Laura Hillenbrand admits that after she completed her remarkable biography of a racehorse, SEABISCUIT: An American Legend, she had little hope that she would ever find another subject as compelling to write about. But “When I had my first conversation with the infectiously effervescent and apparently immortal Louie Zamperini, I changed my mind.”
A bad kid from a good working class family, Zamperini was defiant as a boy, all the way up to high school. The police knew who he was, and his father had just about given up on reforming him when he remarkably decided to reform himself after seeing that some “bad kids” were ending up in institutions for the feeble-minded and criminally incorrigible. He worked on his schooling and started to run. He ran so well, so effortlessly, that in the fateful year of 1936 he went to the Olympics. His run there was distinguished not by winning (he came in 8th), but by the fact that he came from way behind, making up 50 yards in one lap and pulling the fastest time for any runner that year. He became a worldwide celebrity and was on target to take the gold in the 1940 Games. But those Games never happened. The world was at war, and Zamperini joined the military.
Despite a fear of flying, he found himself in the Air Force. Not long after arriving in the Pacific, Zamperini was on a mission to find a plane that had gone down, when the plane he was in fell into the sea. By amazing feats of will, he managed not only to pull himself up from the bottom of the ocean, but also to save two companions by dragging them onto two small life rafts. The rafts were pitifully equipped, and one of the three men started their harrowing adventure by eating nearly all of the chocolate, a move that later made him so disconsolate and guilty that he died on the voyage. They got by under unbelievable hardships, collecting rainwater, teaching each other things they had learned in school, and reciting old family recipes to keep their mental faculties from fading. They finally learned how to catch and eat the sharks that constantly surrounded them, and even survived a strafing from the Japanese that tore one of the rafts to shreds.
But that 46-day stint in the raft was only the beginning of Zamperini’s horrors, as it ended in capture by the Japanese and a long stay at a POW camp run by a sadistic soldier known to the other prisoners as the Bird. The Bird immediately dubbed Zamperini “prisoner number one,” singling him out for nearly daily beatings with fists, feet, and once, a belt with a heavy buckle. Other Japanese camp personnel included a doctor dubbed the Quack, who enforced the Bird’s policies with medical “treatments” that included injecting prisoners with a liquid torture potion. Men died from systematic pummeling of their bodies, diseases such as beriberi, and slow starvation. Their spirits were tried by cruel humiliations. A few guards were able to give surreptitious compassionate care to the prisoners, but under orders many of them were also forced to mete out beatings. Amazingly, the prisoners “fought back” in small, morale-building ways, ingeniously stealing small amounts of rice or destroying the Japanese equipment they were charged with loading onto ships bound for war.
After the war, the B