“It remains a mystery why these three young men, veterans of the same training and the same crash, differed so radically in their perceptions of their plight … “
So writes Laura Hillenbrand, in her book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The plight is shared by three survivors of a U.S. Army Air Forces plane that crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943. Thousands of miles from land and given up for dead, the three drift in rubber rafts, equipped with no water and little food. They subsist on captured rain water and small fish eaten raw.
Unbroken is Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of one of the survivors, Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner who became an Air Force bombardier after the United States entered World War II. Much of the book chronicles Zamperini’s harrowing experience as a POW in Japanese camps, where he was starved and tortured.
Before his capture, Zamperini and pilot Russel Allen “Phil” Phillips survived 47 days in their open raft.
The third man who survived the crash, tail-gunner Francis McNamara, lived 33 days. Throughout the ordeal, McNamara often sat in silence, not engaging in the conversations and memory games Zamperini and Phillips used to keep their minds and spirits sharp.
McNamara couldn’t imagine a future, Hillenbrand writes. “To him, it seemed the world was too far gone.”
The theme of Hillenbrand’s book is survival and resilience. She pauses to consider what kept Zamperini and Phillips alive on the raft, while McNamara withdrew and fell into catatonia brought on my hunger and thirst.
“Maybe the difference was biological; some men may be wired for optimism, others for doubt,” Hillenbrand writes. “As a toddler, Louie had leapt from a train and watched it bear his family away, yet had remained cheerfully unconcerned about his safety, suggesting he may have been a born optimist.”
Zamperini was born a rebel and always got into mischief. He regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness and his determination to rebel.”
He and Phillips had also seen combat together, performed well and survived. McNamara had never seen combat. And, on the first night in the raft after they crashed, he had panicked and eaten the only food they had. “As time passed and starvation loomed, this act took on greater and greater importance, and it may have fed Mac’s sense of futility.”
Their perceptions of their situation seemed to be shaping their fates, Hillenbrand writes. “Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. … Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.”
As I write this, Zamperini is in imprisoned in the notorious Ofuna prison camp outside Tokyo, where he is subjected to daily beatings by a sadistic prison guard. Without checking Zamperini’s Wikipedia entry, I can assume he’ll survive his POW experience. return home to the United States and lead a long, eventful life. But I have yet to see if Phillips, who was sent to another POW camp, makes it through to the end of the war. Unbroken, so far, implies that he does.