A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand
This WWII survival tale is not an entertaining book. It’s not one that you read for a laugh or to pass the time on a rainy afternoon. It is intense and difficult to read, because it’s horrible to think of anyone going through these things. BUT, and that’s a big but, I think it’s important to read books like this. If we ignore the painful parts of our world’s history, we are doing a huge disservice to all of the people who lived during that time and whose actions created the world we live in today.
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” Michael Crichton
Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and lieutenant in the Army Air Forces was in a bomber plane when it crashed into the ocean in May 1943. After more than a month a sea, facing unbelievable trials, he realizes he troubles have only begun.
It was alarming to learn how little soldiers had in their emergency kits in the rafts if their planes crashed. They had almost no practical items and I can’t believe Louis managed to survive at sea for more than a month.
After surviving sharks, starvation and dehydration, Louis and his fellow raft mate are finally picked up by the Japanese only to be imprisoned as prisoners of war. The conditions of the prisons were horrendous and they were once again near death because of sickness and starvation.
The book also details the Rape of Nanking, one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read about in the history of the world. It made me absolutely sick. There was also a Japanese prison guards, known as The Bird, whose sadistic, evil nature was shocking and really heartbreaking. It’s unbelievable what the prisoners went through.
I kept thinking about the families of the men who were lost at sea. I can’t imagine what they were going through, not knowing if their sons/husbands/fathers were alive or dead. They couldn’t grieve for their loss, because that would be giving up hope. It must have been a kind of torture of its own.
One aspect I was very glad the author discussed was Louis’ struggles after he returned home. The story doesn't just end because they make it out of the war. I can’t imagine anyone making it through something so awful and not developing some type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those men would undoubtedly struggle with those demons for the rest of their lives.
The different forms of torture and sickness described are pretty graphic. I can’t say I’d recommend it if you have a weak stomach. But, I also want to say that this isn’t gratuitous violence, it’s what actually happened to these men. If they could go through these appalling things to fight for our country, I think I can handle reading about it. There are dry parts in the book, but the journalist in me wants the whole story. Even if there are boring bits, I want to know who they are as a person so I can become invested in the story.
Louis’ story, and that of the other men, is a testament to what humans can endure, the strength that hope can give us and the atrocities of war. War is not an abstract idea, it’s real and it’s horrifying and we should never forget that.
SIDE NOTE: If you guys aren't already watching John and Hank Green's Crash Course videos you should be! The YA author and his hilarious brother are walking us through the history of the world and Science 101. The videos can be found here.