Essay: Louie Zamperini

Louie Zamperini, the ‘Torrance Tornado’, led a life full of laughter and compassion before his death in 2014. Within the first forty years of his life, Zamperini traveled and experienced unbelievable events ranging from the Olympics to the starvation of Allied soldiers. His story resides within the novel Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption written by an author who experiences her own frustrating difficulties. Laura Hillenbrand’s confinement enables her to select a heroic character that allows her to transcend her imprisonment and live vicariously through him.
Louie Zamperini led a remarkable life that danced along the balance of freedom and confinement. The struggles he faced throughout different ages reflect Hillenbrand’s own troubles. Both Hillenbrand and Zamperini hold experiences with either a troubled or lonely youth and became avid athletes during their high school and college careers. Within his twenties, Zamperini was called into duty as a bombardier in the Second World War. Against all odds, Zamperini was able to survive a crash landing at sea, last 47 days without supplies, and endure the cruellest treatment as a Pacific prisoner of war. This story intrigued and inspired Hillenbrand since the subject ‘came back every time, struggling through pain and fear and the limitations of his body’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Sudden Illness’). At the point in time when Hillenbrand decided to write about Zamperini, she would already have a great understanding of limitations set by the human body due to her own difficulties with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Zamperini’s astonishing survival exists as a hopeful narrative that Hillenbrand specifically selects because the subject mirrors the struggles of those trying to escape their entrapment. Zamperini’s perseverance and life ‘offers stirring tales of courageous individuals triumphing against great odds’ (‘Laura Hillenbrand’). The classic underdog story told through the life of Zamperini is successful because of the truth behind every word as well as the relatable language and emotional portrayal.
Zamperini’s war experience mirrors Hillenbrand’s sudden illness. Both were thrown into chaos; their lifestyles transitioned from full health to total imprisonment and mental hardships. Zamperini was constantly abused by Watanabe, a Japanese corporal prison guard referred to as the Bird. The Bird’s ‘violent, erratic behavior’ was released upon prisoners since he saw that ‘raw brutality gave him sway over men that his rank did not’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Unbroken’ 242). He had an unknown vendetta with Zamperini that brought about waves of violence and injuries. Even when prisoners created coded messages signaling the Bird’s arrival, ‘no sooner had Louie stepped outside than the Bird found him, accused him of an imaginary infraction, and attacked him in a wild fury’ ( 247). His arbitrary targeting of Zamperini is reminiscent of the unexplained occurrence of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Hillenbrand’s life. There were no indications that Hillenbrand would acquire this illness nor explanations on why it had happened to her.
In addition to their similar situational crises, Hillenbrand and Zamperini shared nearly identical dreams during these difficult periods in their lives. Hillenbrand claims that ‘as I lost the capacity to move, sports took over my dream world’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Sudden Illness’). Zamperini likewise ‘shaped his dreams around Tokyo, Japan’ where the upcoming Olympics were to take place; this became ‘the quest that had saved him’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Unbroken 39, 359).
Although Zamperini possessed motivational dreams during his imprisonment under Japanese rule, the treatment and injuries he sustained as a Pacific prisoner of war destroyed his chances of returning to his original state of athleticism. Prior to the war, he ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and trained to beat the four minute mile. His physical limitations were difficult to come to terms with, which is something that Hillenbrand experiences daily in her struggles to accomplish activities such as reading or walking outdoors. The dreams were strong enough to carry them through dire situations, and that shows the strength of mental power.
The struggle to remain mentally strong occurs as a prominent theme throughout Hillenbrand and Zamperini’s suffering. Hillenbrand admits that ‘it is tremendously important to my emotional health that I be able to write. I can’t be social, I can’t be out there. The books are my way of communicating with everyone’ (‘Laura Hillenbrand’). Likewise, Zamperini understands the importance of mental health and strength. During the 47 days upon the raft, he ‘was determined that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Unbroken’ 152). Hillenbrand understands the difference between physical and mental health. The strength of both the mind and the body are important to maintain balance. While drifting for days on the raft, ‘Louie made a deliberate effort to avoid thinking about the men who had died,’ and had to focus on the present situation including the injuries he had suffered after the crash (135). When the body suffers, the mind must compensate to prevent further injury and carry the soul of the person. After regaining some form of physical health, the mind faces the repercussions of suppressed emotions. Hillenbrand includes that ‘more than 85 percent of former Pacific POWs […] suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)’ (355).
