The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 2, 2011

Jacque Gage, book review: 'Unbroken' an inspiring tale of survival during WWII

By Jacque Gage
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — "Amazing" is the first word that comes to my mind when thinking about the biography in this week's review. Beginning as a person for whom I had little respect, or even liked reading about, to being in awe of the man he became, LARA HILLENBRAND'S "UNBROKEN: A WORLD WAR II STORY OF SURVIVAL, RESILIENCE, AND REDEMPTION" wins a trip home to put on my husband's "you-would really-enjoy-reading-this-book!" stack.

Louis Zamperini was a delinquent, incorrigible and without purpose in his life. From the moment he could walk he was uncontrollable. He began smoking at age 5; he began drinking when he was 8. He stole. He vandalized teachers' cars. He had a short temper. Punching girls, pushing teachers, being pursued by the police on frequent occasions -- and this was all before high school!

Finally running away from home in 1932, he tried riding the rails, only succeeding in being chased by railroad detectives, being forced at gunpoint to jump off the moving train and ending up "filthy, bruised, sunburned, and wet, sharing a stolen can of beans." He had an epiphany and headed home.

Once at home, he put all his energy that had been spent thieving into running, his older brother being a high-school track star. He eventually surpassed his brother's prowess and went to college on a track scholarship, as well as winning a berth on the 1936 Olympic Track Team. Louis was on "track" to be the first person to break a four-minute mile. The 1940 Olympics were canceled, and shortly thereafter, Louis Zamperini was drafted and became a bombardier.

Thus begins the next chapter in Zamperini's life. Sent on a rescue mission one May morning in 1943, his plane had mechanical trouble. Ditching the plane in the ocean, only three of 11 crew members survived. For the next 46 days, the story of their survival is unthinkable -- from being stalked by sharks to being strafed by Japanese war planes -- they survived the elements, the thirst, the hunger and hopelessness.

After drifting all this time, they eventually made land on a Japanese-occupied island, thus becoming POWs. They endured humiliation and torture with bravery, ingenuity, rebellion and humor until, almost dead, the war was declared over and Zamperini was freed.

Freed in body only, he returned home and struggled to put together the pieces of his life, dealing with alcoholism and what is now understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To see how his struggle ends, you will have to get a copy of the book.

"Unbroken" is definitely one to read. Hillenbrand's book reminded me of "Ghost Soldiers," by Hampton Sides, or "The Greatest Generation," by Tom Brokaw. This generation of men will soon be with us no more. Reading their stories not only educates us about the past, but inspires us for the future.

This book is well documented, with over 50 pages of endnotes and an extensive index.

Joplin Public Library has "Unbroken" in both print and e-book format. Prepare to be on a waiting list. Even with multiple copies in each format, this is a popular book!

Jacque Gage is the director of the Joplin Public Library.