Laura Hillenbrand '89 Discusses Her New Book Unbroken
The WWII Biography is Her Second Bestseller, Along with Seabiscuit
Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand H'89, is the story of Louis Zamperini — an Olympic athlete, WWII B-24 bombardier and prisoner of war (POW) from 1943 to 1945. The book is currently number one on the New York Times bestsellers list. It is also NPR Books' inaugural book club pick and is soon to be adapted into a motion picture. Hillenbrand's previous book, Seabiscuit, was also a bestseller and in 2003 became an Oscar-nominated film starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges.
As a young boy, Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, did poorly in school and was often caught stealing and pulling pranks. When his brother introduced him to his school's track team, Louis developed a passion for running. He eventually beat the interscholastic mile-run record with a time of 4:21.2 and earned a scholarship to the University of California. He later qualified for the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. He did not place, but he ran a final lap so impressive that Adolf Hitler requested a personal meeting with him.
Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941 and was deployed to Hawaii, where he flew several bombing missions over Japanese-occupied islands in the Pacific, including Wake Island. His plane, Super Man, returned from one mission with 594 gunshot holes in its fuselage. After a mechanical failure on the B-24 aircraft Green Hornet caused the plane to plummet into the ocean, Louis and two surviving crewmates were set adrift on the Pacific for 47 days before the Japanese military found them. Louis was sent to a POW camp where he faced two years of intense labor, debilitating illness, torture and the relentless harassment of Matsuhiro Watanabe — known to the captives as "The Bird."
Zamperini's diverse experiences in the war and remarkable story provide a fantastic template for Hillenbrand's look at the Pacific Theater of WWII. Her gripping narrative, composed from thousands of interviews and written accounts, captures the stories of the men who served and attempts to understand why the Japanese soldiers believed in using such brutal tactics on their prisoners. The book also follows Zamperini's post-war traumatic stress disorder and eventual path to forgiving those who wronged him during the war.
Hillenbrand spoke to the Collegian about the experience of writing her new historical biography and shared her thoughts on what people should learn from the story of Louis Zamperini:
How did you hear about Louis' story?
Louis and Seabiscuit were sports stars around the same time, the mid-'30s to 1940. They were both based in southern California, so in the articles I was looking through for Seabiscuit I kept coming across articles for this teenage running phenom. A little later I came across something from what had happened to him in the war, so I took his name down in my research notebook. When I was done working on Seabiscuit … I called him and we had this amazing conversation, and I knew I had to write this book.
Did you see a parallel between his story and Seabiscuit?
I don't know if I did. If one did exist, I don't think I thought about it that way. They're certainly both stories about individuals overcoming very long odds to achieve what they want to achieve. That is a theme that I am very interested in — what are the attributes that may carry someone through hardships? I saw a terrific example of that in Louis Zamperini.
Louis had written a memoir before. Why did you feel you had to tell this story again?
Autobiography is a wonderful genre, but it is very narrowly focused. The point of view is only of the subject. I wanted to write a biography, I wanted to make this much, much broader where I could not only look at what he experienced from his own perspective, but from the perspective of all the individuals around him — whether that be his family or the people at the Olympics with him or his crew mates on Super Man or the guy on the raft with him and his fellow POWs. I wanted to also look at the Pacific War itself and the obstacles faced by air corpsmen. Louis was a way for me to look at the war as a whole because his experiences were so broad in the war. Louis told me on many occasions that there were lots of things I put in that book that he didn't even know about. So he was really fascinated to read it because it answered a lot of questions he had.
Do you feel you can trust the subject to tell his own story without embellishment or omissions?
The very first question I had about this story was "Could this actually be true?" because it does seem too incredible to believe. I went all the way through it, really obsessively cross-checking everything, and it is my good fortune that there were sources to cross-check everything about this story. There was another guy on the raft who survived with him. Russell Phillips, his raft-mate, was … very frank, a guy who does not lend himself to any exaggeration, and on every point he and Louis agreed.
I had thousands of sources: affidavits, other prisoner of war diaries, you name it and I found sources on it. Working with Louis is interesting: not only is he not an exaggerator, but he was really bothered by times in which other writers had exaggerated about him. Sometimes I would read something in an old newspaper story and I would say, "Louis, this is amazing," and he would say, "Actually, that's not true." He would correct it, and in correcting it he would make his story a little less amazing, but he was fastidiously honest in that way. I really had the best of both worlds: I had a guy with an amazing story who was a truthful man, and I had lots of other sources to check that not only he was telling the truth but that his memory was accurate.