Showing posts with label B-24s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label B-24s. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

You  might get tired of hearing this, but I LOVED this book, all 398 pages of the story, 8 pages of Acknowledgements and 50 pages of notes; I do not recall reading a book through  including the notes in recent times or ever other than James Michener's later  books, in fact Laura Hillenbrand, the author reminds me of Michener in style and depth of research.  "Unbroken"  on the best sellers lists currently is the story of Louie Zamperini,  noted runner in the Berlin Olympic games and in 1943 an Army Air Corps  Lieutenant, bombardier on the Green Hornet, a B-24, which is shot down in the Pacific.  Louie, Allen Philips, the pilot and Mac, the tail gunner survive the crash and float on a raft for 46 days before being captured by the Japanese and taken prisoner in May 1943.  Actually Mac does not make it  and is buried at sea by the two men.  I have read much about World War II because of my father but little of my readings have been about the war in the Pacific.  When I first heard this book was in  process I knew I would have to read it because Laura has written only one other book, "Seabiscuit" which I absolutely enjoyed and have kept in my library and I enjoyed her detail and writing and research.  I have likely heard about Louie Zamperini but not paid attention but as I learned that it was a B-24, same plane as my father's I knew I'd b reading this book.

Louie Zamperini
Louie is still alive today at 94 in southern California.    How he or any of the men captured by the Japanese as POW's survived and endured is beyond belief.  As Zeke Jennings wrote in his review of this book,  "Think back to the worst experience of your life. Chances are, it pales in comparison to what Louis Zamperini went through..."  To state that they were tortured is an inadequate understatement and to know that some could and did survive is a testament to human endurance and something greater than all of us.

This book has a great deal of detail and drawings of the B-24's the complexity of those early days of navigation and the problems with that bomber, the best that the US had at the time.  Pages 59-60 describe the early B-24's and the personal qualities needed in men who flew them and by page 61 the research specifies the deadly accidents attributable to that plane in the early days of navigation.  I had learned about the accidents in training and of course lived with that legacy but reading it again gave me chills.  By page 82 the affect of human errors and miscalculations is discussed along with the faulty fuel systems and the fact that the  24's were notorious for fuel leaks; I can relate to that.   On Page 84,  I learned that 52,173 Army Air Corps men were killed in combat in World War II and in the Pacific those flight crews had less than a  50/50 chance of survival.   I learned that by design the B-24's could not ditch  but sank immediately due to their open fuselages.  There were rarely funerals held for the  B-24 crews, rarely  bodies were found and during the Pacific  missions  1/4 of a barracks could be lost at once.  "The men were just gone and that was the end of it."   

But this book is about Louie, his boyhood in Torrance, California, his Olympic triumphs,  his education at USC, his enlistment in World War II, and his captivity, endurance and release and tormented existence following the war where he turns to alcohol and then his  big life release as he is saved at a Billy Graham crusade in southern CA.  It's hard to describe Louie, a man with a sense of humor and determination that sustains him through movements from bad to worse in the Japanese camps, beatings,  isolation,  starvation, and unceasing nightmares.  The Bird, a Japanese soldier, so named by the POWs is Louie's primary menace in the camps and becomes his civilian nightmare.  The Japanese knew of his Olympic fame and enjoyed all the more subduing him.   When  Louie was released and being rehabilitated and ready to be sent  home from Okinawa he is so enjoying meeting up with former colleagues that he asks to stay just a bit longer to  see more of them. He is partying too and enjoying life again, though still battling dysentery and other physcial problems.  Everyone had believed him long dead  because the Japanese never reported that he was held captive and the Red Cross  never verified men in the camps; any man missing was declared dead after 13 months.   Louie got a big kick out of surprising them and watching their faces and hearing their words when they saw him in person!

The horrors and atrocities the  prisoners endured are unimaginable.  That any of them survived is a miracle.  I learned that the POWs in the  Japanese camps were executed  when Allied forces approached, that the Japanese  preferred to kill the men rather than turn them back to their countries.  Pg. 314-315 cite "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 four.  Americans fared particularly badly: of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935--more than 37% died.  By comparison only 1% of Americans  held by Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery..."  Back in civilian life, these men did not get the counseling and treatments pervasive and  given today; what is  known today as Post traumatic  stress was not recognized. That they made it through hell barely prepared them fro their freedom and return to life.   Pg. 349, "Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness." But Louie survives and ultimately thrives, marries, has children and outlives his brother,  sisters and wife .  In his 70's he takes up skateboarding and the book includes a photo of him on a skateboard at 81!  He runs the torch in five Olympic games including  one in Japan where he runs it past the former POW camp site.  Louie founds a nonprofit Victory Boys Camp for lost boys whom he takes fishing, swimming, horseback riding, camping and skiing.  One ungovernable boy is such a problem that Louie had to be deputized by a sheriff to gain custody of the boy.

Pg. 384, "Well into his 10th decade of life between the occasional broken bone he could still be seen perched on skis merrily cannonballing down mountains.  He remained infectiously, incorrigibly cheerful..."  He believes that everything happened for a reason  and all things eventually  come to good.    When he contacted Laura to write his story he reasoned that if she could describe an old horse, she could surely tell his tale.  She does this so  eloquently and has chosen the photos and events as carefully as her words.  The Epilogue is very touching  with summaries of the lives of Allen Phillips  and Bill Harris, a marine POW who stays in the Marines and becomes a Lt. Colonel but who disappears in the Korean War in 1950.   

Recently there have been news stories featuring Louie which is timely with the release of this book.  I knew it was one I'd want to read and it is one I will keep and treasure.   I absolutely recommend it.  Resilience, survival, and faith.  As I am  putting this on  my blog as my first completed book read in 2011, I have just learned that Universal Pictures has acquired screen rights to Unbroken.   Wouldn't it be great to see Louie in the film? 

For more about the author, who is a favorite of mine, check out  Wikipedia at

or this link 
and read of her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome in    A Sudden Illness -- How My Life Changed as published in the New Yorker.  And this link about  her