Book Review: Unbroken – by Laura Hillenbrand

On June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I saw a photograph of an old man with a walker, kissing the ground on Omaha Beach.


Presumably, he landed here on June 4, 1944 when he was a young man. All his life he has grieved for this friends who lost their lives right here on this sand so many years ago. What was it that spared him and allowed him to live a full life? Was it all just luck?

World War II veterans are now all much over 90 years old. There are very few left who have seen the atrocities with their own eyes, who have had to live with the memories of terrible loss and pain. One of those men is Louie Zamperini. He was born in 1916, grew up in Torrance, California, and he is now 98 years old. He has outlived everyone he knew. And he told his story.

unbrokenUnbroken is the story of the life of Louie Zamperini. Written by Laura Hillenbrand and first published in 2010, the book tells the story of a troubled youth growing up in Southern California. Louie found that he had a knack for running, and promptly proceeded to break many records. The apex of his running career was when he participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he actually met Hitler. When America joined the war after Pearl Harbor, Louie was a bombardier stationed in the Pacific theater. He was shot down, survived many weeks on a raft and eventually was captured by the Japanese. He endured unimaginable abuse for two years as a POW of the Japanese.

One of the guards, Mutsushiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird,” was the most brutal and sadistic abuser of all. He targeted Louie and brutalized and beat him daily, for years.

The book Unbroken is one of the most powerful, shattering, nightmarish books I have read in a long time. I have read many books about World War II and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. From that perspective, the war in the Pacific was just a footnote. Yes, the Japanese were waging war, too. I had no idea that the Japanese were so brutal, so abusive, and so reckless with human life and dignity. The Nazi death camps seem mild in comparison.

Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan , 12,935— more than 37 percent—died. By comparison , only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate.

– (Kindle Locations 5081-5092)

Unbroken is a testimony to the human spirit. How much pain and suffering and loss of dignity and humanity can a person endure before breaking, before dying? Unbroken shows how much in graphic, painful, chilling, frightening detail.

And to top it all off, Louie Zamperini is alive today to confirm his story. We may never forget.

I didn’t know how brutal the Japanese were. How did they change so quickly after the war? It seems right after the surrender, they went into high gear searching for their own countrymen war criminals. It’s hard for me to reconcile that these brutal, bestial people are the same ones that are now building my Toyota.

Here is an interview in 60 Minutes with “the Bird.” This will not be meaningful to you if you have not read the book. I recommend you read the book first, and then come back here and check out the interview of “the Bird.” It will give you cold chills.

Here is a video of a 60 Minutes interview with Watanabe, “the Bird.”

Louie Zamperini is a remarkable man. Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken is a remarkable book.

Rating: ****

Louie Zamperini at age 22 and 95.

Finally, for more information about World War II in the Pacific, there is a great blog, which I have been following, called Pacific Paratrooper. Please check it out!

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Unbroken – by Laura Hillenbrand

  1. Your post is riveting reading! I am not sure I’ve the stomach for reading this book but thank you for sharing. I had known they were vicious toward their prisoners but not to this degree.

  2. My late father, who was a little boy during the Japanese occupation of Singapore and Malaysia (the then Malaya), used to tell me about the atrocities he witnessed during the Second World War — some of which I am sure would have been detailed in Unbroken. So deep was his animosity, he would never have anything to do with the Japanese culture e.g., food or language, nor buy their goods. Which is a behaviour I understand, even if I don’t adopt. Your wonderfully engaging post reminded me of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, an affecting book about the Japanese invasion of China in 1937/38. Although it has been revered and reviled by equal measure, I feel the account documents the horrors and sufferings endured by victims rather remarkably. Chang committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 36. Some have attributed this to the vicarious trauma of writing the book.

    1. Thank you for this insightful comment. I am sure it is very difficult to forgive, when one has gone through such abuse and torture. Fortunately, time heals. This makes it even more obvious how silly all our wars are. One year we beat each other up, the next year we are all friends. Why beat up in the first place?

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