Louis Zamperini

Reviewing “Unbroken” is a difficult task. The story of famous Olympian and World War II hero Louie Zamperini’s life includes an endless list of lessons. Author Laura Hillenbrand, who also penned “Seabiscuit,” has churned out a product that is essential reading for anyone who seeks to improve their mental and spiritual health. Mr. Zamperini’s tale is a road map for greatness, and it is one that all Americans would be wise to study.

In short, the book can be divided into the following segments:

    • Louie’s defiant childhood and the moment he realized that his defiance could be channeled to bring him positive attention.
    • His time as an elite runner at USC and his 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
    • Louie’s training and missions as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
    • The crash of the B-24 named “Green Hornet,” and his survival in shark-infested waters for 47 days.
    • His time spent as a prisoner of war at multiple Japanese camps, including Kwajalein (“Execution Island”), Ofuna (a secret interrogation center), Omari and Naoetsu (where Mutsuhiro Watanabe made it his all-consuming mission to break Zamperini’s spirit).
    • The end of the war, Louie’s decent into darkness with PTSD, and his salvation through Christ.

Each chapter of Mr. Zamperini’s life could be turned into its own book, yet Ms. Hillenbrand found a way to seamlessly tie them all together into a thought-provoking read that lives up to its billing: “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”

How does a man survive in the middle of the ocean on a tiny raft for 47 days? How does a man endure the horrors of a POW camp, where every effort is made to strip him of his humanity (e.g., injecting him with experimental drugs, beating him daily, and making him regularly clean up a pig’s bowel movements with his bare hands in return for food)?

The answer comes down to realizing that how you think about things — the conscious decisions you make every day regarding what to focus on — play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of your life.

Ms. Hillenbrand writes:

“Exposure, dehydration, stress, and hunger had quickly driven many of [World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker’s] party insane, a common fate for raft-bound men. Louie was more concerned with sanity than he was about sustenance. He kept thinking of a college physiology class he had taken, in which the instructor taught them to think of the mind as a muscle that would atrophy if left idle. Louie was determine that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control. …

Within a few days of the crash, Louie began peppering the other two with questions on every conceivable subject. Phil took up the challenge, and soon he and Louie turned the raft into a nonstop quiz show. …

For Louie and Phil, the conversations were healing, pulling them out of their suffering and setting the future before them as a concrete thing. As they imagined themselves back in the world again, they willed a happy ending onto their ordeal and made it their expectation. With these talks, they created something to live for. …

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perception of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling,” (Lauren Hillenbrand. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010. 145-148).

While “Mac” would ultimately redeem himself for some of his early behavior on the raft (e.g., he ate the only source of food the men had while they slept the first night), his inability to change his focus from death to life appears to be a major reason for his failure to survive.

One way to explain what is going on is this: the unconscious mind never sleeps. Since the unconscious mind operates outside time and space (i.e., think of how time and space operate in your dreams), it is vitally important that you are aware of what you decide to add to the mix. During the day a person plants seeds of thought into his subconscious. Those seeds eventually take root, and the fruit they bear affects both the conscious and subconscious mind. When the mind is weighed down with negative thoughts, it in turn weighs down the spirit. The spirit is strong — stronger than we can ever imagine — but when it breaks, then the body and mind surely follow.

Louie Zamperini understood that just as it was important to exercise his body if he wanted to be a world-class runner, the real key to success is to exercise the muscles that can not be seen or measured on a scale. In order to excel in the physical world an individual must also concentrate on the metaphysical. For Mr. Zamperini, whose PTSD after the war led him to abuse alcohol as a way of dealing with flashbacks and nightmares, peace was finally found when he embraced Christianity.

“In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept.” (376)

The night that Mr. Zamperini fully understood his own faith, his nightmares ended. He regained his life, saved his marriage and even found it within himself to forgive the men who tortured him during the war.

While “Unbroken” is scheduled to be released to the big screen this Christmas, I highly recommend buying the book and adding it to your reading list before then. I find it hard to imagine that by the time you turn the last page that you will not experience a “single, silent moment” that will change your life for the better.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

14 comments

  1. This is very inspirational, I must add this to my “must read list”. Thank you again for giving me something new to explore!

  2. I saw the preview for the film version a week ago, I figured that Mr. Zamperini’s story would be right up your (Doug’s) alley 🙂

    Unfortunately, I’m sure Hollywood will probably gloss over Christian aspects of the story at the end of his life; but it looks like it could be a good movie.

    I’ll have to go into seclusion for a time after graduation just to catch up on my reading list!

    1. The one good thing about the trailer is that they included the part where Zamperini vows to dedicate his life to God if he survives the ordeal. And yes, you’re probably right about cutting it short at the end, but quite honestly that’s what really ties it all together. The thing was (pseudo-spoiler alert) this: after he got home, he basically forgot about all the times he prayed to God…and all the miracles that were answered. When his life started to unravel, it wasn’t until he was dragged to a Billy Graham event that it all hit him.

      Graham said:

      “Darkness doesn’t hide from the eyes of God. God takes down your life from the time you were born to the time you die. And when you stand before God on the great judgment day, you’re going to say, ‘Lord I wasn’t such a bad fellow,’ and they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going through your mind every minute of the day, every second of the minute, and you’re going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day.”

      Deep down, even though he raged, Zamperini knew the truth. His wife convinced him to go back a second night, and once again Graham’ sermon hit a nerve. As Louie tried to leave he had a flashback — the “last flashback he would ever have.” He was alone, on the raft, and he was praying to God, “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

      Louie survived the war, but then when he got home he nearly destroyed himself. It was through Christ that he was saved. It’s a very powerful moment. I’m not sure how the movie will play out, but that would be an amazing ending.

  3. I agree Magnetic Eye, I think I was just convinced to go from getting it at the library to buying it.
    I think Robin Williams could have benefited from this. I am sad that the man lost a battle to depression. Just imagine what could have been if someone was sharing the word with him. Maybe his death could be a spark for others, I am sure he would like that.

    1. Thanks for the read and comment. I appreciate it. I read your review. Good stuff! I’m glad there are more people out there spreading the word about how good this book is. I’m really glad I bought it.

  4. I finally finished reading “Unbroken” last week and words cannot express how much I enjoyed reading this book. Louie Zamperini’s amazing strength of character, his tenacity and determination was absolutely inspiring.

    His climb from the depths of PTSD to his deliverance through Christ was really powerful and a wonderful testimony. Today is Remembrance Day in Australia as we remember all those who have fallen in defense of our nation.

    Thanks for the recommendation Doug. It is a sobering thought when you think about the price that was paid by many for the freedoms we enjoy today.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the book, Magnetic Eye. 🙂 If the reports are true, and Ms. Jolie cut Mr. Zamperini’s conversion to Christianity from the film, it will be a shame. However, at least a good number of people will see the movie and be inspired enough to pick up the book…

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