This past November the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Review section carried Steve Oney’s moving joint profile of Laura Hillenbrand and Louis Zamperini, the subject of Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. Zamperini competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then served in the Army Air Corps during the war. David Margolick concisely summarized what happened next:
In late May 1943, the B-24 carrying the 26-year-old Zamperini went down over the Pacific. For nearly seven weeks — longer, Hillenbrand believes, than any other such instance in recorded history — Zamperini and his pilot managed to survive on a fragile raft. They traveled 2,000 miles, only to land in a series of Japanese prison camps, where, for the next two years, Zamperini underwent a whole new set of tortures. His is one of the most spectacular odysseys of this or any other war, and “odyssey” is the right word, for with its tempests and furies and monsters, many of them human, Zamperini’s saga is something out of Greek mythology.
Margolick commented on the “new set of tortures” Zamperini endured:
That story encompasses an aspect of the American experience during World War II — the cruelty of the Japanese — that, in an era of Toyotas…and Hideki Matsui, has been almost entirely forgotten. (Forgotten in the United States, that is: Japanese sensitivities on the subject remain sufficiently high that Hillenbrand refuses to identify her translators there.) It’s also yet another testament to the courage and ingenuity of America’s Greatest Generation, along with its wonderful, irrepressible American-style irreverence: just hearing the nicknames — many unprintable here — that the P.O.W.’s bestowed on their guards makes you fall in love with these soldiers.
Reading Janet Maslin’s review New York Times review of the book, I was incredulous not even to have heard of Zamperini previously. But, as Oney and Journal reviewer James Hornfischer point out, Hillenbrand hadn’t heard of him either before she undertook the research for Seabiscuit.
Zamperini lives; he just turned 94. Struggling with the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome, Hillenbrand has only interviewed him from a distance. They have never met, yet they have formed the deep bond that Oney described:
Over the course of the seven years Ms. Hillenbrand toiled on “Unbroken,” she and Mr. Zamperini became friends, despite never laying eyes on each other. “I call him a virtuoso of joy,” she says. “When things are going bad, I phone him.” Says Mr. Zamperini, “Every time I say good-bye to her, I tell her I love her and she tells me, ‘I love you.’ I’ve never known a girl like her.
“Laura brought my war buddies back to life,” he says. “The fact that Laura has suffered so much enabled her to put our suffering into words.”
Zamperini’s story should be common knowledge, especially while we can still express our gratitude to him for his sacrifice. Hillenbrand may have done the job; her book has been sitting on top of the Times’s nonfiction list for the past several weeks.
Our friend Hugh Hewitt had the privilege of interviewing Zamperini along with Zamperini’s fellow Olympian and USC alum John Naber in the studio this week. The audio of the interview is posted here. I learned from Hugh’s interview that Zamperini has a Web site here with items of interest including Bob Simon’s 1998 rendition of Zamperini’s story (under the “video clip” tag on the menu at the top).