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"Unbroken" Is Tale Of Persistence And Survival

Shotgun Spratling |
December 12, 2010 | 9:23 p.m. PST

Senior Staff Reporter

"Unbroken." (Random House)
"Unbroken." (Random House)

If the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads were based on a real person, it likely would be Hollywood Hills resident Louis Zamperini.

Zamperini, now 93, has one of the most entertaining life stories that could ever be told.

His name graces southern California airfields, track and field stadiums and, one of his personal favorites, the room dedicated to USC paraphernalia at the original El Cholo restaurant.

He has written two memoirs detailing his incredible tale of perseverance before, during and after World War II. But no one has ever been able to evoke the name, life and survival of Louis Zamperini in the fashion author Laura Hillenbrand has done in her new biography "Unbroken."

“Laura there’s nothing left. I milked it dry. Everything is in my book,” Zamperini said he told the author when she first requested to write his dramatic life story, including his time as a Japanese prisoner of war in WWII.

“I was wrong. My book reminded me of prison camp life; her book put me back in prison camp. I had to stop reading it and look out the window to be sure I wasn’t in prison camp. That’s how realistic it was.”

Over a seven-year period, Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini more than 75 times from her home outside Washington D.C. She researched for hours upon hours, digging through military records and reports.

“She has found out so much that I could never find out. That’s what makes the book so great. It’s a whole different ball game,” Zamperini said.

Hillenbrand’s book portrays Zamperini as the ultimate survivor. 

From a troubled adolescence to vengeful track competitors, the Gestapo and epic aerial battles -- Zamperini survived it all. He lived through a plane crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and 47 days stranded at sea on a disintegrating raft.

The sharks that routinely rubbed their backs against the raft and occasionally attempted to jump onto the raft couldn’t finish him off. Neither could the Japanese bomber that for 45 minutes strafed the raft, putting 48 bullet holes in it but missing Zamperini and the two other men with him.

Louis Zamperini inspects the damage after an air battle. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Louis Zamperini inspects the damage after an air battle. (Courtesy of Louis Zamperini)
Even the Japanese POW guards, who abused and tormented him mentally and physically for two and a half years after capturing the raft, couldn’t break Zamperini.

“This is more than just a dramatic story,” Hillenbrand said in an e-mail interview. “He didn’t merely survive his odyssey; through ingenuity, resilience and ferocious will, he overcame it, he prevailed over it.”

But he isn’t alone.

Hillenbrand knows about prevailing over unlikely hardships. The author has been fighting her own misfortunes since 1987, when she first started suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

She had been an active 19-year-old college student. Like Zamperini, she was once an athlete, competitively swimming for 10 years. She enjoyed horseback riding and playing tennis. But slowly over a three-week period, her body seemingly gave out on her. She began to be unable to even sit up in bed and was forced to drop out of school.

“Since then, I’ve been in an endless struggle with the disease.  I’ve spent many years bedridden, unable to get down my staircase, cut off from the world and lost in suffering,” Hillenbrand said.

Author Laura Hillenbrand. (Getty Images, Courtesy of Random House)
Author Laura Hillenbrand. (Getty Images, Courtesy of Random House)
Much like Zamperini was in Japan, she is essentially a prisoner of her own household. Hillenbrand is often unable to do much more than work in her bedroom. If she pushes her body too far, she can end up bedridden for weeks upon months.

“There were times when six months straight she couldn’t talk on the phone or write,” Zamperini said. “She just laid in bed for six months…it’s sad.”

Because of Hillenbrand’s illness, she and Zamperini have never been able to meet in person. The writing process was severely slowed, but Hillenbrand said the disorder has also given her a closer connection to Zamperini and others who have suffered.

“I feel a communion with individuals who are trapped in extremity. I’m fascinated and inspired by those who find ways to overcome suffering, emotionally and physically,” Hillenbrand said. “I think the intimacy with suffering that Louie and I share brought us together as writer and subject.”

Zamperini said knowing Hillenbrand has to endure suffering on a regular basis helped him be able to open up about his struggles, including his post-war battle with alcohol addiction.

Hillenbrand interviewed seemingly everyone still alive that Zamperini encountered through his tumultuous tale of survival. Many of the former airmen and POWs she spoke with were still haunted by their wartime experiences. Some broke down in tears in the middle of interviews.

It was the most trying part of writing "Unbroken," Hillenbrand said.

“There were times when the interviews became so intense I needed time to recover my emotional equilibrium afterward. Once, after spending a couple of hours on the phone with a veteran who wept as he spoke of the war, I had to go outside and walk circles around my lawn in the sunshine for a while, just trying to shed the man’s pain.” 

Even though they have never seen each other’s face, Zamperini said they have a close, personal bond similar to a father-daughter relationship.

“I never think about having never having met her. I just feel like I know her intimately,” Zamperini said. “When I hang up I tell her ‘Laura I love you’ and she tells me ‘I love you.’”

Louis Zamperini, 93-years-old.
Louis Zamperini, 93-years-old.
The author said it may have actually been advantageous having never been able to meet her subject in person.

“Through my research, I became so familiar with every step of his odyssey that I feel as if I was there beside him through all of it,” Hillenbrand said. “Instead of seeing a 90-year-old man telling me of his youth, I always imagined him as his young self, the person he was then, physically and emotionally, as he endured his trials. In that way, our separation made the story more real and vivid for me.”

With Hillenbrand physically unable to do a book tour, the sprightly 93-year old and his trademark USC ball cap will do the majority of the promotion for the book.

And when he visits the Washington D.C. area, Zamperini hopes to finally meet the woman who so vividly brought his story to life once again.

To reach Shotgun Spratling, click here, or follow him on Twitter @BlueWorkhorse.

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