“The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” said Louie Zamperini’s coach at the University of Southern California, as this track star, who had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, trained for the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. But a deeply unfunny thing happened to him on the way to Japan. The 1940 games were canceled. Mr. Zamperini became an Air Force lieutenant. And he wound up going to Japan not as a miler but as a savagely abused prisoner of war.
Yet through torment after hellish torment, he demonstrated the kind of survival skills that would make Paul Bunyan look like a marshmallow in comparison. And Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit,” knows a winner when she sees one. Ms. Hillenbrand has given Mr. Zamperini the full “Seabiscuit” treatment in “Unbroken,” which is only her second book.
The ideal way to read “Unbroken” would be with absolutely no knowledge of how Mr. Zamperini’s life unfolded. Ms. Hillenbrand has written her book so breathlessly, and with such tight focus, that she makes it difficult to guess what will happen to him from one moment to the next, let alone how long he was able to survive under extreme duress. But blinders are for horses, not for readers of “Unbroken.” So we must acknowledge the good news that Mr. Zamperini is now a snappy 93, and better able to promote this book than its author (who is often sidelined by her chronic fatigue syndrome). He’s on YouTube. The words “Survival,” “Resilience” and “Redemption” are part of the book’s subtitle. And Mr. Zamperini, strongly influenced by Billy Graham more than 50 years ago, has been treating his story as an inspirational tale ever since. Hollywood has had its eye on him for so long that the young Tony Curtis was once scheduled to play the starring role on screen.
The Louie Zamperini story has been crammed with excitement right from the start. “Outraces Death” read a caption with his picture in The New York Times on Sept. 9, 1945, when this athlete’s suffering and survival became big news. His adventure, The Times said, in wording so revealing about postwar euphoria, “followed the usual raft story pattern, except that it eclipsed them all in endurance.” And endurance is what Ms. Hillenbrand has made “Unbroken” all about.
Just as she demonstrated in “Seabiscuit,” Ms. Hillenbrand is a muscular, dynamic storyteller, never using an ordinary verb when a “teeming,” “buffeted” or “porpoising” will do. Her command of the action-adventure idiom is more than enough to hold interest. But she happens also to have located a tale full of unforgettable characters, multi-hanky moments and wild turns. And if some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true, Ms. Hillenbrand has also done a bang-up research job. She interviewed Mr. Zamperini more than 75 times. He has an excellent memory. And he is a pack rat nonpareil: his scrapbook covering the years 1917-1938 is a single book that weighs 63 pounds. Most memorably Ms. Hillenbrand persuaded a man from the Army Air Forces Historical Association to bring a once-top-secret Norden bombsight of the type used in World War II bombers to her house, set it up with a screen of Arizona and teach her how to “bomb” Phoenix.
Thus prepared, Ms. Hillenbrand churns up her drama about how the rambunctious young Louie (“his ears leaned sidelong off his head like holstered pistols, and above them waved a calamity of black hair”) became the fanatically dedicated track star; at the July 1936 Olympic trials in a boiling hot New York City, he claimed to have felt his feet cooking as the spikes on his shoes conducted heat from the track. He went to Berlin, stole the “Do Not Disturb” sign off the door of the world-famous Jesse Owens, elicited the attention of Hitler(“Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish”) and then returned home to Torrance, Calif., as a hero. On Aug. 19, 1942, he went off to war.
On May 27, 1943, Mr. Zamperini’s plane went down over the Pacific. “Green Hornet, its nose and left wing hitting first at high speed, stabbed into the ocean and blew apart,” Ms. Hillenbrand writes, following it up with a visceral description of the young man’s being plunged in total darkness underwater. He and two buddies ended up afloat on rafts, and their sustained survival at sea is eventful enough to make a book in its own right. But there is also a certain sameness to their experiences after a while. And there’s a limit to how many times Ms. Hillenbrand can present a man-socks-shark-in-the-nose anecdote before it begins to get old. Mr. Zamperini did, however, manage to catch lice from a bird and to kill one shark with a pair of pliers.
When they thought things could not possible get worse, things did. There were now only two survivors of the plane crash, and both became Japanese prisoners of war. From the moment of capture, “Unbroken” devotes itself to the terrible humiliations heaped upon such prisoners, from being punched in the face repeatedly to having to clean a pigsty by hand. In ways that underscore the cinematic potential of this story, and would actually seem less theatrical on the screen than they do here, our hero has many ugly encounters with the frothing, drooling, sexually sadistic Japanese officer who has singled him out for special torment. “Six hundred prisoner,” this man would say years later, in an interview with CBS News. “Zamperini No. 1.”
In “Unbroken” Mr. Zamperini is No. 1 on any occasion, in any contest, facing any ordeal. Ms. Hillenbrand writes about him so hagiographically that he can come out ahead even when not quite making seventh place in a 5,000-meter race, because she chooses to emphasize the extreme speed of his final lap.
So “Unbroken” is a celebration of gargantuan fortitude, that of both Ms. Hillenbrand (whose prose shatters any hint of her debilitating fatigue) and Mr. Zamperini’s. It manages to be as exultant as “Seabiscuit” as it tells a much more harrowing, less heart-warming story.
This book is available at Liberty Books