, that Louie was contacted and told the shocking news that The Bird was alive. Louie requested a meeting and was denied (even after all those years, The Bird refused to admit to doing anything wrong) but Louie wrote him a letter of forgiveness, stating that "my hatred for you has been turned to love" and hoping that one day the man who had caused him so much physical, mental, and emotional pain would accept God's gift of salvation.
Louie became a noted speaker, founded a camp for troubled boys, and participated in many Olympic games as an honored guest. He is 97 today and a movie about his life (same title) is coming out later this year.
WOW. This book (which was incredibly well-written, by the way) taught me so many things. It taught me that I should slapped for complaining about petty inconveniences when there are American soldiers who have suffered unspeakable horrors to make my cushioned existence possible. These men and women are HEROES, plain and simple. Louie was a hero, certainly, but he was only one of thousands upon thousands of Americans who showed the same courage and resilience during this time. It taught me that God orchestrates the events of our lives... Louie didn't survive as a POW just to drink his life away, but to become a Christian and share his incredibly inspiring testimony with others. And it taught me, most of all, that forgiveness is possible, even for the most heinous wrongs. I find myself withholding forgiveness for the smallest things, when Louie found it in his heart to forgive those who did everything in their power to break him and literally take his life. But, as Louie said, how can we possibly refuse forgiveness to anyone when Christ has forgiven us?
Unbroken brought this period of history to life for me, but more importantly, it brought the power of redemption to life. Louis Zamperini is not just an American hero; he is a beautiful picture of God's sovereign grace.
Thanks for being a part of my book club! If you made it all the way through this post, I'll give you a multiple choice quiz and you probably deserve college credit. =)