Among the top ten greatest books that have been written in my lifetime is the now-famous “Unbroken” and the subtitle reads, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It was written by a marvelously gifted story-teller, Laura Hillenbrand, and ever since it was first released in November, 2010, it has remained on the best-sellers list for good reason. After three-plus years and counting, it still deserves it.
It the true story of Louis Zamerini and it captures a spirit that was born at the 1936 Olympics and that later endured his bomber crashing into the sea, the next 46 days on a life-raft and then atrocities as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese. Most of us would have given up but the delightful Louie would not break! Every American should read this book and embrace its lessons.
As it happens, Louie died a delightfully happy man at age 97 last week. The minute I heard it I thought immediately of the author, Laura Hillenbrand, because there is a back-story here that I need to share. Laura, now age 47 and married to her college sweetheart, grew up in Maryland’s horse country but while she was in college she came down with a terrible disease known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Trust me, it is bad stuff and she rarely leaves her bedroom at her home in Washington D.C. as a result.
Back when Laura was a child, her favorite “kiddie book” was one entitled “Come On Seabiscuit” so as she languished with the crummy disease that wanted to ruin her life, she did some research and turned her memories of “Come On Seabiscuit” into a magazine article about the great race horse. Might as well, she didn’t have anything else to do.
Inspired by the response she got, she then turned her article into her first book, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” and, an immediate best-seller, it was the best sports book of the year. They made a movie (just as they are doing with “Unbroken”) and it suddenly defined Hillenbrand as one of the best authors in the world.
During an interview she once said, “I'm looking for a way out of here. I can't have it physically, so I'm going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it's just fantastic to be there alongside Louie as he's breaking the NCAA mile record. People at these vigorous moments in their lives - it's my way of living vicariously."
While “Unbroken” was only Laura’s second book – and an even greater victory – a huge thing you need to know is that Louie never stopped being a hero. As Laura interviewed him for hours at a time, our Mr. Zamperini slowly became a different sort of star that the writer would have ever dreamed. He became her hero, yes, but he also became an inspirational dear friend she desperately needed. Laura told the world his story, but Louie enriched her life in a way that I hope some of us will one day be able to fully understand so that we might try to do that, too.
On July 4th this eulogy to Louie Zamperini that was written by Laura Hillenbrand appeared on Fox News:
* * *
LAURA HILLENBRAND, AUTHOR OF “UNBROKEN,” ON THE PASSING OF LOUIS ZAMPERINI:
“It is with tears and the heaviest heart that I share the news of the passing of Louie Zamperini. He died peacefully in his sleep last night, surrounded by his loved ones. He lived ninety-seven beautiful, extraordinary years.
“Louie was my beloved friend, my surrogate grandfather, a man who threw laughter and light across my dark days, my hero, my steadying hand. To know him, to be in the presence of his radiant optimism, his sparkling wit, and the love in which he lavished everyone around him, was a privilege and a pleasure and and an indescribable joy.
“In a life of almost unimaginable drama, he experienced supreme triumphs, but also brutal hardship, incomprehensible suffering, and the cruelty of his fellow man. He was an airman, a plane crash victim, a castaway, he was attacked by sharks and strafed by his enemy, he was a POW and a slave, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Louie greeted every challenge of his long journey with singular resilience, determination and ingenuity, with a ferocious will to survive and prevail, and with hope that knew no master.
“His life would not be a sad story because he would not allow it to be. His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow. Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness.
“Farewell to the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew. Thank you, Louie, for all you gave to me, to our country, and to the world. I will never forget our last, laughing talk, your singsong "I love you! I love you!" and the words you whispered to me when you last hugged me goodbye, words that left me in happy tears. I will love you and miss you to the end of my days.
“Godspeed, sweet Louie. Thank you! (signed) Laura.”
* * *
You see? I thought you might like to know there was a bit more to the wonderful story.