- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2011

By Laura Hillenbrand
Random House, $27, 496 pages

There’s no limit to the pain, the indignities and the humiliation a man can take and, in William Faulkner’s famous formulation, “not only endure, but prevail.” He could have been talking about a man called Louis Zamperini.

A bombardier on a World War II B-24 that crashed into the South Pacific in 1943, Lou Zamperini endured pain at sea, indignity and humiliation in a prison camp and the final triumph of the soul at peace. He spent 46 days on a rubber raft, drifting 2,000 miles through shark attacks, typhoons, agonizing hunger and worst of all, deep, dark despair. He was captured and spent the next 27 months as a horrifically abused prisoner of Japan.

He was liberated at the end of the war and returned to America and the custody of his demons with a vow to search through occupied Japan for the one psychopathic prison-camp guard who had made his life a preview of hell. The search failed, and he came home to seek solace at the bottom of a bottle. He at last found relief at the end of the sawdust trail, with conversion to faith in Christ at the tent revival in downtown Los Angeles that launched Billy Graham. He spent the rest of his life as an eloquent advocate for faith and forgiveness.

His is the compelling account of survival, resilience and redemption as told by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller “Seabiscuit,” in her new book, “Unbroken.”

Lou Zamperini grew up in Torrance, Calif., south of Los Angeles, where he was “the Torrance bad boy,” a candidate for reform school. He started smoking at 5, drinking at 8, and stealing from the neighbors soon after. The family, having migrated from Olean, N.Y., patched together a house from scraps of lumber, with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. When they moved to a real house, Lou continued his wild streak, breaking into houses to steal food. Only those who remember the hunger and hopelessness of the Great Depression can understand such desperation. Lou robbed pay phones of nickels and dimes, and stole tools and copper wire from construction sites. The cops in Torrance called him “a one-boy insurgency.”

“In a childhood of artful dodging, Louis made more than just mischief,” writes Laura Hillenbrand. He was confident that he was clever, resourceful and bold enough to escape any predicament. … When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.”

Artful dodging became organized running in high school; he discovered that his long, muscular legs could win the respect and adulation he coveted, and at 17, he set national records in high-school track, and made the 1936 Olympics team as a distance runner. He caught the eye of Hitler after a grueling race that he lost despite a heroic finish at the wire: “You’re the boy with the fast finish,” der Feuhrer told him. He was on the verge of running “the four-minute mile,” once thought impossible, when Hitler and his Japanese allies plunged the world into war.

The young Lou enlisted in the Army Air Corps just after Pearl Harbor, and on May 27, 1943, his B-24, a plane pilots called “the widow maker,” crashed into the waves somewhere in the vast reaches of the South Pacific. For the next 46 days, Lou, the injured pilot and the badly wounded tailgunner who would die at sea, struggled to stay alive. Lou fought off sharks with his fists, escaping starvation with an occasional fish and a sea bird. They were at last picked up by a Japanese merchant ship, whose skipper turned them over to the army with a warning: “After you leave here, we cannot guarantee your life.” It was only a hint of abuse to come.

Lou would come to know one of his tormentors so well that Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the guard whom the prisoners called “the Bird,” terrorized his every waking hour and haunted his nightmares for many months after the war. The Bird was a skillful tormentor, using both extreme physical and mental torture to break the prisoners. Over more than two years’ imprisonment, Lou was singled out for particular attention. The Bird broke his body but never his will, which so infuriated him that he made the punishment ever harsher. In addition to the daily beatings, usually with a belt and the heavy steel buckle aimed at Lou’s head, he once forced the prisoners at gunpoint to lie face-down in feces.

Reformed and regretful, the Japanese are our friends and allies now, and there were even then occasional acts of kindness. A guard, who told Lou that he was a Christian, at great risk to himself slipped him a piece of candy. Nevertheless, reading the Zamperini story inevitably tempts a man to kick his Toyota in the tires.

The war over, Lou was obsessed with finding Bird and the other guards. He returned to Japan in 1948 and went to Sugamo prison, where 850 guard and prison-camp abusers of the POWs were imprisoned, some waiting for execution. They were assembled for Lou, and many expected harsh insults, scorn and even physical abuse. Lou told them of his new faith in Christ, and gave them Bibles.

“He felt something that he had never before felt for his captors,” Laura Hillenbrand writes in conclusion to her remarkable book. “With a shiver of amazement he realized it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louis Zamperini, the war was over.”

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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