Olympian Survives Sharks, Japanese Sadist in WWII Story: Books

The cover jacket of "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

“Incredible” and “unbelievable” are words that keep coming to mind during “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s horror-by-horror account of the sufferings Louis Zamperini endured during World War II.

He survived 47 days on a raft in blistering equatorial heat, losing half his body weight. And that ordeal was pleasant compared with what followed when he was captured by the Japanese.

Zamperini was an Olympic runner from Torrance, California. There’s reason to believe that if the war hadn’t intervened he could have broken the four-minute mile years before Roger Bannister finally did it in 1954.

In May, 1943 his bomber went down in the South Pacific. Of the 11 men on board, only three made it onto two small canvas-and-rubber rafts. There was nothing on them to shelter the men from the sun. For nourishment they had only a little water and chocolate, which quickly disappeared.

When they spotted a plane and shot off a flare, it turned out to be Japanese and strafed them. Zamperini jumped into the water and fought off the sharks with his fists.

The first camp Zamperini was interned in was the Japanese equivalent of one of the CIA’s “black site” prisons. The POWs were starved and tortured -- their captors claimed “they were ‘unarmed combatants’ at war against Japan and, as such, didn’t have the rights that international law accorded POWs.”

‘The Bird’

The next camp was worse, owing to the psychopathic sadism of Cpl. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, “the Bird,” who after the war ranked among the most wanted Japanese war criminals. He immediately fixated on the famous Olympian and determined to break his spirit.

Hillenbrand, the author of the 2001 bestseller “Seabiscuit,” is a wonderful storyteller with a knack for surprising the reader. Nevertheless, the deeper in I got the less I found myself wanting to return to her endless atrocity anecdotes:

“While Louie hid upstairs on his bunk, sick with fever, he saw the Bird and Kono beat two sick POWs until they acquiesced to the Bird’s order to lick excrement from their boots.”

Much to her credit, she doesn’t try to tug inspiration out of Zamperini’s history. (The title and subtitle -- “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” -- are much cheesier than anything in the text.) When the war was over, he was very broken. How he put himself back together forms the final part of the book.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Reading about the Japanese prison camps made me feel the way I do when I read about the German death camps -- implicated in the vileness of humanity. But it tempered some of my qualms on another score, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hillenbrand shows that the Japanese had “kill-all” orders for any camps that appeared likely to be liberated.

There had already been mass murders of prisoners before Hiroshima went up in flames. “They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down.”

“Unbroken” is published by Random House in the U.S. (473 pages, $27). It will be published in the U.K. by Fourth Estate in January. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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