My grandfather was a ferry pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. He died when I was too young to really discuss it with him, but essentially his duty involved flying new aircraft manufactured in North America over to Britain. And this was at a time when trans-atlantic fligths were no simple matter – even large bombers of the day were at the end of their range, and this was still the early days of radio navigation. But despite the fear, due to the urgency of the war the powers that be were willing to accept a 50% loss rate of aircraft and still consider it a success.
As a teenager, I joined the Canadian Air Cadets and stuck with them for six years before joining the infantry reserves. During my time in Cadets I earned my Glider and Private Pilot licenses. While I never have had the pleasure of flying a Lancaster, Mosquito, or Spitfire like my grandfather did, I gained a love of the air and still hold a fascination for the men and planes of that era. If I could own a single plane, I would totally get a Hawker Hurricane. I am blessed that my family passed on some of my grandfather’s artifacts to me, such as the notebook pictured and his uniform tunic.
So when my copy of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken arrived, I was well pleased. The book follows the life of US bomber pilot Louie Zamperini, looking at him from his rough and tumble childhood to his Olympic running years, and all the way through post-war life trying to adapt back into a normal world after several years of insanity.
But the main focus of the book is on Louie’s brief time flying B-24 Liberators, his crash and subsequent capture, and his years as a Japanese prisoner of war. And it is a remarkable story. Starting from the crash in the middle of the empty Pacific Ocean, trying to survive a maelstrom of abusive guards, insufficient food, and debilitating disease.
Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, is a compelling writer. She pushes the story forward steadily, while pausing at critical junctures to elaborate, and adding interesting colour when it is needed. Describing the brutal methods of abuse and torture the Japanese guards used on Zamperini and his fellow POWs, she describes it concisely without being gratuitous. She captures the emotions of Zamperini and his compatriots well – it’s easy for us to go along for the ride.
My one complaint with the book is it felt a little too familiar. Biographies like this tend to follow a format, and Unbroken follows that format fairly closely. That said, it is executed very well within that format. We know how the story will go, but the details are new, unique, and told in an interesting way. If you’re interested in reading a World War II pilot’s story, this one is worth your time.