Freeze column: An amazing book
Published 12:00 am Monday, March 21, 2011
By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post
As much as I like to write, I know that I love to read even more. The ability to become immersed in the book, completely able to shut myself away from other things comes harder. But once in a while, that special book comes along that demands attention. I have just finished such a book, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Almost every day involves some reading for me. As with most avid readers, there are books that move me and there are others that go into my all time favorite list. This one did both, and here is a little sampling of why.
Louis Zamperini was a troubled kid, more often than not involved in an act of defiance. But he loved life, though searching always for direction. He was from a close family of two sisters, a brother, and an adoring mom and dad. His older brother Pete was student body president and star athlete for his high school. Everyone wondered what was wrong with Louie. Louie made a game of stealing pies from the neighbors and running like mad. “Run Like Mad” became his motto. He started collecting keys and found that one opened the gym. He let kids into the gym for basketball games, and would “Run Like Mad.” He was already banned from athletics because of his propensity for trouble. However, his brother Pete talked the principal into letting Pete run on the track team, all the while hoping to rehabilitate him. Pete thought Louie had talent, and though it took a while, he was proven right. Louie ran with an unusual hip twist that made him appear almost effortless in his meets. Louie went on to set the scholastic mile record that stood for 17 years, and won his way into the Berlin Olympics. He competed in front of Adolph Hitler, and eventually shook hands with him. Louie also met and made friends with Jesse Owens, the man who dominated those Olympics. Since Louie was younger than most competitors, he immediately focused on the 1940 Olympics with his training.
Those Olympics were cancelled because the unrest preceding World War ll was spreading throughout Europe. Louie ended up in the Army Air Force as a bombardier on B-24s. His plane and crew were squarely entrenched in the Pacific war against Japan. Their original plane was shot up on a bombing run, making it unusable. Several crews hadn’t returned, and Louie and his crew took another plane to look for the lost crews. Along the way, several malfunctions caused this plane to crash with only three survivors. Louis, the pilot and another crewman survived a water crash. What followed for these three men was the longest documented life raft survival of the war. Sharks, a blazing sun, frigid nights and little food and water didn’t deter the amazing survival of Louie and Phil, the pilot.
As the raft drifted in the ocean, a Japanese plane strafed them over and over, yet no one was hurt and the raft was repairable. Finally, the raft came within sight of several tropical islands, but just as the outlook seemed to brighten, a Japanese patrol boat captured the two emaciated survivors. The other crewman died just days before the capture.
So began an even more brutal and unbelievable time for the American flyers. They spent two years in several prisoner of war camps. Little food, unclean water, brutal cold, hard labor and daily beatings were a constant at all of them. Louie’s status as a former Olympian made him the focus of the worst beatings. Nearly half of his body weight was lost, and tropical diseases and malnutrition eventually killed a quarter of all Pacific POWs. He was defiant throughout, ever hoping that some day he would regain his ability to run.
When liberation finally came, Louie spent months recovering and gradually came back to the U.S. by way of several hospitals. He had been near death, but his physical recovery seemed complete in time to train for the 1948 Olympics. Training went well until an ankle injury from a POW beating reoccurred, and his dream was over.
Louie returned home, married and had a child. But the war still raged in his head, and his alcoholism and violent behavior were destroying him. A chance encounter in Los Angeles with Evangelist Billy Graham changed his life. Louie went on to become a motivational speaker, starting his own Victory Foundation and continues to serve others.
Author Hillenbrand calls “Unbroken” a World War ll story of survival, resilience and redemption. Zampernin ran as a hero in Japan while carrying the Olympic torch for the 1998 Games at age 81. He is a hero, just as are the millions of Allied servicemen and POWs who lived the story of the Second World War. Many of them never came home, many more bore emotional scars for the rest of their lives. Hillenbrand said, “Louie’s story is a lesson in the resilience of the soul and the wondrous breadth of possibility that life affords, even in our bleakest hours. We can overcome so much more than we realize, we only have to look to Louie to be reassured of this.” Zampernin plans a tour this year to promote the book at age 94. Universal has the movie rights. Hillenbrand also wrote Seabiscuit, another true story about a depression era race horse that captivated the world.