Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Angelina Jolie is reducing grown male interviewers to putty on TV at the moment – she is plugging her new film, Unbroken, which hit the red carpet in the UK last night. No coincidence then that the paperback of Louis Zamperini’s third biog/autobiography has been released this month in the UK. Zamperini is the star of Unbroken, or rather the book on which the film is based. Sadly Zamperini died 2 days after this book had been put to bed. However in preceding months he had not only collaborated with David Rensin, he had also clearly embarked on charming and being charmed by, Angelina Jolie (at the very ripe age of 97).
I was expecting more of a military memoir. But no, the clue is in the subtitle – Life Lessons from an Extraordinary Man. There can be no quibble with the ‘extraordinary’. From a very working class Italian background, to say he was a troubled child was probably an understatement. He avers that his teacher told his parents to speak English rather than their native tongue at home, because his language skills in class were so poor. A lesson there for many immigrant families in the UK, I would have thought.
He led a very outdoors life as a child and developed survival skills (in the widest sense) which stood him in very good stead when he had to cope with many days adrift in a liferaft with the bulk of his B24 crew in the Pacific. His account of wrestling and eating sharks makes Ray Mears look like the tooth fairy! Such skills, together with his high degree of fitness (a US athlete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics) also helped him survive the subsequent sustained torture at the hands of the Japanese. The treatment was simply inhumane. As he concludes the chapter “Unfortunately, other than Phil and myself, I know of no other prisoners who made it off Kwajalein alive. We were lucky. As we discovered years later, one Japanese officer knew I was a track star and recommended that Phil and I be spared because we might be better used for propaganda purposes”.
Back in the US after VJ day, he suffered PTSD and took his marriage to the edge. His salvation (apart from his long-suffering wife) was a visit to see the evangelist Billy Graham. Zamperini’s wholehearted espousal of Christianity became the bedrock of the second half of his life, and is the kernel of this book. He undertook mounds of youth work and mentoring. It is an inspiring tale, of a man one would have loved to have met.
The book is written in a typically lightweight American folksy style, and reminded me of the autobiography of another inspirational American, also from a humble background – Sam Walton. His Made in America rings many of the same bells. I was fortunate to see Sam before he died, and witnessed his ability to influence people. Zamperini must also have illuminated others’ lives.