Unbroken [a reflection]

Standing on a sawdust floor under a revival tent in downtown Los Angeles, Louis Zamperini was light years away from his life raft in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific or the Japanese punishment camp in Naoetsu.  Yet in that instant he remembered himself on the raft, lips swollen, his shriveled body baking in the sun, and he remembered a promise thrown at heaven: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever” (375).

Unbroken book coverLaura Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken“, tells the remarkable, true story of Torrence, CA born Louis Sylvie Zamperini.  In the early pages of the book we follow Louis from a troubled kid who couldn’t not get in trouble, to a star runner breaking records left and right as he sprinted into the national spotlight.

In the mid-late 1930s Louis Zamperini was one of the fastest milers in the United States.  Running for the University of Southern California in the 1938 NCAA Championships, Louis was the man to beat.  In a race that defines determination, Louis ran through a menacing field of runners who threw elbows and shoulders, and stabbed sharpened spikes into Louis’ legs and feet.  Louis not only won the race, but had run the mile in 4:08.3, the fastest NCAA mile in history, only 1.9 seconds from the world record (41).

Two years earlier, Louis had gone to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin to compete in the 5000 meter race.  The U.S. team that year included another iconic runner: Jesse Owens.  After his race, Louis shook hands with Adolf Hitler who had been impressed by Louis’ fast finish.  In Berlin, Louis’ unlikely encounter with these and other noteworthy historical personalities begin to be overshadowed by the odious cloud of Nazi flags and increasingly aggressive Japanese Imperialism.

The beginning of WW II marks the turn into the heart of the story.  With the 1940 Olympics cancelled and a draft notice looming overhead, Louis traded in his track spikes for a flight suit.  He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator.

One of the most impressive aspects of Hillenbrand’s book is her incredible attention to detail related to the aircraft and life of the Army Air Corps.  Her account of Louis’ journey through the Corps includes descriptions of tragic crashes during both combat and training missions that claimed the lives of thousands of airmen.  Through extensive research, Hillenbrand brings the B-24 to life, from its clunky ride that left pilots feeling like they were fighting a bucking bull, down to the shockingly limited provisions of the aircraft’s life rafts.

Louis and SupermanAfter surviving a mission left their crew’s first plane, Superman, with 594 holes (a story that made national headlines), Louis and his crew were given a new aircraft, the Green Hornet.   During a search and rescue mission in 1943, an aircraft malfunction led to one disaster after another, and Louis and the rest of the crew plummeted into the Pacific Ocean.  What follows is a gut-wrenching tale of surviving sharks, starvation, the sun, and dehydration only to be delivered into Japanese POW camps, where things only get worse.  These are great stories of determination, camaraderie, ingenuity, and, eventually, liberation.

(Make sure you read the book before seeing the movie when it comes out in December.  Click here to see the trailer.)

Louis Zamperini lived an incredible and inspiring life, and Hillenbrand masterfully tells his story.  The title conveys Louis’ determination to survive and unwillingness to compromise his loyalties to his friends or country.  In the face of unfathomable odds, Louis appears unbroken.  Yet to go only so far as to say “Louis Zamperini is unbroken” would be untrue.  The final chapters of Hillenbrand’s book show that Louis Zamperini went through WW II and came out the other side broken.

Toward the end of the book, after the Pacific POWs were liberated by the Allies, the freed POWs traveled by train to rendezvous points where they would be picked up by friendly forces.  The emaciated former POWs gorged themselves on food and helped themselves to barrels of sake.  But it wasn’t long before the drunken train rides gave way to silent stares as they passed through cities decimated by bombings and burned to the ground by napalm, leaving only charred earth.

At the first sight of the destruction of their enemy, the POWs cheered.  But after the first city there was another, then another, city after city razed, the survivors drifting about like specters, picking through the rubble.  The cheering died away. (319-320)

War breaks everything.

By the end of the war, enemy Zeros riddling your plane with bullet holes, weeks stranded in a raft, merciless punishment camps all gave way to a new sort of hell the former POWs would encounter when they return home.  Hillenbrand describes the post-war experiences of the Pacific POW survivors as “menacing blackness”.

The long-lasting physical consequences of life in a Pacific POW camp were devastating.  Survivors were hospitalized for diseases and health complications at startlingly high rates, and former Pacific POWs died at four times the rate of other men their age.  More than 85% of former Pacific POWs suffered from PTSD and other mental illnesses including severe anxiety and depression.  The psychological, emotional, and moral injuries of war continued to chip away at them long after Japan surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri.

The difficulties for returning armed service personnel wasn’t so different after Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and so many other conflicts.  Hillenbrand describes how after the war Louis was thrust into the artificial limelight: Famous Runner Survives War.  Parades, speaking invitations, and expectations didn’t afford the time or space to process his experiences.  Crowds wanted soldiers like Louis around as long as they were sober and didn’t have an episode.  I wonder if Louis and others might resonate with what the soldier-psalmist King David wrote: “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel” (Psalm 31:12).

From what I hear and see, and increasing emphasis is placed on caring for veterans who return from war–those who’ve been in a combat field, piloted a drone, worked from desks, driven vehicles, everyone.  Government agencies make counseling and therapy more readily available.  Private organizations train and provide therapy dogs who sooth their owners’ anxiety and fears.  And people are paying attention to the lasting effects of war on an entire family.  Those are very good things.

I believe the Church has some helpful things to say about this too.  In the first place, we don’t shy away from brokenness, nor do we expect people to put on a mask “unbrokenness”.  We all bring our stuff, whatever our particular stuff is.  And we insist that brokenness does not define a person.  

At least this is what I hope the church is.  That it’s a place where folks and families who’ve been broken by war know that they are not damaged goods or problems to be fixed.  Rather, they are loved and accepted, they are invited to feel a healing touch, to inhabit a space free of judgment, where we are committed to hold one another in our brokenness for as long as we need to.

Thomas and JesusJesus went through death and then came out the other side, resurrected, and still retained the wounds of crucifixion in his hands, feet, and side.  One of the disciples, Thomas, didn’t believe it was him until he put is hand in Jesus’ side.  At Communion we reach out our hand and touch the broken body of Christ that promises us wholeness.  It’s a curious thing: the idea that owning that we’ve been hurt, that we’re not fine, that we don’t have it all together gives us the opportunity to feel the healing touch of Jesus.

Louis’ story is one of deliverance: from the perils of the life-raft, but into a POW Camp, from a POW Camp, but into a downward spiral of complicated emotional and psychological brokenness.  Finally, Louis finds freedom under a revival tent in downtown LA where North Carolina evangelist Billy Graham has brought some good news.  Unbrokenness may be a myth, but that doesn’t mean brokenness has the last word.  Instead, Louis’ story ends with words like redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, grace.

I highly recommend this book.  It is captivating and inspiring, gut-wrenching in its honesty and historical detail, and compelling in its call to hear the stories (the full stories) of veterans and former POWs, then receive those persons and their families with care and grace.