Robbie Craig – “Unbroken” reading response

Unbroken is an unbelievable biography of the honorable and Harrowing Life experiences That Olympic runner Louis Zamperini endured during the cataclysmic time period of World war two. Set in America, Japan and many islands in the vast pacific, Unbroken tells of Louie’s time in the air force, his story of survival aboard a raft with no food or water and describes the horrific treatment he and his fellow soldiers faced in Japanese POW camps. Unbroken is a story of defiance, passion, hatred and the will to survive against all odds.

Zamperini began his life in Torrance, California, living amongst his poor family in their hand built hut. Being of Italian descent Louie was often picked on and bullied by his peers at school but he soon learnt to deal with it by hitting back, much harder. As a boy Louie would use his small size as an advantage by stealing food and belongings from almost anyone he met, a trait he would carry for most of his life (he even stole a swastika banner from the Reich chancellery in Germany). Along with his amazing resilience and courage these aspects of Louie would keep him alive throughout the war and made him a strong person able to not only take care of himself but others struggling around him.

This idea becomes very evident as soon as Louie is conscripted into war, when many of the men around him are in a state of shock or panic as bullets tear through the planes fuselage, Louie is grim and precise, calmly making sure his friends are patched up and secure as Japanese Zeroes circle around them. Although Louie may have appeared courageous and brave at the time, like many soldiers it was after the war that he became anxious, frightened and plagued by nightmares. 

Before the war Louie’s brother Pete taught him how to focus his strong will and determination into something positive and after years of training Louie was invited to run in the 1936 Berlin olympics. Like Muhammad Ali and Walt Disney, Louie is another example of a person from an unfortunate background who became incredibly successful, which shows that he was the special type of person who does not let his circumstances bring him down. However when his bomber went down in the Pacific, Zamperini quickly transitioned from a excited and hopeful soldier to a malnourished and starving person whose only goal was to survive. Zamperini’s transformation made me feel a sense of loss for him as his seemingly endless supply of hope was dwindling and the cracks were beginning to show. One of his friends was “virtually catatonic”. Louie managed to stay strong throughout his time on the raft, fighting off sharks, thirst and the heat all while helping his friends cope with the boredom by describing his mothers recipes to them.

As the war dragged on the trio of friends became too weak to stand and one died. Louie and his best friend Phil continued drifting for many days until they were eventually picked up by the Japanese. As I read this I felt shocked, Louie had gone through so much, yet there was more to come; I soon found this tended to be a recurring factor. I could imagine Louie’s mixture of emotions as they dragged him onto their boat, his immense disappointment knowing that it was not over, yet the relief of being saved from starvation. Little did Louie know his relief would not last.

At first the Japanese seemed kind; giving the castaways cigarettes, food and water. But soon, separated from Phil, Louie was sent to a POW camp in mainland Japan and into the grasp of “The Bird”; “the most vicious guard on any prison camp in the main island of Japan” and the subject of Louies nightmares for years to come. At the many camps Louie was sent to, he and his fellow soldiers were beaten, whipped, emotionally abused, forced to stand naked outside for hours in the cold and starved within an inch of their lives. This seemed ironic and unfortunate to me as Louie had only just escaped starvation on a raft with no food in sight to being starved again with bucket loads of food just metres away in the guards quarters. However the day Mutsuhiro Wantanabe arrived, life for Louie became unbearable.

Soon nicknamed “The Bird” Mutsuhiro “like any bully he had a taste for a particular type of victim” was constantly trying to break Louie by removing all of his dignity as he knew it was the last thing Zamperini had left. Louie was made to lick up feces off the ground and was whipped by Mutsuhiro with his belt until he fell unconscious. Learning of the atrocities The Bird commited I found myself feeling an almost overwhelming sense of anger towards him and realized that in order to remove a person’s dignity and humanity like this, you must have none yourself. 

Mutsuhiro was a deranged man who failed the entry requirements into the military, since not fighting for your country was considered cowardly in Japan and in most countries at that time, I believe Mutsuhiro felt the need to release his anger towards the enemy in another way, through his prisoners. This can often be seen on a much less brutal level in society today, where abusive parents may beat children to release their anger or it may simply be normal to some; Japanese culture was very much like this and the idea of seppuku (suicide) was drilled into boys minds from a young age if they failed in battle. One Japanese officer said “No strong soldiers are made without beatings”.

I thought that Louie’s only source of dignity from that day on was his defiance towards his captors. Putting his skill for stealing finally to good use, Zamperini and his fellow POWs stole sugar from the factories they worked in and took belongings and newspapers from the guard house, Louie managed to keep himself and his humanity alive, not due to the stolen food but due to his new source of dignity from the act of stealing. “degradation could be as lethal as a bullet”. This gave me the idea that if a person is treated like an animal they often become one, which sometimes I notice in the world today, where many homeless people in central Auckland have mental illness, possibly due to their bad treatment by passerby. Louie narrowly avoided this, some soldiers were not so lucky and many went insane due to their treatment.

When Japan surrendered after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the POWs position in life abruptly changed; Guards became “strangely solicitous” and avoided them when possible. Mushiro Wantanabe fled to the hills. This made me realize that although they may have been monsters at war time, the guards were deeply ashamed and returned to being respectable humans when at peace. It shows how much society can change when at war, with all the anger and emotion towards the enemy and it made me think; if something like this would happen in New Zealand, would I be able to keep myself from becoming a monster? I would like to think so, but nobody knows what they are capable of really.

After the War Mutsuhiro Wantanabe , assumed dead and in hiding was living a somewhat normal life. Eventually the man hunt for him was called off due to political reasons involving Americas involvement in the Korean war (America needed to be allies with Japan, the freedom of war criminals was one of their requests).  he was a free man. At this point I was shocked, I felt as though The Bird deserved to be punished for the horrible things he had done, yet it was not he who was punished but Louie, who returned home to a life of sadness and nightmares for many years while Mutsuhiro led a happy life with his family. It shows the injustice of many political decisions where all morals are cast aside for the benefit of a few and how sacrifices are made for the sake of more pointless violence. The Bird died in 2003, still free from prosecution.

When Louie returned to life in America he appeared finally broken. To cope with his PTSD he turned to alcohol in an attempt to drown his nightmares and was heading down a path to self destruction. Until he realized, long ago while stranded at sea he had prayed to god; “If you will save me, I will serve you forever” Louie was alive but he had not fulfilled his promise. From that day on he became religious, something he was always against “it made no sense to him” but in time he became well again due to his belief. This reflects many cases of self healing after horrific experiences seen in the news and in the media where a person may recover through meditation, nature or religious belief. Which made me think that although you may not originally believe in a religion or a way of life, it may actually do you some good.

I thought Louie’s survival was somewhat of a miracle considering all the dangers he faced, and for this reason I would recommend this text to anyone who does not believe in shear luck. Although most of the time Louie made his own due to his immense will, his close calls and co-incidences were unlikely to say the least; for example at sea Louie and his friends are strafed seven times by a Japanese bomber, riddling their raft with bullet holes, yet all three men are unscathed; “it seemed impossible the gunners would miss them”. Overall Louie’s tale made me realize why determination and a strong will is so important. As with it, you can make your own luck whatever the circumstances.

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