Unbroken – Book Review


9.0 Gut-wrenchingly Inspiring

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If it was me, would I have survived?

Unbroken is a marriage of two books: Life of Pi and Man’s Search for Meaning. Crop out the tamed tiger and replace it with circling shark fins; swap the death chambers in Auschwitz with greenish fluid filled syringe – it is an extraordinary tale of how life persisted even under the most excruciating trial.

An Italian descendent, as a child, Louie Zamperini was mischievous and daring. Tying the church bell to a nearby tree by thin thread and watch the whole town run panic as the bell rang was one of the stunts he was remembered for. In stark comparison to his brother Peter who seemed to possess all the qualities every parents wanted in a child, Louie was just the opposite, except for one thing: running.

Peter encouraged Louie to run as a mean to quell his restive brother. Louie’s outstanding talent soon qualified him for the Berlin Olympic. After the Olympic, Louie was gearing up to be the first athlete ever ran one mile under four minutes. Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and his track career screeched to a stop. Instead, he became a bomber.

Pacific was shadowed by blankets of massive B-24 bombers. The bomb squads were always encircled by fierce Zero fighter jets whose pilot prided themselves for ramming their planes against the flying fortresses. Louie who was in charge of deploying the bomb had to find his targets among the tapestry of piercing bullets, drilling cannon balls, swallowing smoke and AA shrapnel. Gutted planes, charred wings, exploding engines and people rolled and fell lifelessly like withering leaves in the wind. Louie managed to cheat death on many of the bomb missions until his plane malfunctioned on a search mission and he crash landed on the featureless water.

Louie and two others survived the crash. They had one chocolate bar, a few cups of water to keep their hopes that they will be rescued.

…which never happened.

They made makeshift fishing net and water collectors. Bird, fish, shark liver, they gulped in anything they can get their hands on. Despite all the adversaries, the men had been resourceful until an enemy pilot showered them with rounds of bullets which punctured their raft with hundreds of holes. After the assault, they had to take turn to pump the raft, patch holes and fend off shark attacks. After 47 days drifting on Pacific, Louie and Phil were picked up – by Japanese army.

What followed was a gut-wrenching account of Louie’s journey from one death camp to other, scantly evading death. Humiliation, freezing winter, starvation, hard labor and ruthless beating were daily routine. POWs (prisoner of war) tried in whatever their little way to maintain their dignity: running a flourishing underground smuggling ring, teaching guards rotten English or distributing news through a delicate network. POWs bartered their collected goodies, with sugar and rice ball priced the highest. In the camp, even a single rice ball was worth risking life for. With prisoners starving to death on one side, the camp officials were profiting handsomely from reselling Red Cross goods. The prisoners were just waiting to die.

Watanabe was one of the most notorious guard. He was fond of removing his belt, holding it on one end, and then flinging the buckle end towards prisoners’ temple – the impact was skull shattering. All Louie could do was to clench his fists tight and stood unflinchingly. That daunting experience would haunt Louie many year later. That helplessness was wearing him down. For doomed men, the sight of an American bomber was the only salvation. But as the American troops drew nearer, the threat of getting killed by Japanese solders looms larger as the Japanese would rather kill all prisoners than to allow them to be recaptured.

The American dropped the atoms bombs and Japan surrendered just days before the alleged “kill all” order. Louie, and many other POWs, against all odds, were rescued. Although the liquor, the bread, the meat restored the frail bones and muscles, the scars on the mind took a much longer time to heal, if at all it heals. Louie struggled but eventually found his own salvation in the divine.

It was disturbing to read some portion of the book. It was so unsettling to imagine so much pain inflicted on a daily basis. Death would have been more merciful – if there is a hell, this must be it. The war was a dreadful denial of humanity. Yet, men stood up to it. Nothing robbed the men of their dignity and their will to live – not the shark, not the starvation, not the beriberi, not even Watanabe. Life can be wonderfully resilient if you have the will. Laura also made me realize that what I disliked for breakfast would have made hundreds of men so happy. Happiness can be so easy to find and yet it is so elusive – a different perspective is what makes the difference. Same applies to resourcefulness. However dire the situation, there is rarely a moment there is no way to go around it. The key is courage, lateral thinking and honor.

A must read in my opinion. Laura’s artful story telling was personal, delicate and imaginative. It is one of the most memorable stories I have ever read. Bone chilling yet blood boiling at the same time. No one would have done better than her.

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