Hillenbrand Delivers a Profile in Courage

By Thomas Hauch

Olympic runner and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, “Unbroken” (Random House).“All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward.” 

In the opening lines of Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand paints a desperate image. It has been 27 days since Zamperini’s plane suffered a mechanical failure and crashed into the Pacific. He has since floated hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of miles on a yellow survival raft. Across from him sits the plane’s gunner, and on another raft lies the pilot. Their bodies have been ravaged by the elements and withered by starvation. Just a month before, Zamperini had been America’s best shot at breaking the four-minute mile. Now he was just hoping to survive, and as every day passed, it seemed more and more improbable.  Suddenly, Zamperini hears the roar of an engine above; a plane appears from the mist. But then another sound emerges: not the steady hum of pistons, but the ferocious roar of machine-gun fire. With no other option, Zamperini dives into the shark-infested water, forced to wait between a rock and a hard place. 

But just then, Hillenbrand doubles back. Hillenbrand leaves Zamperini clinging to his raft, his fate unknown, and takes us to his childhood home of Torrance, California. She introduces the reader to a young Louis Zamperini: a pickpocket and a thief, a delinquent child who seemed destined to do nothing. But through the guidance of his older brother, Zamperini mended his ways and grew into a star. He learned to channel his strong will and stubborn disposition towards performing at the highest level on the track. 

As a teenager, Zamperini excelled, becoming the fastest miler in high school history and earning a scholarship to the University of Southern California. According to his coach at Torrance High, “the only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit.” Still in college, he earned a chance to compete in the 1936 Olympics, running the 5000m He failed to make much of an impact in Berlin (at 19, he was one of the youngest competitors in an event that favors experience). But his final lap sprint did earn the praise of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on shaking hands with Zamperini. 

Whatever the outcome, he returned in high spirits. He continued to train and improve, but by the time he graduated from USC, Zamperini was no longer dreaming of the 1940 Olympics. The German menace had shown its true colors, and Japan (the host of the 1940 games) seemed bent on conquering the East. The world was headed down a dangerous path. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Zamperini enlisted in 1941, and he was deployed to Hawaii the following year as a B-24 bombardier. After dozens of successful operations, Zamperini’s plane went down over the Pacific. He survived the crash, along with two others from his crew, and they set off drifting west on a pair of yellow survival rafts. 

The incident on the 27th day, which Hillenbrand foreshadows in her brief preface, is just one of many trials that Zamperini would face. In fact, he would ultimately drift more than a thousand miles on his raft, only to wash upon the shores of enemy territory and spend the next two years in a Japanese prison camp. Knowing this, however, does nothing to spoil the drama of Unbroken. It does not ease the pain that Zamperini endured, and that Hillenbrand describes in searing detail. 

Her prose is clear and to the point. There is no hint of hyperbole, pretension, or self-indulgence. She allows the incredible story of Louis Zamperini to simply tell itself. Unbroken is a success, not for its literary flourish, but for its absolute dedication to its subject. As in her 2001 bestseller Seabiscuit, about a champion thoroughbred that emerged at the height of the Great Depression, Hillenbrand captures not only the life but the atmosphere that surrounded her protagonist. The story of Unbroken begins in that same period of history. In fact, Zamperini and Seabiscuit often shared headlines in the 1930s.

It was a dark time for many. But Americans placed their hope in people like Louie. They rallied behind the athletes who rose above their circumstances. Perhaps Hillenbrand can relate with them. For most of her life, Hillenbrand has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, forcing her to remain at home. According to the author, writing about physical paragons like Seabiscuit and Zamperini is her own unique way of living vicariously. Whatever the case, it is clear that Hillenbrand has done her research. And with her clear and simple prose, she skillfully captures the spirit of the times.

In fact, to label Unbroken as a mere biography is to ignore the sheer scope of Hillenbrand’s work. True, it is ultimately the story of Louis Zamperini, but Hillenbrand seems capable of describing an entire generation. With the same attention that she gives to her protagonist, Hillenbrand weaves together the lives of countless individuals. Of the soldiers who fought with Zamperini, we learn about their homes and livelihoods. We share in their dreams and understand their fears. Even more remarkable, Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s captors with the same exacting detail. It would be all too easy to write them off as faceless criminals, but Hillenbrand gives each one a life and story of his own. 

To put it simply, Unbroken is a triumph of storytelling. In her sophomore effort, Hillenbrand has crafted yet another masterpiece, a blend of sport and history that catalogs a truly improbable life. The trials of Louis Zamperini, though not unknown, have been largely untold until now. Hillenbrand has given his story a well-deserved and lasting place in literature.