No one can accuse Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit : An American Legend, of ever executing a half-effort job of study when she writes account nonfiction. Spending 7 years on this effort, the author has done one of the most complicated stories of an American POW being held by the japanese during WWII that I’ve ever read. With the various meetings with the topic at the time of her study, together with consultations of family members, other POW’s and their families, reading over unspoken life story, private letters, and military documents, it would be simple for this book to are now a long drawn-out and sterile story that would read like a text book. Instead we’re treated to an entertaining and on occasions heart-wrenching story that takes a group of unfamiliars and tell them in a way that you really come to understand them.
The subject matter of the book is Louis Zamperini, whose life would have been an engaging read even before the developments during WWII. A comparatively trouble child who lifted everything in sight, he grows up to end up being one of the best track stars of his time, breaking the state school record in the mile and becoming one of the youngest members of the U.S. Olympic team in 1936. Many felt that Zamperini would become the first individual to break the four minute mile. With the beginning of the war, he was drafted into the army Air Force and became a bombardier allotted to the semi-unreliable B-24. After surviving a considerable number of bombing missions against Japanese targets his plane goes down in the middle of the ocean while hunting for another downed plane. What’s coming is a tale of survival by sheer will, first being adrift at sea for 46 days and then spending over two brutal years as a POW in Japan.
Hillenbrand takes us step-by-step through the events, introducing us to other Allied prisoners as well as a number of the Japanese guards and personnel. Her outlines of the savagery Louie Along with other captives, went thru are really detailed and heart-wrenching. His daily thrashings from a guard known as “The Bird” would have been enough to break anyone but Zamperini endured each one. One thing I found engaging is not just did she mention any names of the guards that tortured the prisoners terribly she also did not back away from pointing out the japanese personnel who did their best to shield the prisoners even at the risk of their own safety. Then after the war the author takes us through the post-traumatic years as Zamperini’s life spirals downward, and his eventual rebirth as he learns leniency and peace.
I would strongly recommend this to those looking for a galvanizing story of, as the sub-title of the book claims, “Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” Just be aware, a large portion of the story will target the brutality and suffering inflicted on the POW’s by the japanese war machine. It can be on occasions a really disturbing and tricky narrative to read, one that may bring tears to your eyes. It is both one of the finest books of the WWII POW experience I have read, and one of the most discouraging.