Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand In a style reminiscent of Seabiscuit, especially thematically and which could also have been titled “Unbroken”, the author tells the story of Louie Zamperini, a prospective Olympic runner whose backstory is almost as interesting as his epic story of survival.

I love detail, and this book is filled with tidbits. For example, aircraft losses in the Pacific were primarily due to accident rather than enemy action. In fact, for every plane lost in combat, 6 were destroyed through pilot error, bad maintenance, weather, just about everything. 440 planes disappeared just transiting from California to Hawaii. 70% of those reported as killed-in-action, were non-combat deaths. One pilot radioed another telling him to watch out for the mountain. “Yes, I see it, he replied,” and then flew right into it. Runways were very short and bomb and fuel loads heavy. One crew, standing above the bomb bay doors on a beam watched as the pavement turned to coral and then saw pieces of palm fronds stuck through the doors as the plane just made it over the trees at the end of the runway. (Why they were not cut down remains a mystery to me.) One time when an engine inexplicably shut down, it was discovered the co-pilot was resting his feet on that engine’s ignition switch. Navigation was very difficult as planes with little extra fuel had to pinpoint small islands with no lights at night and perhaps only yards wide, in the midst of a very large sea with no distinguishing features. "In World War II, 35,933 AAF planes were lost in combat and accidents. The surprise of the attrition rate is that only a fraction of the ill-fated planes were lost in combat. In 1943 in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater in which Phil’s crew served, for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents. Over time, combat took a greater toll, but combat losses never overtook noncombat losses." Extraordinary.

Nevertheless, the intricate detail of Zamparini’s horrible experience at the hands of the Japanese became mind-numbing and excessively long. I listened to this book and for once wished I had the printed version so I could skim over some of the horrifying detail. I remain somewhat skeptical of the thoughts and interior monologues attributed to many men now dead. I also wonder just how much Hillebrand borrowed from Zamperini’s autobiography published in 2004, (One Amazon reviewer who has read both books even hints that Hillebrand copied much of Zamperini’s book.)

The book also had a fictional quality I found off-putting. The scene in which Louie fights off the sharks by punching them in the nose just didn’t ring true, and the verbatim rendering of Billy Graham’s sermon and conduct in the “redemption” scene was completely unbelievable. By the time I reached that point, I wasn’t sure if I was listening to a commercial for tent revivals or what. Hillebrand also seemed to have an extraordinary knowledge of the “Bird’s” actions in Japan. Phil, Louie’s pilot is relegated to last place in the pantheon of Louie’s actions. Such myopia can be forgiven in an autobiography, not in what purports to be a thorough non-fictional account. I’d love to see the references and notes for some of that material, another problem with listening. Or maybe the halo over Louie’s head blinded me.

Zamperini was on just one combat mission, if I remember correctly. Pappy Boyington, a WW II ace, and Richard Kane, the submarine commander, both wrote memoirs and suffered grievously at the hands of the Japanese in POW camps. Both had much more reason to suffer at the hands of the Japanese who presumably knew of their exploits.

Not nearly as good as Seabiscuit. Three stars because I liked some of it.

Update: Zamperini's autobiography appeared in 1956. Following the discovery of his prison diaries, he rewrote it with the help of David Gensin in 2003 and it was then reissued in paper and Kindle in 2011 following the publication of Unbroken. Hillebrand says she talked with Zamperini more than 75 times, always by phone, since she doesn't travel and that she worked on the book for more than nine years, which implies his rewritten book came out during the time she was working on Unbroken.

Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II

Devil at my Heels, The Story of Louis Zamperini