Airman left WWII bowed, but not broken

  • Article by: MARK KRAMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2010 - 10:03 AM

Veteran survived plane wreck, ship wreck, 47 days on the open sea and a brutal Japanese prison camp.

Laura Hillenbrand, whose "Seabiscuit" enthralled so many readers, now offers "Unbroken." I couldn't put it down. At the level of a man-fights-nature and man-fights-enemies, it's a page-turner. It presumes to portray "the story" of one Louis Zamperini, a young Olympic runner turned WWII Army Air Force hero, whose B24, shot up, goes missing in the Pacific. Crew members survive 47 days of sharks, storms and starvation, wretchedness portrayed hour by hour on their raft, whacking gulls and praying for rainwater. That's just pages 119 to 171 -- the warmup -- and it's gripping.

Then this boatload of Jobs drifts near an island. Japanese forces rescue them -- and toss them, emaciated, into the first of several prisoner-of-war camps. Thus starts a hagiographic account of corporeal abuse -- detailed relentlessly, whipping by whipping, rifle-butt blow by blow -- with Zamperini singled out because of his prior fame.

The catalog of sadism goes on 'til page 319, providing the emotional meat for a book that, in the name of celebrating the strength of spirit in adversity (its subtitle frames the goings-on as a "Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption"), supplies unremitting close-ups of a thousand tortures by Japanese camp staff whom readers can only loathe.

It's a cumulatively lurid and degrading cyclopedia of sufferings visited upon a few thinly portrayed white heroes ("Phillips's veins ran icewater") by shallowly portrayed Japanese cruelty artists ("The Bird would snap, running ... with his sword in the air, wailing at the men, foam flying from his mouth, lips peeled back in a wicked rictus, eyelid drooping, face purple."). It's a Hieronymus Bosch panorama, with hell's worst demons lingeringly working their arts upon the shackled human frame -- all portrayed in the service of piety. In the end come a few chapters about post-ordeal stress, alcoholism, religious redemption and revisiting the enemy on a mission of forgiveness.

The endless train of vivid details seems remarkable, summoned from a decade and circumstance almost beyond accurate recall, but Hillenbrand asserts it, her confidence backed by copious endnotes. Those notes, however, in addition to citing much good research, also pass the buck with such attributions as, "Louis Zamperini, telephone interviews [date]," etc., implying that such interviews presumably tapped the best recollection and notes of a gent now in his 90s, about serial traumas undergone 60 years ago. Hillenbrand sometimes seems to follow (how could one not, going over the same chronology and events?), but not to cite, Zamperini's two earlier books, co-written in 1956 and 2003, with two different coauthors, both titled "Devil at My Heels," the first prefaced by Billy Graham, the second by John McCain.

Nor does she discuss the notion that Zamperini's long career as an "inspirational speaker" who must have perfected his tale, might have distorted later accounts. This reader was hooked soundly, then wriggled free by the end, left feeling puzzled and a bit fouled.

Mark Kramer was founding director of the Nieman Program for Narrative Journalism at Harvard University, a professor of journalism at Boston University and writer-in-residence at Smith College.

  • related content

  • Capt. Louis Zamperini (right) with his friend, Capt. Fred Garrett.

  • UNBROKEN

    By: Laura Hillenbrand.

    Publisher: Random House, 473 pages, $27

    Review: A riveting read, although many details come from the memory of the 90-year-old former flier, raising questions about veracity.

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