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Book Notes

January 6, 2011

Book Notes: Laura Hillenbrand is one of the best

One of the aspects of World War II that hasn’t been fully appreciated is the experience of American prisoners of war in Japan. Thirty-seven percent of them died while in captivity compared with 1 percent in Germany and Italy. For whatever reason, it’s a subject that hasn’t been emphasized as much as the battlefronts, the home front, or even the Holocaust. But it’s important to understand this dehumanizing part of the conflict because it explains much about the dark side of war and why it should be avoided at all costs.

Laura Hillenbrand is a writer who searches for epic stories that have floated under the radar. When she wrote her bestseller, Seabiscuit, the story of the great race horse from the 1930s, she brought to life one of the most warm-hearted, yet little known tales of the 20th century. She thought she could never top it.

Well, Hillenbrand found a way. She stumbled upon an Olympic athlete who volunteered for the Army Air Force during World War II, and survived 47 days adrift at sea, and then two years of brutal internment in Japan. How this man lived to tell about his experience is truly unbelievable.

Hillenbrand’s work, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” is the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic longdistance runner, who along with his pilot, Allen Phillips, not only survived the crash of his plane in the Pacific, but almost two months without proper food and shelter all the while surrounded by sharks.

Their reward for surviving that ordeal was to spend two years in a Japanese prison camp where they were tortured, beaten and malnourished almost every single day. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that anyone could not only survive such ordeals but live another 60 years after the war’s end.

Hillenbrand’s effort is divided into several parts, each of which could be a book in itself. The story of Zamperini growing up in Torrance, Calif., becoming an Olympic athlete, and attending the 1936 Games in Berlin is amazing enough.

But then the reader learns about the training, daily routine, and dangers of a World War II airman. Then there’s the crash and the 47 days at sea fighting sharks and starvation. Then there’s the “rescue” and internment in Japan followed by adjusting (or not adjusting) to post-war life on the home front.

There are many fascinatingbits of information throughout Hillenbrand’s text. How many people know of the staggering number of airmen lost in training, or non-combat accidents?

Over 35,000 airmen lost their lives on training missions in the United States alone. The crash that left Zamperini at sea and killed many of his crewmates was on a search mission for a lost plane. Zamperini’s plane itself was thought unfit to fly by his pilot, Phillips, but a “know-itall’’ lieutenant insisted it was safe (I wonder how often that happened?).

Understanding the mindset of the Japanese soldiers may provide some insight into the behavior of suicide bombers today.

The Japanese soldier felt that death was preferable to surrender and it was an honor to die in battle for the emperor. That would help explain why the kamikazes were very willing to die. Survival isn’t a basic instinct in every culture.

The end of the war and how the POWs survived despite the existence of a “kill-all’’ order is fascinating.

The question of whether we should have dropped the atomic bomb, not once but twice, is an ongoing debate.

It is doubtful many POWs believed the Japanese would have surrendered without its use. One thing for which there cannot be any debate is that war is hell no matter what Hollywood tries to make it out to be.

Hillenbrand has now hit two home runs with her first two biographies. We may have to wait another seven years for her next “epic” (that’s how long it took this one) but it will be worth it. She is fast establishing herself as one of America’s great non-fiction writers.

DAVID KENT is the Cooperstown Village librarian.

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