Louis “Louie” Zamperini’s story of survival, resilience, forgiveness and discovering God is so incredible it wouldn’t be out of place if it were in the Bible next to Paul’s stories of conversion, shipwreck, prison and shaking off poisonous vipers. This 398-page biography by Lauren Hillenbrand reads like an adventure novel, so full of jaw-dropping events that the whole story would require a trilogy movie series to be told thoroughly. (Unfortunately Angelina Jolie’s re-telling of Louie’s story in one film required that many of the most uplifting parts had to be neglected while the most hellish parts of the experience were told in great detail.) Unlike many biographies I have read, Unbroken is so rich with detail, so thoroughly researched that you know Louie’s thoughts and even his families thoughts during the time he was missing. No matter your familiarity with history, you will feel like you were there and lived it yourself.
One cannot read Unbroken without asking themselves, “How is it possible that the same man lived through and experienced all these things?” Laura Hillenbrand starts from his childhood which was spent thieving and coming up with somewhat genius pranks and plans to get whatever he had his heart set on. She then takes through his history on the track as an adolescent where he began to run and break record after record until he made it into the last Olympics before World War II. This historic Olympic games took place in Berlin, where Louis shook Hitler’s hand and even stole a Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery. She follows that same man into the Army Air Corp (later to become the Air Force) where he is trained as a bomber. We follow him into several historic battles and eventually into the ocean when his poorly constructed B-24 had engine failure, crashed in the ocean, and stranded him on a life raft with two other surviving crew-members. After miraculously surviving the crash, Louie would have to survive 47 days on a raft amidst the constant threat of ravenous sharks, Typhoons, dehydration, starvation, and Japanese gunners. His salvation from the raft was also his doom when Louie was captured by the Japanese. The incredible degradation of body and soul he experienced at the POW camps, had Louie longing for his raft again. Among his many abusive guards, there was one particularly cruel and unstable officer dubbed, “The Bird” who made it his personal mission to “break” Louie and strip him of all his humanity and sense of self. Without provocation and for no apparent reason Louis endured consistent, unimaginable mental and physical torture. When the war finally ends we see him reunited with his family, meet his wife, and then battle PTSD, alcoholism and a burning desire for murder and revenge. We finally get the satisfaction of seeing him devote his life to God at a Billy Graham crusade and leave his bitterness and the trauma from his past behind. He is even healed of the physical ailments that haunted many of his fellow POWs throughout the rest of their lives.
Reading the story of this man’s very full life of 98 years was much more satisfying than reading even the most well-crafted novel. The fact that this story is real stands as such an incredible testimony of how God works all things together for the good and how loving and faithful He is to show up at the slightest invitation and His determination to keep alive His children who haven’t met him yet. Louis had no experience or interest in God when his plane crashed into the ocean, but after he passed out from asphyxiation, trapped under the wreckage unable to get to surface, he suddenly woke up again and was free to swim to the surface. He was unable to make sense of it until he later met God. Despite Louie’s lack belief in God, on his third day on the raft without water he prayed and made a promise. “God if you’re real and you’ll rescue us, I promise I will find out who you are and follow you for the rest of my life.” Rain came shortly after and prayer became a daily habit on the raft between Louie and his buddy Phil. That was not his only encounter with God during the odyssey. In two of his most miserable moments he recalls hearing angelic music that comforted and gave him strength.
There is also a powerful undercurrent of spiritual warfare through this book. The ever-lurking but unsuccessful sharks remind me of the enemy’s fear tactic and lack of real power. The erratic behavior of “The Bird” whose turbulent behavior and sickening arousal at pain truly lead me to believe he was possessed and under the influence of multiple demons. And why do you think Louie targeted more than any other prisoner, marked for extra special levels of degradation? My theory is that in the battle for his soul, the enemy didn’t like what he was seeing in Louie’s rising faith. He was using someone he already had a hold of, the Bird, against Louie in attempt to try to steal what Louie had gained, as well as destroy him body and soul. This is even further evidenced in the years following Louie’s return home. Long after he had returned and healed physically, Louie was plagued nightly by nightmares of the Bird who continued to abuse him in his dreams. This indicated to me that the Bird was as much a spiritual assignment of evil against Louie as it was natural hatred of a man towards another man. (Maybe this is even evidence that hatred itself is never just a natural phenomenon, but a supernatural evil power that we can gradually allow to take hold). But praise the Lord, it’s always such a joy to see the enemy fall, and when Louie finally gives his life to the Lord, the dreams and flashbacks instantly cease.
I was particularly struck by the theme of the power of hope, which repeatedly shined through Louie’s life story. Many men who faced similar torment to what Louis did, did not survive. This is even more miraculous when you read that because of his weeks on the raft, he was often the sickest POW in his camp. It gradually becomes clear that his hope in the future and determination to live are what keep him alive through each trial a long with the help of a higher power. He coaxes himself through the worst of the pain with his dreams of winning a future Olympics proving God’s word when he says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21)
Nowhere is the importance of hope and life-filled words more strongly showcased than in the story of Mac. Mac was the third man to survive the plane crash a long with Louie and Phil, but he did not survive the raft. From the onset of the journey, he had the least hope of the three men. It didn’t begin well for Mac, whose fear overtook him from day one as he screamed repeatedly in a panic, “We’re gonna die!” until Louie had to punch him in the face to get him to shut up. That night, Mac devoured all the provisional chocolate, and though Phil and Louie were merciful the next morning, after that moment Mac went virtually silent. Phil and Louie were determined to keep their minds sharp by talking about the future, telling every detail of their past, praying, singing songs and describing their favorite foods. Mac didn’t participate in any of this and slowly slipped into a haze that he never escaped. This part of the story particularly riveted me because Mac had the same food and water Louie and Phil, and he was just as healthy (even more so perhaps because Phil was injured) and yet he simply died one night after 34 days on the raft. The life-giving power of hope contrasted with the death-bringing power of fear and guilt were a powerful lesson to me in this small portion of the story. It inspired me to write this poem.
There is so much more I’d love to discuss about this book, and it may require another post, but for now, I want to highly recommend that you get and read this book as fast as you possibly can. I promise it will change your life! For those of you who have read it already what did you think? What moments, thoughts or themes stood out to you the most? What did you take away personally? Leave your answers in the comments!