Unbroken covers five primary periods in the life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini:
Part I: Louie’s Youth and Young Adulthood in Torrance, California
Chapters 1–5 introduce an average boy who would become a remarkable man. Born in 1917, Louie Zamperini was the child of Italian immigrants. Growing up in Torrance amidst poverty and anti-Italian bias, Louie got in the habit of running outside the law. He started smoking when he was 5 years old and drinking when he was 8. He stole anything he wanted—mostly food, money, and whatever else he could find. He ran small scams and vandalized property. Pete, Louie’s older brother, became concerned.
Seeing Louie’s talent for running away after a crime, Pete forced Louie to join the track-and-field team at school. Louie excelled and soon gave up his delinquent exploits in favor of running circles around a track. Nicknamed the “Torrance Tornado,” he became a high school phenomenon and eventually earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He competed alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Germany and planned to compete again in the 1940 Olympics scheduled for Tokyo, Japan. However, when WWII started, Louie found himself training to be a bombardier in the Army Air Corps of the United States instead of training to be a track star.
Part II: Louie’s Military Career as a Bombardier
Chapters 6–11 relate the beginnings of Louie’s WWII career in the American military. In September 1941, Louie was drafted and eventually assigned to the Army Air Corps. He trained as a bombardier, flying in the clunky but powerful B-24 Liberator planes. Stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, Louie and his crewmates joined in the fight against Japan that was taking place all across the Pacific Ocean (referred to as the “Pacific Theatre”).
At first, Louie and his crew passed idle days waiting for battle. Then, on December 23, 1942, they took part in the bombing of a Japanese base on the island of Wake Atoll. The mission was successful. Over the next few weeks, Louie watched the machinations of war take the lives of other Air Corpsmen, sometimes through battle, sometimes through mechanical failures. He and his crewmates made other dangerous bombing raids over Pacific islands. Japanese bombers also attacked an American base on an island where he was stationed. Yet through it all, Louie survived. Then one peaceful day, Louie and his crew were called to complete a search and rescue mission. Mechanical failure struck; Louie’s plane crashed somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Part III: Louie’s Harrowing Experience as an Ocean Castaway
Chapters 12–17 describe the days that Louie spent adrift, trying to survive in the vast Pacific Ocean. When his B-24 bomber crashed into the sea on May 27, 1943, only three men survived: Louie, his pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, and tail gunner Francis “Mac” McNamara. Over the next 46 days, they struggled to survive in two small, inflatable rafts while drifting across miles and miles of water.
Their first setback came the first night: Mac, in a fit of panic, ate all of the nutritional chocolate squares meant to keep the three men alive for days. Almost immediately, they were out of food and starving to death. Next they faced the blistering heat of day and the shivering cold of night. As the men grew weaker and weaker, schools of sharks regularly stalked them beside their rafts. At one point, after they’d drifted into Japanese waters, a Japanese war plane strafed them with bullets, trying repeatedly to kill them. Mac eventually succumbed to deprivation and illness and was buried at sea. Louie and Phil survived. At last they spotted land, only to find it overrun with Japanese troops. On July 13, 1943, Louie and Phil were taken captive on Kwajalein Island.
Part IV: Louie’s Traumatic Years as a Prisoner of War
Chapters 18–33 comprise the bulk of Hillenbrand’s biography and deal specifically with the harsh years Louie Zamperini spent in various POW camps in Japanese territories. On Kwajalein Island, Louie was imprisoned in a solitary, dirty, wooden cell infested with maggots, flies, and mosquitoes. He was deprived of food, water, and medical care. He was also beaten, interrogated, and routinely humiliated—all a foretaste of what his life would be like over the next two years.
Louie was transferred among POW camps, but his time spent under the sadistic Corporal (later Sergeant) Mutsuhiro Watanabe was the worst. Nicknamed “The Bird,” this Japanese guard was Louie’s personal tormentor at both the Omori and Naoetsu POW camps on mainland Japan. He beat Louie daily, sometimes with his fists, sometimes with his belt, often with his kendo stick. The Bird starved Louie and all of the prisoners. He practiced ritual humiliation on Louie and the others, even making them lay face-down in human excrement. And he used Louie and the others as slave labor for Japan’s war machine. When the Allies defeated Japan, The Bird disappeared, hiding to avoid punishment as a war criminal.
Part V: Louie’s Life in Freedom after WWII
Chapters 34–39 sum up Louie’s experiences back in the United States following America’s victory in WWII. After Louie was freed from captivity in Japan, he returned to California and tried to resume his life. He met and married Cynthia Applewhite, a young girl from a privileged upbringing. He fell into alcoholism and wrestled with untreated PTSD. He struggled financially. He had near-constant nightmares about his time as a POW, waking once to find himself strangling his pregnant wife because he had dreamed she was The Bird. His marriage collapsed. In September 1949, Cynthia convinced Louie to attend a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. Louie resisted, but he went…and went again. Finally Louie responded to Graham’s preaching and committed himself to Jesus. His life changed completely. Louie quit drinking, reconciled with his wife, and began the process of forgiving his captors. He dedicated his life to nonprofit work helping at-risk boys and, by all accounts, lived relatively happily for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, in Japan, The Bird escaped punishment by staying hidden for several years, until all war criminals were pardoned as part of post-war efforts by the United States. Mutsuhiro Watanabe lived a long life, married, had two children, made a fortune running an insurance agency in Tokyo, and kept a vacation home on Australia’s Gold Coast.