by Laura Hillenbrand
Louis Zamperini, son of Italian immigrants and neighborhood trouble-maker, becomes a celebrated track runner (making it to an Olympic showing in Berlin), then joins the Army Air Forces as a bombardier when war breaks out. On a search and rescue mission in a dilapidated B-24, the plane crashes into the ocean; Louis and two others spend 46 days stranded on a tiny inflatable raft, hunted by sharks and tormented by thirst, with almost no supplies. This alone is a fascinating tale, but Louis’ story had only begun at that point, as he lands on an occupied island and is taken from one Japanese POW camp to another, wracked with starvation, slave labor, and the most sadistic, dignity-destroying punishments the camp commanders (including one notorious psychopath the inmates nickname Bird) can dream up. At war’s end, Louis is released, but the memories of all he has undergone and lost stay with him, forcing him to either seek new meaning in life or sink into an alcoholic fury at the world.
This is, quite simply, an incredible book. First of all, Hillenbrand is a brilliant chronicler of the tale, a meticulous, thorough researcher who writes in clear, readable prose and has a fine sense of pacing and suspense. The smallest detail is essential to the story, from Louis’ boyhood skills at thievery that later help him steal at POW camps, to the names of the few kindly Japanese guards who may have made the difference between life and death to the men. But beyond Hillenbrand’s skills as a writer, this is simple an amazing story. Full of twists and turns, nadirs and redemption, this is one true story that actually is as thrilling and as outright unbelievable as any Hollywood thriller. Though Hillenbrand’s aim in this book is to honor a nearly-forgotten hero, not to make historical arguments, Louis’ story seems to stand as solid evidence for a few historical points. One is that the Japanese treatment of American POWs, which was flouted all international rules of warfare, is eerily parallel to America’s post-9/11 treatment of “enemy combatants” (a term the Japanese used for their POWs to justify their treatment, including waterboarding). The second point is that, based on this story and some others, the Japanese military mindset appeared to be systematically sadistic, drenched in an almost alien xenophobia that bordered on the psychopathic and genocidal. There is simply no excuse for the mass starvation, slave labor, biological testing, and the infamous “kill-all” order. For all the talk by Japanese historians about “transfer of oppression” (soldiers trained brutally treated prisoners brutally), there truly is something nearly inhuman in the actions of Bird and hundreds of others. From this, and from the drilling of Japanese children and arming of women with sharpened sticks to prepare for the US invasion, it seems clear that dropping the atomic bombs was the only rational, and justifiable, move to end the war.