WARNING - PARTS OF THIS BLOG CONCERN SOME PRETTY NASTY STUFF ABOUT US AIRMEN WHO WERE CAPTURED BY THE JAPANESE ENEMY DURING WW2 - PLEASE BEAR THIS IN MIND IF YOU WOULD BE TROUBLED/OFFENDED BY THIS.
My luck with Books never ceases to amaze me. As you can probably see from my Bookshop pages, I get through quite a few Books (although of course I never read them as fast as I would like !!) and my ‘Hit Rate’ of getting good reads is miraculously high. Of the recent tomes I have ploughed through, I would say for every 10 decent ones I get about 1 duffer - that’s an unbelievable record and I guess I am due a lot of crappy ones soon !!
This one caught me right from the off. By that I mean that a few months ago I was coming back from the local Garden Centre and on the way I rolled into the Charity Shop Hospice place which is literally around the corner from Wheelie Towers as I had not been sniffing around there for some time. It is a bit of a Warehouse jobbie really and there are constantly people rocking up to deliver Furniture in particular and an equally steady stream of people who have clearly bought Furniture there - it amazes me how busy it is. Anyway, amongst all the Sofas, Beds, Tables, Assorted Kitchen Appliances, Chairs, Tableware Sets, Clothes etc. etc. there are several areas of the ‘Shop’ that have Bookcases that are usually pretty full (clearly people who live in this end of Windsor don’t tend to be strong on reading !!).
So it turns out that this Charity emporium is a really good source of Books for me and of course not only can I buy them for crazy low Prices (if I pay more than £3 for a Book I feel like I have been fleeced), but I can leave there with this warm glow that I have helped Thames Valley Hospice which I am actually very happy to do because many years ago a friend of mine did actually finish her days there and it really is somewhere which deserves all the cash it can get (unlike many Charities these days, it seems).
The choice is pretty wide-ranging and I have even picked up a few Finance Books there so I have no doubt it will continue to be somewhere I regularly visit. In the case of ‘Unbroken’ I think I had already picked up a few Books (I bought Ian Botham’s Autobiography for my Cricket-crazy brother only to find out that I had already given it to him as a Birthday Prezzie years earlier !! Oh well, I might have to read it myself - I hope it is not too ‘Crickety’….) and probably spent the sum of £6 when I discovered the subject of this Review and I guess the pictures on the cover of a Bloke who appeared to be in some sort of Military Uniform and that of Bombers and Fighter Planes at the top, got my attention straightaway.
I then read the bit which said ‘From the Author of Seabiscuit’ and of course this rang some sort of bells with me about a Horse (either that or it is the Seabiscuit Diet - you see a Chocolate Digestive and you have to scoff it down fast) and a Film but I knew nothing more. Anyway, I quickly decided to add it to my pile (I’m pretty sure this one was two quid so I was really stretching the wallet by this point - the Markets have been tough this year you know !!), and I came away with the idea that this was about someone getting shot down over the Sea and floating in a Rubber Raft for ages and surviving - but that was about it.
Of course I couldn’t be more wrong. If you want to read this Book then you better stop reading my Review now and skip over to the ‘Non-Finance Books’ Page and buy a copy because if you keep reading I will give away a lot of what happens.
Right, if you are still here, it turns out that the Book is a Real Story (like Seabiscuit was apparently) and is a Biography of a chap called Louis Zamperini who was clearly of Italian decent and lived somewhere in the US in the period between the Wars. He grew up in a rough neighbourhood and of course Italians were not universally liked in the US at that time and his Family was pretty poor and all that and Louie turned out to be a right little devil - he got such a reputation in the area when he was a lad that if anything happened the immediate response by anyone was “the Zamperini Kid did it” - and usually they were right !!
Some of the stories of what he got up to are hilarious and he must have been a right handful (and some !!). He was essentially uncontrollable by anyone and the more his Parents, Teachers, Police etc. tried to get him in line the worse he got - he really was a One-Boy Crimewave. Anyway, this went on for years and years but then in his late Teens I think, his Brother, Pete (great name !!), introduced him to running and it turns out he was an exceptional Runner (it was probably all the scampering from Crime Scenes that helped…..) and to cut a long story short he ends up at the Olympics in something like 1936 in Berlin - where needless to say he shakes hands with Adolf Hitler and all that but at that time many people had not really understood just how nuts The Fuhrer was and they just found all the Nazi Salutes and blind obedience of the German People as rather odd but not necessarily threatening. In fact, true to form for Louie, there was this bit where he steals a Nazi Flag to take as a Souvenir from outside a Gestapo Headquarters and ends up getting shot at for his trouble. The Guards catch up with him but actually let him keep the Flag after all that.
