69 pages 2 hours read

Laura Hillenbrand


Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a biography by Laura Hillenbrand that tells the life story of Louie Zamperini, an Italian-American from Torrance, California who lived from 1917 to 2014. Published in 2010, Unbroken was a The New York Times bestseller for over four years.

Plot Summary

In his youth, Louie Zamperini was the town troublemaker, a boy who used his cunning to commit acts of petty theft and public nuisance. When his big brother, Pete, took a more active role in Zamperini’s life, he supported Zamperini in his athletic training, first in basketball and baseball, until Louie settled on running. Louie had amazing skill, and, with Pete’s coaching, he began winning race after race. His reputation changed from a troubled boy to the “Torrance Tornado.”

By a stroke of luck, Louie made 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. He impressed the audience with his performance, and he even met Hitler in the stands. Before he could set a world record, the war intervened, and Louie signed up for military service as a member of the Air Corps in 1941.

Louie’s air crew was full of talent, and together, the crew had a successful first mission on Wake Atoll. After a harrowing battle of Nauru, some men barely survived an attack on their air base on Funafuti. Louie and his pilot and good friend Phil, along with a few new men, took an plane on a rescue mission; unfortunately, this plane “wasn’t airworthy,” and they crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Louie, Phil and a man named Mac were the sole survivors of the crash.

Mac eventually perished at sea, and, before reaching land, Louie and Phil remained on the life raft for forty-six days. When they arrived at an island, starved and dehydrated, Louie and Phil were captured by the Japanese Army. The Japanese treated them kindly, but they were transferred to a POW camp called Kwajalein, also known as “Execution Island.”

At Kwajalein, Louie and Phil were thrown into filthy cells, beaten, and mistreated. After forty-two days at Kwajalein, they were transferred to Yokohama, and then to Ofuna, a “secret interrogation center” for high-profile prisoners. Because Louie was an Olympian, he was believed to be a “high-value” prisoner. The men experienced more violence and mistreatment at Ofuna, and starvation threatened their well-being. Here, Louie made friends with a marine named William Harris. Secretly, they exchanged information and rebelled against their captors in various ways. For the third time, Louie and a few of his friends were transferred. This time, they went to a POW camp called Omori. Here, a man named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird,” took an interest in Louie and singled him out, treating him violently. Described as a sexual sadist, he subjected Louie to severe physical abuse. Despite this abuse, Louie maintained his defiant outlook, and he and others continued to steal sugar and use it as currency around the camp.

Soon, America invaded Japan, and the more bombs dropped by the Americans, the harsher the Japanese guards would treat the prisoners. 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. Louie joined a faction that planned to murder the Bird. In early August of 1945, Nagasaki and Hiroshima were hit with atomic bombs. On August 20, an American plane flew by and signaled that the war was over. On September 5, Louie left Naoetsu camp and spent a few weeks in the hospital. Back in the United States, he met with Pete before heading home to his parents. Soon, Louie began to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and he turned to alcohol to escape his memories.

A few months after Louie met a woman named Cynthia Applewhite, they married. Louie’s drinking worsened, and Cynthia left Louie, taking their daughter, Cissy.

Cynthia convinced Louie to see Billy Graham speak, and Billy’s words helped Louie realize that he was 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).