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'Seabiscuit' Author's New Hero 'Unbroken' By War

Louis Zamperini peers over the hatch nose of his aircraft in 1943. Later that year, a crash involving a B-24 bomber similar to this one would land the former Olympian in a Japanese prison camp.
Louis Zamperini peers over the hatch nose of his aircraft in 1943. Later that year, a crash involving a B-24 bomber similar to this one would land the former Olympian in a Japanese prison camp.

Laura Hillenbrand has written two great big books about exceptional athletes and inspiring survivors that the world somehow managed to forget for a while. The first was Seabiscuit, the tale of the Depression-era racehorse.

Now she offers up the saga of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who became an American airman -- and whose true laurels were the result of trials, endurance and will far from any stadium.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption follows Zamperini as a bombardier during World War II. When a plane he is piloting disappears into the Pacific Ocean, years of starvation, imprisonment and brutality follow.

Hillenbrand tells NPR's Scott Simon that when Zamperini was a kid in Torrance, Calif., he was known for his unbridled energy. That verve would one day make him an Olympic athlete; at the time, it simply made him spirited to the point of delinquency.

"He was the Artful Dodger of his hometown from a very early age," Hillenbrand says. "He was a serial runaway; he was a brawler; he was a prankster."

Zamperini's delinquency often manifested itself in the form of theft, Hillenbrand says; the kid would steal anything edible he could find, even breaking into kitchens to make off with a family's meal moments before it was to be served.

When Zamperini took up track and field at the urging of his older brother, he finally had somewhere to channel his pent-up energy. He would go on to become the fastest high-school runner in history and an American record holder in the mile.

"Running saved him," Hillenbrand says. "He had the one thing that a good thief has -- getaway speed. And it turned out Louis had world-class, historic speed."

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

He eventually competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler took notice, and complimented him on his speed.

An Airman Falls Into The Sea

After Pearl Harbor, Zamperini would become a bombardier, serving in the Pacific theater during World War II. The bombers of the time had technical problems and limited navigation abilities, and as a result Zamperini was at high risk even when he wasn't in combat.

"It was extremely deadly just to fly in these things, much less to go into combat," Hillenbrand says. "Fifteen-thousand Air Corps trainees died in training, stateside. Once you got into the combat theaters, 36,000 airmen died in noncombat accidents."

In May of 1943, those realities would turn Zamperini's life upside down. Zamperini and his crew were flying a rattletrap B-24 called the Green Hornet -- their usual aircraft was grounded for repair -- to look for yet another plane that had already gone down. When the Green Hornet began to fall apart, they ditched the plane in the ocean -- a move that Hillenbrand says almost certainly should have guaranteed the crew's demise.

"The odds of being rescued if you ended up on a life raft were terrible," she says. "The rafts were very poorly equipped. The raft that Louis ended up on was especially poorly equipped."

Zamperini's raft had just a few cans of waters, a few bars of chocolate, screwdrivers, and a set of pliers. Staying alive would require resourcefulness, and a bit of audacity.

Zamperini and his crew were audacious, though, and they did all manner of things to survive. For hydration, Louis made rain catchers out of air-pump cases. For food they caught birds. Louis snagged fish with a hook made from his lieutenant's pin, and once with a fish hook tied to his finger.

Sometimes the crew wrestled sharks onto their raft, then killed them with the pliers.

Sunk In Another Kind Of Hell

Laura Hillenbrand is also the author of <em>Seabiscuit: An American Legend</em>. The book inspired the Academy Award nominated film, <em>Seabiscuit.</em>
Washington Post / Getty Images
Getty Images
Laura Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The book inspired the Academy Award nominated film, Seabiscuit.

After 47 days, Zamperini and his crew made landfall, and were picked up by a Japanese boat. And after a short period of decent treatment, they were sent to hellish prison camps. Their only food: a ball of rice thrown onto a filthy floor.

"There were feces on the floor, and there were maggots and they would have to pick the rice out," Hillenbrand says. "Their water was a tiny cup of tea every day."

Zamperini and his men were also subjected to much physical brutality, Hillenbrand says -- and to medical experiments. Much of that cruelty was inflicted at the hands of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known among his prisoners as "The Bird."

("Watanabe didn’t want to be spoken about, so they chose fake names for all of their captors," Hillenbrand explains.)

Watanabe was handsome, wealthy, young and prominent in Japanese society. But he had failed to make officer himself, and resentment was part of what fueled his brutality toward prisoners of war, and especially toward Zamperini.

"He had an obsession with POWs who had made officer, with those who were prominent in civilian life, with those who were defiant," Hillenbrand says. "Louis was an officer, he was a lieutenant, he was a world-famous Olympian, and he was a ferociously defiant man. Once these two met, it was more or less a showdown for the rest of the war."

Watanabe singled Zamperini out for terrible brutality, Hillenbrand says, and eventually Zamperini and his fellow prisoners hatched a murder plot against their captor. That plan, Hillenbrand says, was critical for the prisoners -- as a means, not an end.

"There was a lot going on with the prisoners of war in terms of maintaining their dignity and finding ways to push back," she says. "One of the ways they did that was they hatched a murder plot against this man."

Whether the plan succeeded or not was almost beside the point; the goal was to maintain their dignity.

'A Deeply, Deeply Haunted Man'

Zamperini survived. But when returned to California, he found himself in a new battle: overcoming the impact of his experiences.

"Louis came home a deeply, deeply haunted man," Hillenbrand says. "Terrible, terrible nightmares where Louis would wake up screaming ... fighting with The Bird, being beaten by The Bird or trying to strangle The Bird."

Today Zamperini's struggles would be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

"Once the war is over physically, it’s not over emotionally," Hillenbrand says. "Not nearly."

Living in the midst of war, Zamperini knew exactly what he had to do to survive. Living in peace, however, was another story.

"What he was dealing with when he was in crisis, in the war, these were all physical things that he had to get over," Hillenbrand says. "He had to figure out how to get water on the raft; he had to figure out how to catch that next fish.  Meanwhile, the damage was being done to him emotionally. It was something, I think, a lot of these men could kind of put off at the time, in the crisis, but once the crisis was over, that’s when it all kind of exploded inside them."

Yet Zamperini prevailed. He's still alive today. He found closure, in part, in 1998, when he returned to Japan to carry the Olympic torch during the Nagano Winter Olympic games.

He carried the torch through Noetsi, a town where he had been held prisoner. This time, he arrived to cheers and clapping.

"It was a beautiful experience for him to come back and have that closure, and have all of that hatred behind him," Hillenbrand says.

Despite Zamperini's astounding triumphs, Hillenbrand rarely refers to him as a hero in her book. She wants his story to stand as just one example of its kind.

"Louis is definitely a hero," she says. "What he did for this country is something that really moves me. I don't, though, want to separate him from all the other men around him who did the same thing. They're all extraordinary. I want him to be representative of all of them, rather than somebody who stands apart from them."

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NPR Staff