A Conversation with Laura Hillenbrand
Random House Reader's Circle: Louie Zamperini is a larger-than-life figure. He enjoyed a measure of fame in his youth—both during his running career and after surviving the POW camps—but was relatively unknown in the second half of the twentieth century. How did you first learn about Louie? When did you realize there was a book in his story?
Laura Hillenbrand: My first book was about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit. While working on it, I pored over 1930s newspapers. One day I was reading a 1938 clipping about the horse when I happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading. Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.
Later, I came across Louie’s name again, and this time I learned a little about his wartime odyssey. I was very intrigued, and when I finished writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I did some searching, found an address for Louie, and wrote him a letter. He wrote back, I called him, and I found myself in the most fascinating conversation of my life. He told me his story, and I was captivated.
So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in particular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.
It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.
RHRC: You’ve written about two exceptional, unlikely running sensations of the first half of the twentieth century, weaving deeply moving, inspirational narratives around them. What, to you, is a good subject—what do you look for?
LH: In times of extremity, ordinary individuals must reach into the depths of themselves, and there they find the true content of their character. Some find emptiness, frailty, even dark impulses. But others find wondrous virtues—courage, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, daring, ingenuity, the will to soldier on when will is all they have left. These are the virtues that turn history, and these are the virtues that enable individuals to prevail in the supreme trials of their lives. It is in times of superlative hardship that individuals live their epic adventures, stories that thrill, fascinate, inspire, and illuminate. Theirs are the stories I’m drawn to.
I also think the best subjects offer the opportunity to use a small story to tell a much larger one. One could approach Seabiscuit as simply a rags-to-riches racehorse who lived seventy-five years ago. By itself, it’s a marvelous tale. But in his remarkable life, and in the lives of his automobile magnate owner, his frontiersman trainer, and his former prizefighting jockey, lies the far larger story of America in the Great Depression. I gathered as much detail as I could about the intimate lives of my subjects, but also backed up to show their context, the era of tremendous upheaval in which they were living, and the way in which they embodied the spirit and struggle of that era.
Louie, like Seabiscuit, is just one individual. But his odyssey carried him into the greatest cataclysm in history, giving me the chance to tell a tale vastly broader in scope than that of any single athlete or soldier, one encompassing Hitler’s Olympics, the Pacific war, and the experience of American military airmen, Japanese POW camp guards, prisoners of war, and veterans. You can’t truly understand an individual unless you understand the world he or she inhabits, and in illustrating that individual’s world, you will, hopefully, capture history in the accessible, tactile, authentic way in which the times were actually experienced. In Unbroken as in Seabiscuit, I tried to paint portraits not just of individuals, but of their times.
RHRC: After the publication of Unbroken, you received a number of letters from readers with family or friends—particularly fathers and grandfathers—who served in World War II. These readers frequently credited your book with giving them a new window into loved ones’ experience and suffering. Were you surprised? How did these letters change your perspective on Unbroken?
LH: Many, if not most, veterans and former POWs came home with overwhelming emotional wounds, and many never recovered. Among Pacific POWs, post-traumatic stress disorder was almost ubiquitous. A quarter of them became alcoholics, and some drank themselves to death. Many suffered from rage, anxiety, and depression; others isolated themselves. Some committed suicide. Louie, lost in alcoholism, rage, anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks, was sadly typical.
For many men, the horrors they had experienced were too painful to articulate. Quite a few of the veterans I interviewed said they’d never before told their stories, even to those closest to them. Some wept as they shared memories that were, even after more than seventy years, still searingly painful. The wife of one former POW told me that memories of the war were such a torment to her husband that after he discussed it with anyone he needed three weeks to regain his emotional equilibrium.
The residual pain of the war took an enormous toll not only on the veterans, but on their loved ones. The manifestations of the veterans’ trauma was often destructive to their relationships, and because the veterans were so often unable to speak of what had happened to them, they were mysteries to those who needed them, and wanted to help and heal them. As Louie’s wife discovered, they were often unreachable.
Since Unbroken was released, I’ve been deluged with correspondence from family members of POWs, airmen, and other men who served in World War II. Many have spent their lives trying to understand the troubled minds of these men. Many suffered terribly from the damage the war did to their relationships—a husband who was distant and brooding, an uncle prone to violent outbursts, a father who drank, a grandfather who was irretrievably sad. But because many veterans were silent about the war, their loved ones never knew what they’d gone through. For these family members, Louie’s story was a revelation, a window into the pain their loved one carried out of that war. Over and over, their messages express compassion, newfound understanding, and, often, forgiveness. Reading these notes, which sometimes leave me in tears, is deeply gratifying.
All of my life I wondered why my father loved alcohol more than he loved me. I loved him so much and tried so hard to save him but I could not. His disease killed him 36 years ago.
I have seen all the war movies and all the documentaries but until I read your book I had no idea what my father must have endured. For sixty years I have had a love/hate relationship with him. It is taking me a long time to write this because the waves of grief and loss are washing over me now and the tears won’t stop. Maybe now I can finally forgive him and myself for what I could never begin to understand.
—Rev. Cheryl Hubbard (daughter of Irvin “Bill” Hime, Army Air Forces staff sergeant)
I feel like I discovered things about my Dad and why he did things he did. You see, he was a paratrooper in WWII, in the Philippines. He never wanted to talk about it. I feel that through Mr. Zamperini, he finally opened up and I am in awe. To say thank you just doesn’t seem enough, but it’s all I can say.
—Monica Meehan Berg (daughter of James L. Meehan, Army PFC)
I am the namesake of my uncle. . . who was captured in the Philippines, made the ‘Death March’, survived that and imprisonment there. . . . As with most of the Greatest Generation he would not speak of his captivity. . . . Your book conveyed an incredible, almost unbelievable experience; about half--way through I simply broke down in tears and began to really understand. I thank you so much for the legacy you have given to my family and the world.
—C. Ray Jones (nephew of Charlie R. Jones, Army sergeant)
Thank you to Louie and to Laura for bringing this story to light for those of us who have never heard it from our fathers. It shook me to my soul and will stay with me for a very long time.
—Lindi Clark (daughter of Richard Allen Marshall, Army sergeant)