Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand; Random House, 2010
One of the words critics like to use (I have used it myself, on occasion) when they particularly like something is the word “definitive”, as in, for example, “the definitive performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto” or, “the definitive history of the Six-Day War”. What they mean by this is that this performance – or this history – sets a standard by which every other performance of this concerto, or history of this war, will henceforth be judged. It is high praise, indeed, and often misapplied. The definitive performance turns out to be the one the critic happened to hear first, and the definitive history the one which provides the most justification for his or her preconceptions. Nevertheless, I have no hesitation at all in affirming that Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken is definitive in not just one way, but two. It is the definitive account of survival in a small raft at sea, and the equally definitive description of life as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II. Once you’ve read this book, there is no need to read any other on either subject.
The hero of Unbroken is Louis Zamperini. Born in Olean, New York in January 1917, Louie moved with his family soon after to Torrance, California. To say that as a boy, Louie was high-spirited would be unduly kind. The boy was incorrigible! Whether he was smoking at age five, drinking at eight, or thieving whenever he had the chance, he was a clear case of trouble just waiting to happen. What the reader takes away from his early misadventures, however, is not so much a sense of his delinquency as of his independence of spirit, a strength of identity and will that would be essential to his survival later on.
Early in 1941, while working as a welder for Lockheed, Louie joined the Army Air Corps., and in November, he was designated for training as a bombardier. While on a search and rescue mission out of Honolulu, his B-24, the Green Hornet, went down in what appears to have been a combination of mechanical failure and human error, killing everyone on board except the pilot, Allen Phillips, tail gunner Francis McNamara, and Louie. Although McNamara died on Day 33, Phillips and Louie continued to battle the elements, the sharks, and their ever-present thirst and hunger for 47 days, until they were finally picked up near an atoll in the Marshall Islands.
If there were any justice in the world, the story would have ended there, and Louie and Phillips’ ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination would have been rewarded with prompt medical attention and a hero’s homecoming. This was not to be. After drifting for two thousand miles and enduring the most appalling deprivations, their tiny raft was finally spotted not by comrades-in-arms, but by sailors of the Japanese navy. What followed must be read to be believed, but even after reading it, you may still find it unbelievable. I will say only that if I had to choose between the perils of the open ocean and the systematic abuse and degradation that Phillips and Louie suffered at the hands of their Japanese captors, I would choose the ocean without a moment’s hesitation.
Unbroken both raises and effectively answers a number of questions. What was it about the Japanese culture of that time that made such sadistic treatment of one’s fellow man possible, and even sanctioned it? Miss Hillenbrand provides part of the answer in this passage:
Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.
Later, she writes:
This tendency was powerfully reinforced by two opinions common in Japanese society in that era. One held that Japanese were racially and morally superior to non-Japanese, a “pure” people divinely destined to rule. Just as Allied soldiers, like the cultures they came from, often held virulently racist views of the Japanese, Japanese soldiers and civilians, intensely propagandized by their government, usually carried their own caustic prejudices about their enemies, seeing them as brutish, subhuman beasts or fearsome “Anglo-Saxon devils.” This racism, and the hatred and fear it fomented, surely served as an accelerant for abuse of Allied prisoners.
In terms of numbers, what was the result of this perverted world-view?
In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935 – more than 37 percent – died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate.
In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese murdered all 5,000 Korean captives on Tinian, all of the POWs on Ballale, Wake, and Tarawa, and all but 11 POWs at Palawan. They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down.
And what, finally, was the cost to those who survived?
At the end of World War II, thousands of former prisoners of the Japanese, known as Pacific POWs, began their postwar lives. Physically, almost every one of them was ravaged. The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity, a remarkable statistic given that roughly three-quarters of the men had weighed just 159 pounds or less upon enlistment…
The physical injuries were lasting, debilitating, and sometimes deadly. A 1954 study found that in the first two postwar years, former Pacific POWs died at almost four times the expected rate for men of their age, and continued to die at unusually high rates for many years…
As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread, and enduring… For some, there was only one way out: a 1970 study reported that former Pacific POWs committed suicide 30 percent more often than controls.
This is an exceptionally worthwhile book; in fact, I am tempted to say an essential one. I came away from it, as Laura Hillenbrand writes in her acknowledgments, “with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity.”
I came away from it with more than that, however; a renewed conviction that mankind must find a way to resolve its differences short of war. It would be gratifying to think that we have learned a lesson from the atomic devastation that ended the war with Japan, and that our awareness of the inconceivably horrific and far-reaching consequences of a modern all-out war will suffice as a deterrent, but that is not enough. We have to stop killing one another. We must all, finally and unequivocally, accept and embrace the brotherhood of man.