I started reading World War II narratives in 4th grade and I’m still coming across new (to me) information about this fascinating time period. Until last week, I hadn’t read anything about the Pacific POWs, so I was intrigued when one of the book clubs I’m in decided to read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The book follows former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini in his harrowing and incredible experiences on the Pacific front, including surviving his plane’s crash landing into the ocean, floating on a raft with no provisions for two months, and being subjected to abominable treatment in Japanese POW camps.
The book is long, and really felt like several books in one. Just when it seems Zamperini cannot possibly survive anything else, another shoe drops. Frankly, I’m still shocked that he lived through the war (I probably would have died about 40 times along the way) and is still living now!
Reading about Zamperini’s survival at sea was surprising and amazing, but then what he endured in Japan was truly staggering. Japan didn’t adhere to the Geneva Conventions in their camps–forcing POWs into slave labor, feeding them below starvation levels, refusing medical treatment and conducting medical experiments on them, combined with horrifying physical abuse and atrocities–and the accounts are very difficult to read. The fact that the culture there at the time accepted this makes the stories of Japanese soldiers and civilians who risked their lives to help the POWs even more heroic. Most people go along to get along, so examples of people who completely step outside of their culture and milieu to do right are very interesting and inspiring. I was also amazed by the ability of some of the POWs to survive and maintain their dignity in the midst of such terrible circumstances. When I finally read about the POWs receiving food drops after VJ Day, and pulling out a contraband US flag to salute even in their terribly weakened state, I nearly wept with relief that they were going to be OK.
Sadly, they weren’t. One thing that really struck me about the narrative were the statistics of what happened to the Pacific POWs after they were rescued. Many died shortly thereafter from the severe malnutrition and abuse they had endured. Others made it home but died within a few years from their injuries or suicide as they couldn’t escape mentally and emotionally. Shockingly, even decades after the war ended over 85% of the surviving Pacific POWs still experienced daily symptoms of PTSD, died at much higher rates than other men their age, and were hospitalized far more frequently.
For all of this dark information though, Unbroken ends on a redemptive note. After returning home and trying to escape his demons through alcoholism, Zamperini became a Christian at a Billy Graham crusade and turned his life around. He became an evangelist himself and devoted his life to working with troubled children. He has run the Olympic torch several times, including at the Nagano Olympics, where he ran past the last POW camp where he was held. He sought out his torturers and forgave them in person where possible. In spite of his dark ordeals, Zamperini’s life overall is an inspiring story of hope and the triumph of the human spirit.
If you’re interested in World War II history, or enjoy reading inspiring biographies, I’d highly recommend Unbroken. As a side note, a movie adaptation of the book is due out next year, so you have time to read the book first!
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