Even though many parallels can be drawn between Zamperini and Hillenbrand, the connection of each person with their respective mothers provides a drastic contrast. Hillenbrand’s unusual illness caused almost everyone to become skeptical, ‘even her mother wasn’t sure what to believe. ‘She was not supportive and that was the hardest thing of all” (Hylton). Hillenbrand lacked a stable relationship with her mother, therefore she emphasizes on Zamperini and the connection he shares with his mother. Zamperini refused to return home from the Pacific until he had gained more weight and appeared healthier because he did not want his mother to witness him in his previous malnourished state. Throughout the novel, Hillenbrand often references Mrs. Zamperini’s faith in her son and never doubted his existence. Even when Zamperini went missing at sea and was pronounced as dead, Mrs. Zamperini never let go of the thought that her son still lived. Hillenbrand gave off the impression that Zamperini’s mother had an intuition in regards to his survival, meanwhile Hillenbrand’s own mother did not harbor the same connection to Hillenbrand. For this reason, Hillenbrand may have been somewhat envious of Zamperini’s familial support and experienced secondhand the love of a mother when writing about Zamperini.
While Hillenbrand relates to many aspects of Zamperini’s life, his story alone is brimming with incredibility and strength. Zamperini is an exciting subject for her to write about and for her to experience vicariously outside of her confinement. Hillenbrand chose Zamperini’s chronicle because she ‘feels a personal connection to the protagonists of her books’ and they act as an outlet for her internal struggles (‘Laura Hillenbrand’).
As there are several parallels between Hillenbrand and Zamperini, Hillenbrand uses the process of writing and publishing Zamperini’s story as a way to project her internal struggles and experience life vicariously through Zamperini. Projection is defined as ‘the thought of making a part of oneself into an object outside oneself’ (Child 20). Hillenbrand envisioned the era and lifestyle that Zamperini described during their phone interviews and was capable of capturing the setting and emotions surrounding the environment. Without leaving her home and visiting World War II battlefields or prisoner camps, Hillenbrand must have drawn some of her personal struggles as indications for the mood of the novel. There is a belief that ‘the mind has an inherent need to ‘reduplicate itself’ in the external world, and that the world is indeed nothing but the ‘self-externalization’ of the mind’ (Berthold-Bond 286). Every author aims to write enthralling tales with emotion woven through, but Hillenbrand faces greater challenges due to her illness and thus uses her experiences with confinement to convincingly narrate the novel.
Hillenbrand lives through the characters she writes about because she is confined by her illness and ‘in the case of illness, well-being or being-in-the-world is not simply absent or eliminated but disturbed’ (Dallmayr 250). Identifying with Zamperini’s account to create a truthful representation was essential to create a successful novel, and Hillenbrand found that ‘living through [her] subjects’ bodies, [she] forgot about [her] own’ (‘Laura Hillenbrand’). Hillenbrand may have used Zamperini’s tale as a way to escape her own prison, but the subconscious proves that the ‘world [is] actually projected out of [one]self’ (Berthold-Bond 286). Her experiences are reflected within her writing to interlace with Zamperini as she follows the story of his life.
By writing and relating to this narrative, Hillenbrand exposes herself emotionally and physically to a society that unknowingly reads her internalizations. Hillenbrand uses Zamperini’s tale as a connection to the outside world as ‘the mind has a great propensity to spread itself on external objects, and to conjoin with them any internal impression’ (Child 30). Her friends and family slowly disband once her illness limited her capability to travel or participate in activities. She ‘had lived so long in silence and isolation that the world was a sensory explosion’ and Hillenbrand was able to bring attention back to herself through her phenomenal book with an exceptional selling streak (Hillenbrand, ‘Sudden Illness’).
Hillenbrand emphasizes on the characters within this chronicle because they represent her psychoanalytical state. They become her ‘mirror of reality, reflecting the inner reality of unconscious, instinctual drives and wishes onto the external world’ (Berthold-Bond 288). Hillenbrand identifies with Zamperini because of the similarities between their struggles. The Bird not only physically stands as the tormentor in Zamperini’s life, but also as a representation of the illness dominating Hillenbrand’s life.