Louie’s criminal side came out again on the Trip over to Berlin where the US Athletes are sent over on an Ocean Liner and Louie eats everything in sight (coming from his background he has never seen such an abundance of glorious food) and ends up putting on loads of weight - although that didn’t seem to hinder his running. In addition, Louie and others pinch everything they can get their hands on and they all end up leaving the boat with countless Silver Items etc. they have pilfered.
Before I move on, just to give you an idea of how good a Runner Louie was, at the time many believed he would be the first person to do a 4 Minute Mile and this was nearly 20 years before Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Louie didn’t win Gold in 1936 but he was intending to do the Olympics in 1940 but of course the War got in the way somewhat.
The next stage is that Louie joins the US Air Force and ends up as a Bombardier on a B24 Liberator based in the Pacific and taking the fight to Japan. The chunk in the Book about this Plane (‘The Flying Coffin’) and others of the time is fascinating and it really brings home just how shoddily made these Planes were and how they were shockingly unreliable and clearly not something you’d want to be flying in !! The stats are horrific - the Liberator had a record along the lines that for every single Plane lost in combat with the Japanese, 7 Planes were lost to Accidents, Training Errors, Pilot Errors, Mechanical Breakdowns, etc. etc. To make things worse, many believe that the Planes lost in Combat is actually overstated and many would have been another cause.
One of the major drawbacks of this was that even if you did survive a Bombing Raid on a Target, while you were coming back to Base the chances are you would end up in the Pacific Ocean - and this was not good because your chances of being found after hitting the Water were pretty low and many Crews simply got munched by Sharks. The details of how unlikely you were to survive ending up in the Ocean are quite alarming with such crazy things as if you were to deliberately ‘ditch’ a Liberator into the Water then it would most probably flip over because the Bottom of the Plane was shaped in such a way that it caused this to occur. If you were far more lucky and were a Crew Member of a B17 Flying Fortress, then when you had to ditch the Plane (perhaps you had engine failure or were out of fuel or something) it would probably come to a halt in quite a controllable manner and the Crew would have time to get out of the Plane and into Life Rafts before it sank. A Liberator tended to sink in seconds after it hit the water.
Anyway, Louie ends up being on a Liberator when it crashed into the Pacific and it turns out that only he and 2 other Crewmen survive. They get into 2 Small Life Rafts but very quickly one of them loses the plot and ends up eating ALL of the Chocolate Ration which is the only food they have. They have no water, no cover from the intense Sun and on top of that one of them is quite badly injured.
Oh, and did I mention how the Sharks constantly rub their Backs against the bottom of the Rubber Rafts which of course the 3 Men cannot avoid feeling……..
At this point I had got the impression that the Book would be about how they survive on the Rafts but it hits me that I am only about a Quarter of the way into the Book and I am wondering how on earth the rest of the Book will be filled. It turns out entirely different to what I was expecting.
How they survive being on the Rafts is pretty insane - there must have been a fair amount of Luck but Louie and one other of the Crewmen seem to have had a relentless will to survive - and this probably got them through. The Luck came in several ways - for example when Birds land on the Raft and Louie manages to grab them and then they become food - hmmm, Raw Albatross - lovely …. They are also remarkably lucky when they fire up Flares to make their presence known to a Plane only for it to be a Japanese Bomber which comes down and several times fires its Machine Guns at them - miraculously they survive but the Rafts are riddled with Holes - and of course start to sink.
Up until this point the Sharks and the Men seemed to have a mutual respect - as long as they stayed in their own environment then each left the other alone - however, as soon as the Rafts started sinking the Sharks went mental and whilst Louie frantically works to fix countless holes in one Raft (the other Raft is destroyed although it becomes a useful Sunshade) the other 2 Men use the Oars to batter the Sharks and this goes on for Days !!
But of course Luck can work both ways - Good and Bad. Finally (and by this point they are incredibly weak and wasted away) they drift to an Island but the Bad Luck kicks in because it happens to be occupied by the Enemy. They get thrown into Prison Cells and treated terribly before finally split up and sent to proper POW Camps on the Japanese Mainland.
