Louie started smoking at five years old, drinking at eight, stole anything edible, jumped off a moving train, greased the rails to get back at a railcar conductor, deflated a teacher’s car tires for disciplining him, rigged the bell at a local church rousing the whole area including the police and fire department, rigged a pay phone to get spending money, and fought with almost anyone. And he ran.
If you can’t run fast, you can’t get away.
Louie was testing his father’s patience, but in those days (1920s to mid 1930s), though the police may have always seemed to be on the family’s front porch, they were trying to talk sense into Louie, rather than drag him down to the station.
The wildness of Louie’s childhood (keep a level head, think fast, react faster, and be creative and savvy) and the necessity of his running to escape the consequences stood him in good stead in the year’s to come. Through a fear of eugenics (fascinating and scandalous), the urging of his big brother Pete, and a weakness for girls, Louie became a runner in high school, a phenomena at a time when track was hugely popular and the top performers were household names. He was so fast he won a spot and competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a nineteen-year-old, after only five years of training and racing. It was thought, especially by Pete, that Louie would be the first man to break the 4-minute mile. World War II changed everything.
The story of Louie Zamperini’s adventures in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier, of his friendships, family bonds and tragedies make for an inescapable tale. Author Laura Hillenbrand has done her research and succeeds in telling this tale of brutality and fortitude as a personal as well as a historical narrative. Facts abound but don’t stall the pace and energy, or the fascination with, and the stomach-clenching anguish of, Louie’s ordeals.
As Louie gets to know his crew and his plane dubbed “Super Man,” a massive, hulking B-24 (The Flying Coffin), I came to know these men and the world in which they lived, felt as though I could touch one of the 154 bullet holes, shrapnel slashes, and cannon-fire gashes that the Japanese ripped into the metal beast during an air battle over Nauru.
Hillenbrand’s writing describes and engages without being overly dramatic, maudlin, or sickly-sweet. Yet her writing isn’t stone cold sober, either. She’s spoken extensively with all the key players and lived with them in her head for seven years; she writes as though she can speak for them and though what they ultimately go through at the hands of the Japanese is almost unfathomable, she let’s the story itself hold the power and create the emotion, rather than a flurry of adverbs and adjectives.
Louie’s story, and that of Phil and Harris, not only bring WWII into greater focus but clamps the reader into an unbreakable bond, revealing a world both unimaginable and breathtakingly terrifying, while also illuminating the depths to which the human body, mind, and soul can descend and still survive, and thrive.