Laura Hillenbrand


  • 37-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 39 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a high school English teacher with over 10 years of experience
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Unbroken Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 37-page guide for “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 39 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 13 important quotes, discussion questions, and key themes like Preservation of Human Dignity and Faith, and the redemption that comes with it.

Plot Summary

Unbroken is a narrative, non-fiction book that tells the life story of Louie Zamperini, an Italian American from Torrance, California. Beginning with his childhood, Laura Hillenbrand presents the hero as the town troublemaker: a boy whose cunning is used for petty theft and public nuisance, until his big brother, Pete, takes it upon himself to steer Louie in another direction. Pete supported Louie in his training, first in basketball and baseball, until he finally settled on running. Louie had amazing skill and with Pete’s coaching, began winning race after race. His reputation changed from a troubled boy to the “Torrance Tornado”.

By a stroke of luck, Louie was able to make the Olympic trials by switching his distance and competing in an open competition. With fierce determination, he earned his right to compete in the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936. While coming in just shy of winning seventh place, he impressed the audience with his performance, even meeting Hitler in the stands. Although Louie had a strong possibility for a medal in the next Summer Olympics, unfortunately, they were cancelled due to the economic hardship of the host country. Louie signed up for military service as a member of the Air Corps in 1941.

Louie’s air crew was full of talent and accuracy, having an incredibly successful first mission on Wake Atoll. Hillenbrand makes their success even more impressive by detailing how difficult the B-24 bombers were to fly and the staggering amount of casualties associated with these planes. After a harrowing battle of Nauru, some men barely survived an attack on their air base on Funafuti. Louie, his pilot and good friend Phil, along with a few new men had to take a different plane on a rescue mission (the Green Hornet) because their previous plane (Superman) was damaged during the battle of Nauru. Unfortunately, this plane “wasn’t airworthy” and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Louie, Phil and Mac were the sole survivors.

Louie’s incredible struggles begin here. He and Phil are able to remain focused on survival and keeping their wits sharp, while Mac is eerily quiet and when he does vocalize, it is usually by screaming his despair. The first night on board their life raft, Mac eats all of the emergency chocolate rations. Louie focuses on catching birds, and fish for sustenance and fashions a way to collect rainwater. A few times when the men were dying of thirst, Louie earnestly prayed for a miracle, to somehow be spared, and rain would fall the next day. Unfortunately, Mac perished at sea. Before reaching land, Louie and Phil had been on the life raft for forty-six days.

While arriving at an island, Louie and Phil are spotted and captured by the Japanese Army. Due to starvation and dehydration, both men are in terrible shape. The Japanese treat them kindly, but then transfer them to their first POW camp called Kwajalein, also known as “Execution Island”.

At Kwajalein, the cruelty of the Japanese guards begins. He and Phil are thrown into filthy cells, with virtually no food or water, and are beaten and mistreated. After forty-two days at Kwajalein, they were transferred to Yokohama, which was of great relief to both men, believing that international law would protect them from severe mistreatment as a POW. Both men were brought to Ofuna, which wasn’t a POW camp, but a “secret interrogation center” for high profile prisoners. Because of Louie’s famous Olympian profile, he was believed to be a “high-valued” prisoner. The violence and mistreatment at Ofuna was just as awful as Kwajalein. Starvation was still looming.

Louie made friends with a brilliant marine named William Harris. Secretly, they exchanged information and rebelled against their captors in various ways. It came in such forms as secretly writing in a journal, communicating with each other in Morse code or using offensive nicknames for the guards. The men even began devising an escape plan out of Ofuna. For the third time, Louie and a few of his friends were transferred. This time, it was to a POW camp called Omori.

Here, Louie would meet his nightmare. His name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, or as they deceptively nicknamed him, “The Bird”. The Bird had taken an interest in singling Louie out for severe, violent treatment. Described as a sexual sadist, the physical abuse was so severe and inhumane, it’s a wonder Louie survived. The men were forced to complete disgusting and degrading tasks like ladling human waste from the overflowing makeshift toilets and performing backbreaking labor for virtually no food.

The men’s defiance continued, stealing sugar and using it as a currency around the camp. Because of his “high profile”, Louie was asked to write and read a statement for a Japanese radio propaganda show named Postman Calls. He did so, clearly coloring his speech with specific details that only his family would understand so, if on the off chance they heard the broadcast, they would know it was him and that he was alive.

The American invasion of Japan became obvious, as American bombers would fly over the camps. The more bombing the Americans did, the harsher the Japanese guards would treat the prisoners. Eventually, The Bird was transferred to a different camp and Louie, as well as the other prisoners, enjoyed a brief respite from his reign of terror. However, a few months later, Louie and a few other men would make their final transfer to the Naoetsu POW camp. Upon arrival, Louie collapsed to the ground when he realized that The Bird was the overseer of this camp.

Dropped there in the middle of winter, the conditions at Naoetsu were the worst that Louie had experienced so far. The men were forced into slave labor, shoveling coal on a barge outside the camp. The treatment from The Bird was as bad as ever and Louie joined a faction that had plans to murder Watanabe.

Things shifted in early August of 1945. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were hit with atomic bombs. On August 20, the men were ordered to bathe in the river after hearing an announcement that “the war has come to a point of cessation” (305). While bathing, an American plane flew by and signaled that the war was over. The men had to stay at the camps as food and other important supplies were dropped in. On September 5, Louie left Naoetsu camp.

Louie spent a few weeks in the hospital, healing from dysentery and other injuries. Back in the United States, he met with Pete first before heading home to his parents. Not long after spending time with his family, Louie began to show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and even though he was getting all sorts of positive attention and participated in various speaking engagements, he suffered from nightmares of The Bird. Louie turned to alcohol as a solution.

Things for Louie looked up when he met a beautiful woman named Cynthia Applewhite. Despite her family’s disapproval, they fell hard and fast for each other, getting married a few months after meeting. Louie’s drinking worsened and his erratic behavior did as well. In a confused nightmare, Louie was strangling who he thought was The Bird, but he was actually choking Cynthia. She left with their daughter, Cissy.

They were only separated for a short time until reuniting before a divorce was finalized. On chance, Cynthia had convinced Louie to see Billy Graham speak. It only took two nights listening to Billy’s words before Louie had fully realized the man he had become. He saw himself as a “drowning man”, a man swimming in sorrow, rage, fear and alcoholism. Once Louie accepted himself as a “new creation” (376), his fear of The Bird and his desire to numb his pain with alcohol disappeared. He even visited Sugamo Prison to come face-to-face with his former captors. His hatred for his enemy had dissipated and, for Louie, “the war was over” (379).

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