Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Unbroken' Humility and Respect

Review by Bill Doughty

Louie Zamperini and Laura Hillenbrand share a moment.
Laura Hillenbrand writes with vivid power about the life of Louis Zamperini: troublemaker kid, redeemed brother, Olympic runner, Army Air Forces lieutenant, POW and veteran.

"Unbroken" is a true story of fearless determination in the face of death, hate and brutality of war. No wonder the story was made into a feature film. 

There are some surprising ties to the Navy, and a big part of story takes place at sea.

In fact, as the preface opens, it's June 23, 1943 in the "endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean." Sharks rub against Zamperini's raft and an enemy bomber flies overhead firing machine guns below. 
Young Louie
Hillenbrand is in the zone in describing conflict, action and people. Here's how she portrays Louie as a boy, son of immigrant parents in Torrance, California who spoke only Italian at home:
"His features, which would later settle into pleasant collaboration, were growing at different rates, giving him a curious face that seemed designed by committee. His ears leaned sidelong off his head like holstered pistols, and above them waved a calamity of black hair that mortified him. He attacked it with his aunt Margie's hot iron, hobbled it in a silk stocking every night, and slathered it with so much olive oil that flies trailed him to school. It did no good."
Louie and Pete Zamperini
Louie's big brother Pete became mentor and coach, encouraging Louie to train as a runner who would set records. Pete believed Louie was capable of running a four-minute mile. He got within 13 seconds of that mark. Louis Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he was introduced to Adolf Hitler. 

He was set to run in the 1940 Games in Finland but they were canceled after Nazi Germany invaded. Fascism spread like a stain by the Nazis across Europe and – by Imperial Japan – through Asia.

Pete served in World War II as a Navy Chief Petty Officer training Sailors in San Diego. Louie became a bombardier stationed at Hickam Field and Kahuku, Hawaii. He trained aboard his B-24 named "Super Man" off Barbers Point on Oahu and Barking Sands on Kauai before deploying to Midway and other Pacific islands, including Funafuti and Samoa.

Following a successful raid on Wake Island, Admiral Nimitz presented pilots with the Distinguished Flying Cross and crewmen with Air Medals.

Pete and Louie in WWII
After crashing into the ocean on a search mission, facing hunger, delirium, sharks and enemy attacks, Louie and his close friend, pilot Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips, survived, floating 2,000 miles only to be captured by the enemy. They would spend the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps. Both the days at sea and the months languishing as slave-labor prisoners are portrayed by Hillenbrand with vivid prose, carefully researched details, and insights into the character of not only the protagonists but also some of the key antagonists.

Zamperini faced torture by brutal guards in camps at Kwajalein and Ofuna and especially at Omori and Naoetsu, men corrupted by power.
"Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler's death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people: Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man's soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet."
Hillenbrand shows that the guards were not representative of Japanese civilians or pre-militaristic society.  They were the "dregs ... washed out of regular soldierly life, too incompetent to perform basic duties. Quite a few were deranged."

While some of the guards showed compassion and understanding, many were "murderously sadistic" and felt racially and morally superior, driven by a religious fervor, hate and fear, according to Hillenbrand.

Among the POWs were Pappy Boyington, USS Houston survivor Cmdr. Arthur Maher, and Marine officer William Harris. Harris would be invited by Gen. MacArthur to be on the deck of the USS Missouri for the signing of the instruments of surrender Sept. 2, 1945. Five years later he fought in the Korean War where he became missing in action. Harris was awarded the Navy Cross in absentia.

Zamperini and his fellow POWs survived through stealing, sabotage and sheer determination. After the surrender, they rejected hate and revenge. Instead, they showed humanity to their former captors and civilians living near the camps. Back home, Louie lived with PTSD but was helped by family, friends and faith and forgiveness. Louis Zamperini died earlier this year. He was 97.

I'm posting this on the day after Marcus Mariota, quarterback of the University of Oregon Ducks, was awarded the Heisman trophy. In his acceptance remarks, Mariota, a Polynesian American native son of Hawaii, thanked his teammates, coaches, family and home state: "To Hawaii nei [beloved Hawaii], thank you for teaching me humility and respect. Two aspects of my life that I will never change."
I thought of parallels – how fearless and determined Lou Zamperini lived his life with humility and respect, though his brutal prison guards had neither during the war. History is filled with examples of the power of honor, courage and commitment to inalienable human rights.

Mariota's father, Toa, is originally from American Samoa.

In her acknowledgements in "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," Hillenbrand concludes with a dedication:
"Finally, I wish to remember the millions of Allied servicemen and prisoners of war who lived the story of the Second World War. Many of these men never came home; many others returned bearing emotional and physical scars that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I come away from this book with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity."
Humility and respect.
Samoa 1943.

1 comment:

parker diamond said...

I just finished the book, "Unbroken". What a read, it was hard to put down, but I knew that once I finished it, I would be sadly alone with all those thoughts and memories. I didn't want to finish it as it was my devoted companion for 3-4 weeks of part time reading. I wanted more so I got the audio-book from the library and omg, try listening to a story after you just read it. To be read a story such as this is spellbinding, reading it is one thing-listening to it is more intesse. Laura puts you next to Louie and magically transports you to the inside of the story.....