Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Greg Peck: A belated salute to World War II hero Louis Zamperini

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Greg Peck
February 4, 2015

I heard on the news that “American Sniper” has already become the best-selling war movie of all time. That's fine. I hope to see it before it leaves local theaters. But I would urge you to see another war movie based on a book. “Unbroken,” the movie directed by Angelina Jolie, didn't get the Oscar attention that Clint Eastwood's “Sniper” has, but the story of Louis Zamperini is amazing.

I read a previous book by Laura Hillenbrand. A local bookstore owner steered me to “Seabiscuit” years ago when I asked her to recommend a good, well-researched nonfiction book of general interest. Hillenbrand stumbled across Zamperini's story in a newspaper clipping while researching “Seabiscuit,” about a little Depression-era racehorse with the heart of a champion.

Zamperini's story will tug at your heart—and turn your stomach—again and again. He grew from a mischievous boy full of energy into a champion and Olympic distance runner. He hoped to medal in his second Olympics. World War II intervened. He and his flight mates went to search for a missing plane in the Pacific but crashed when their creaky craft developed engine problems. Zamperini should have died in that plunge but somehow joined two other survivors in a raft. They should have died in it, too, through starvation, dehydration, in the jaws of relentless sharks or through repeated strafing by a Japanese warplane. Zamperini and his friend, the pilot, somehow survived nearly seven weeks on that raft, only to be “rescued” by the enemy.

In years of prisoner-of-war camps, things would only get worse. Zamperini was tortured and abused relentlessly and daily. Being an Olympian made him a target. The subtitle of “Unbroken” is “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” All that is a vast understatement.

My wife, Cheryl, couldn't understand what fascinated me about Zamperini's story. In a way, I don't understand it myself. But I'm intrigued that one person's spirit could be strong enough to survive when he should have died in any of dozens of ways, from beatings, malnutrition, dysentery or beriberi.

I was about 100 pages into the book when Cheryl and I went to see the movie “Unbroken.” It's not much fun to watch, but I thought it a good depiction, though a couple of hours of film time cannot come close to conveying what Zamperini endured for years. That he survived—the crash, on the raft, during captivity and even the emotional demons after the war—is nothing short of miracle after miracle. He eventually forgave his tormenters and lived to age 97 before dying last year.

The volume of research Hillenbrand undertook, through interviews and poring over diaries of veterans, love letters and war documents, is impressive, as well. That she could complete this book while suffering chronic fatigue syndrome so severe that she was bedridden for months and homebound for two years, only adds to the feat.

I hope “Unbroken” is not her last book. See the movie. Better yet, read “Unbroken.” It will give you greater appreciation for the unimaginable sacrifices veterans endured and suffered through to ensure us the freedoms we take for granted every day.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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