The improbable lives of Louis Zamperini

I am saddened to learn of the death yesterday of the remarkable Louis Zamperini. What a man; what a great American. The New York Times obituary by Ira Berkow is here.

I wrote about Mr. Zamperini on Power Line after I finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of him (linked below). The following comments are adapted from what I wrote then.

In November 2010 the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Review section carried Steve Oney’s moving joint profile of Hillenbrand and Zamperini. Zamperini is 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 New York Times review of the book, I was incredulous not even to have heard of Zamperini. 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 was of course alive and alert at the time of the book’s writing and publication. Struggling with the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome, however, Hillenbrand was able only to interview him from a distance as she conducted her research. They never met, yet they 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.”

It took me a while to get to Hillenbrand’s book. I would have gotten to it faster, but my wife grabbed it from me when I brought it home from the bookstore. And I would have gotten through it more quickly if the last 200 pages hadn’t brought tears to my eyes on virtually every page. But I couldn’t put it down while I was reading it — I carried it everywhere I might have a chance to get back to it — and then I wanted to buttonhole strangers to talk about it, like the Ancient Mariner with his sea story.

The book sat on top of the New York Times bestseller list for a couple of years after it was published. It didn’t exactly need any help from me. But it’s the kind of book you can’t get out of your mind. I offered these 10 notes on the book in the hope that they might encourage you to read the book if you haven’t yet.

1. Hillenbrand almost completely subordinates herself to the story. In the one or two sentences where she slightly inserts herself — conveying the shibboleth, for example, that the war in the Pacific was a race war on both sides — the effect is jarring. Hillenbrand makes telling Zamperini’s story in all its multifarious elements her mission. Her research is comprehensive but unobtrusive.

2. I have never read a book so full of suffering. The suffering at sea is next to nothing compared to the suffering inflicted by the Japanese in the prison camps. Hillenbrand notes at one point early in Zamperini’s detention by the Japanese that Zamperini looked back on his days drifting at sea with fondness by comparison. But it is not only Zamperini’s suffering that Hillenbrand conveys. She also recreates the suffering of Zamperini’s family at home, worried about Zamperin’s fate.

3. Zamperini wants us to understand the suffering he and his buddies endured. “Laura brought my war buddies back to life,” Zamperini told Oney. “The fact that Laura has suffered so much enabled her to put our suffering into words.”

4. Professor David Gelernter has created a fictional course to mitigate the phoniness of the baby boom generation praising “the greatest generation.” Among other things, he asks that we teach our kids the memoirs and recollections of the veterans who served in World War II along with the bestiality of the Japanese. Hillenbrand’s book should take a prominent place in Gelernter’s course.

5. Zamperini had more lives than the proverbial cat. He was saved from a life of delinquency by his brother. His service in the war prior to the crash had an incredibly close call or two. He might well have died in the crash, as all but pilot Russell Allen Phillips and one other crewman did. Zamperini’s escape from the plane after it hit the water remains mysterious. He miraculously defied the odds to have survived in the raft drifting at sea for 47 days, mostly without food or water. He narrowly avoided being shot when a Japanese fighter strafed the raft. When he and Phillips found land, it turned out to be Kwajalein, otherwise known among the Americans as Execution Island. He could easily have been killed there. Zamperini might also have died during his detention after he was moved from Kwajalein to Japan; he was surely within a few days or weeks of death when the war ended.

6. American readers of the book will experience the joy and gratitude that Zamperini and his colleagues in the Pacific theater felt when Harry Truman saw to it that we dropped the big ones on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war. Hillenbrand herself does not comment on this aspect of the story or quote Zamperini on it, but you can’t miss it.

7. When he returned home, Zamperini was consumed by nightmares and flashbacks that led him deep into alcoholism. He was rescued from his nightmares and alcoholism — by his wife, by Billy Graham, and by his conversion to Christianity. Hillenbrand’s research extends even to this aspect of the story. She tracks down, and quotes from, the audiotapes of the two sermons that Zamperini heard Graham preach in Los Angeles in 1949.

8. Our friend Hugh Hewitt had the privilege of interviewing Zamperini along with Zamperini’s fellow Olympian and USC alum John Naber in the studio a while back. The audio of the interview is posted here.

9. I learned from Hugh’s interview that Zamperini had a Web site here with items of interest including Bob Simon’s 1998 rendition of Zamperini’s story (now accessible online here). In the epilogue to the book, Hillenbrand notes that the research for Simon’s profile resolved a critical component of Zamperini’s story.

10. Zamperini’s story should be common knowledge among all Americans. If Hillenbrand hasn’t done the job, she’s getting us there. Maybe the forthcoming film of Unbroken (trailer below), scheduled for release on Christmas, will finish the job.