Hillenbrand is also the author of an earlier book that I just loved--Seabiscuit. That wonderful book told the story of the racing horse Seabiscuit, and the same compelling story-telling talent of Hillenbrand that pulls the reader along in that work is employed in this most recent book.
Hillenbrand is herself an example of someone unbroken. She suffers from such debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome that she has been virtually house-bound for years. To conduct the research on Zamperini, Hillenbrand used telephone interviews over seven years, as well as reading endless accounts in diaries, unpublished memoirs, and the help of many people who were her legs in going to places where material was available.
I won't try to tell the Zamperini story--you can and SHOULD read the book yourself--except to give this briefest of outlines. Zamperini was born in 1917 (and is still living) and was a hellion as a youth. He found salvation in track, and actually went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He hoped to go to the 1940 Olympics, but World War II interrupted that plan. Instead, Zamperini, like many young men in the U.S., entered military service. Eventually, he was a gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber fighting in the Pacific.
His plane was sent on a rescue flight in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, and there it crashed. Three crew members survived, and floated on open rubber rafts--for 47 days--without food and water. Two survived, and were captured by the Japanese military. Then began his next survival crisis--he was shuttled to several Japanese POW camps.
Well, read the book.
Zamperini's story is most inspiring, and sent my mind in two directions. Both have to do with my own family stories.
When I first met my husband, as I was getting to know a bit of his family history, he told me that he had an Uncle John who was killed in World War II. John was the brother of my mother-in-law. He (like Zamperini) was a gunner on a bomber. The story that the family had was that John was "flying over the Hump" when his plane went down and all crew were lost and presumed dead.
I don't know why I got to thinking about John and his fate, but one day when I was looking around the web, out of curiosity, I typed in his full name. Back came a site that finally unravelled his fate. While he may have flown over the Hump at some point, he died because he was captured and executed by the Japanese. His plane took off from one of the island locations that was part of the Pacific theater of World War II. This account indicates that his B-29 was on a bombing run over Kobe, Japan (which occurred late in the war, in 1945):
The plane's . . . was referred to as the "Hull Crew" plane. It flew its missions out of Tinian Island.
On June 5, 1945, the "Hull Crew" were part of a 473 plane B-29 mission to attack Kobe, Japan. The B-29s carried 3,077 tons of incendiary bombs which they dropped east of Kobe . . .Out of the 11 crew members, four of them were never accounted for or found and were reported as Missing in Action. The remaining seven crew members were captured by the Japanese after being found floating in their life rafts.
The seven were eventually executed by their captors.
One of those seven was my husband's uncle. I kept thinking of his fate as I read the story of Louis Zamperini. The threat of being executed was a daily reality for Zamperini. While he was a prisoner, Zamperini was very much aware of these bombing runs, and in fact the U.S. prisoners were greatly heartened by the awareness that U.S. bombers had laid waste to Kobe. It gave hope to Zamperini, and his fellow prisoners as it meant the tide of the war was turning.
The other direction in which reading Unbroken sent my mind was the value of first person accounts. Hillenbrand had the luxury of being able to interview Zamperini and other participants in aspects of his story. First person interviews are the life blood for writers who want to tell personal stories.
I have just had published (in a very modest journal) a biography of my parents. I will write some of it here, once the journal has been distributed. But, to write my parents' story, I had access to my father's own personal memoirs as well as to him. I could ask for recollections, and out of it weave a modest biography. It is most gratifying to tell the story of someone's triumphs and trials.
I am no Laura Hillenbrand, however. She is a first class writer, and I heartily recommend Unbroken--maybe you can put it on your wish list for Christmas!