This is another book that has been on my shelf for years after being purchased at a library book sale. The need for reading material during the pandemic drove it into my hands. It’s a good book. It has a strong story, it’s meticulously researched, and it has high-quality writing. In it, Hillenbrand tells the life story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was a bombardier during World War II until his plane was shot down by the Japanese and he became a prisoner of war.
The story starts out in Torrance, California, where Zamperini was a rowdy teen involved in petty theft and other troublemaking activities. He finds direction, however, when he realizes that he can run fast. At his high school and then at USC he sets long distance running records. He gets so good that he becomes a part of the U.S. Olympic team of 1936 that goes to Berlin, Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.
War breaks out, and Zamperini joins the U.S. Army Air Corps as a bombardier. During a mission his plane goes down. The only survivors are Zamperini and two other men, who spend 47 days slowly starving at sea surrounded by large deadly sharks before being captured by the Japanese.
The next section of the book details Zamperini’s arduous experiences in Japanese prisoner of war camps. The conditions are horrendous. Besides the inadequate food and filthy living conditions, the men are beaten and otherwise humiliated regularly. Most of them, despite their feeble conditions, have to work long hours at grueling manual labor. For Zamperini, most of his time as a POW is spent in camps overseen by a Japanese overseer nicknamed The Bird, who takes a personal dislike to Zamperini and does him best to make Zamperini’s life a constant hell on Earth.
As the war approaches its end, the prisoners are tormented by rumors that the Japanese are soon to issue kill orders; in other words, they plan to exterminate all the POWs under their care. This does not happen, at least for Zamperini and his fellow prisoners, and the war comes to a conclusion after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When Zamperini goes home, he has serious post-traumatic stress disorder. He is beset by nightmares and flashbacks in which he is tormented by his nemesis The Bird. He gets married, but his mental instability and alcoholism nearly cause a divorce. However, his wife persuades him to attend a revival meeting by Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and at the second meeting Zamperini goes to he gives his life to Christ. Abruptly he experiences a profound change and his nightmares and flashbacks stop. He devotes his life to telling his story and helping disadvantaged children.
As you can see, Hillenbrand tells several stories here: Zamperini’s conversion from rowdy teen to Olympic-class runner, his dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater during the war, his survival with his crewmates on the life raft in the middle of the ocean, his long stretch in a Japanese POW camp, his deterioration once he got home, and his ultimate redemption and renewal as a Christian. Each segment stands on its own as a riveting adventure, and all together they comprise an epic and fascinating life story.
My only qualification was with the Japanese prisoner of war camp section. It was horrific and exciting, but I felt it went on a bit too long describing similar tortures over and over again. That’s the only point at which my attention lagged for a short period of time.
Otherwise, this is a first-rate historical adventure told in clean prose with plenty of thrills and lots of emotional impact.