In addition to Zamperini’s extraordinary story of survival, Hillenbrand also includes his tale of redemption as well. Within the title of the novel, she pointedly references resilience and redemption as a portion of the novel. Therefore, she must find these aspects of his life important and connects with each topic. Her illness was so profound that others ‘could sense the disease on [her and see her] was disappearing inside it’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Sudden Illness’). Hillenbrand’s adjustment to the limitations of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is an example of her survival and resilience, despite the fact that doctors have no cure or answers for her symptoms.
Zamperini is ‘confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough, to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Unbroken’ 7). Zamperini’s knowledge and shrewd decisions with ‘the conviction that he could think his way through any boundary’ on the raft enabled the men to survive for so long (155). The violence he faced in the Japanese camps is truly remarkable. Zamperini remains an inspiration to Hillenbrand since ”he never allowed himself to be a passive participant in his ordeal’ (‘Laura Hillenbrand’). Hillenbrand similarly becomes more active within the limits of her confinement as she discovers ways to work from home, conduct research and phone interviews. Even if ‘her illness has shaped her creative process,’ Hillenbrand is able to grasp the honesty within the narrative without venturing outside her home and without exhausting herself (Hylton). Furthermore, ‘many of the qualities that make Hillenbrand’s writing distinctive are a direct consequence of her physical limitations,’ thus her writing and style may not have reached the same success without the presence of the illness (Hylton).
Redemption exists as the last step Zamperini takes in regards to his ordeal during the Second World War. After his running dreams are crushed, Zamperini turns to alcohol and hatred to fill the void created by abuse from the POW camps. While attending Billy Graham’s preaching events, Zamperini was moved by the sermon that reminded him of the prayers he made in the raft. He experienced an awakening, disposed the alcohol and was able to let go of ‘his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness’ (Hillenbrand, ‘Unbroken’ 383). From this event, Zamperini was able to make peace with his tormentor and abstain from alcohol. He came to the realization that while he cannot run competitively, he can create a new purpose for his life by helping others. Hillenbrand commended that ‘it was a beautiful experience for him to come back and have that closure and have all that hatred behind him’ (‘Remembering An ‘Unbroken’ Hero Of WWII’). Meanwhile, Hillenbrand’s redemption appears in her writing. Prior to Hillenbrand’s diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, doctors insinuated that her illness was psychological. She saw her friends and family withdraw from her and she was never provided with a solution or cure. Although she is powerless over her body and the social repercussions, as the author she yields the power to choose her subject and Zamperini’s journey reflected her own struggles so well.
Unconscious projection: the artifacts of culture- art, religion, and philosophy, as well as political ideals and institutions- are concrete projections or interior instinctual conflicts. Just as consciousness is an internal world of symptoms, culture is an external world of symptoms, of historical signs and symbols which must be traced back to subliminal, unconscious sources. (Berthold-Bond 280)
His eventual redemption supplies Hillenbrand with hope for her own redemption, and she projects herself within her writing as a part of the process. She allows Zamperini to shine as a ‘hero whose story was immortalized’ (‘Remembering An ‘Unbroken’ Hero Of WWII’). Prior to Hillenbrand’s work, Zamperini’s account may have been fenced into a specific time period to be forgotten. Hillenbrand’s novel memorializes Zamperini and provides a motivating underdog story. Once published to great acclaim, Hillenbrand has successfully reached out to millions of people about Zamperini and herself. Hillenbrand has risen and made contact to a mass crowd from a reclusive domain.
The title of the novel is a reminder that Zamperini’s tale should not solely focus on his survival. While his perseverance is incredible and worthy of attention, Hillenbrand also brings focus upon his phenomenal resilience and redemption.
Hillenbrand parallels her life to Zamperini’s to make up for the life she was unable to live as a result of compulsory confinement enabled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Zamperini provides an outlet for Hillenbrand to connect and expand into an novel. Within her work, Hillenbrand projects her internal conflicts and it’s publication displays her capabilities to work as well as connect with society despite restrictions caused by her illness. Zamperini’s story has a positive ending, and Hillenbrand uses his outstanding tale of survival, resilience, and redemption as a hopeful inspiration for her approach to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The individual drive of both Zamperini and Hillenbrand displays the psychological strength needed to face and cope with confinement.

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Essay Sauce, Louie Zamperini. Available from:<> [Accessed 10-12-18].