I have heard all the stories and stuff about how Allied Prisoners of War were treated by the Japanese in the War but it is only after reading this Book that perhaps I have more sense of just how appalling it was. In fact, the word ‘appalling’ doesn’t even come remotely close to describing how badly they were treated - it was certainly not like ‘Tenko’ on the BBC !!
It is simply relentless and all prevailing. It is hard to think of any example of a way in which the POWs were not abused or mistreated etc. All I can say is that there were a few decent Prison Guards but really not very many and the vast majority were utter swines. From what the Book says it seems like many of the Guards and the Commandants and suchlike were actually Men who failed to make the grade as Soldiers and this brought shame on them and they behaved so badly partly due to this but also because many were simply very unintelligent and uneducated.
It seems surprising maybe but I found it a real page-turner as so much happened and I really wanted to see what came next. As awful as Louie’s first experiences in the Camps were, it actually got worse. And it was all because of one truly foul individual called Watanabe who the Prisoners referred to as ‘The Bird’ (mainly so they could talk about him without the Guards realising it was him they were discussing.)
This guy really was a psychopath and derived some sort of perverse pleasure from battering People in truly appalling ways - and the worst thing was that he took a proper dislike to Louie (probably because Louie would never bow down to him and always came back for more), and this meant that every day the Bird searched out Louie among all the other Camp Prisoners and ensured he got a beating - often with a Rifle Butt or the worst was when he used a Belt with a huge Buckle and just attacked Louie with it for crazy extended periods of time. I found this totally mystifying and what really comes over is just how much Humans can put up with in appalling and desperate circumstances.
I have read/heard a lot from the usual ‘History Revisionists’ who claim that the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary as the Japanese were going to surrender anyway but something that really comes over from this Book is how the ‘Never Surrender’ indoctrination really was complete and as the end of the War drew near the Civilians including Women and Children were training with Knives and Spears and stuff to fend off a final US Invasion of the Mainland. But in addition to this, and something I have not picked up on elsewhere, the Japanese High Command put out an order to all POW Camps that the Prisoners were all to be executed on a particular date and in fact those Orders were carried out on several of the Islands that the Japanese held and many thousands of US Troops were murdered.
The POWs knew about this order although they did not know the date but the Guards used to taunt them with it and when the POWs saw the first Boeing B29 Super Fortresses flying across the Skies (bear in mind many of the POWs were captured before the B29 was developed and it was quite a surprise to them seeing these huge Silver Birds) they were sort of pleased but also worried because they had figured out that there was no way of escaping and if the Guards wanted to kill them then there was little they could do. The dropping of the Atomic Bombs shocked the Japanese Government and Emperor into Surrender and this clearly saved the lives of thousands and thousands of POWs.
Once the War is over the Camps are liberated and stuff but of course it takes a while for Essential Supplies like Food and Medicine etc. to reach all the POWs - especially some that are in very remote areas. The Book is very good on this stage of the WW2 saga and it is very interesting on aspects such as when and how the Men were taken to freedom and after this it is clear that the majority of Men suffered terrible Post Traumatic Stress problems and of course back then this was not so well understood and there was little help etc. Louie himself really struggled and did the usual thing of hitting the bottle in a big way and there is an interesting bit where he gets dragged along to a Christian Evangelist Event against his wishes and it turns out to be a very young and starting out Billy Graham. As a result of much of what happened to Louie over the War years he commits himself to the whole Christian thing and this turns his life around and frees him from the appalling psychological effects which had hounded him for many years after the War.
I hope that gives you a flavour of what I found a really complex Book in that it really drove my thoughts/emotions and runs a wide gamut including disbelief, comedy, historical info, utter horror, human resilience, total incredulity, and even happiness and joy which seems a bit unlikely. There is no doubt that the fact Louie gets through it all and remains mostly ‘Unbroken’ is really quite remarkable and maybe gives us all hope.
Top Book that - well worth a read (and needless to say you can find a copy in the ‘Non-Finance Books‘ section of this Website).
Epilogue (I feel like it needs one of these because the Book has an Epilogue !!) - I had a bit of a surprise the other night - I was surfing through the TV Channels and noticed ‘Unbroken’ on Film4 and I was just in time to catch the end and there was a bit showing Louie running in the Olympics in Japan when he was really very old. It also said at the end that he died in 2014 and must have been about 97 so he had incredible longevity which is amazing when you consider the hardships his body must have gone through both in the Pacific and as a POW. The Film was directed by Angelina Jolie and I would like to see it now so I will most likely buy the DVD - I hope they did a good job of it.
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