Just finished Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Random House, 2010). She tells the story of Louis Zamperini’s early life (which depicts the miracle of his surviving childhood and his own juvenile delinquency) leading up to his Olympic experiences in Berlin and then his airmen experiences in the Pacific. In May, 1943, while looking for another plane that didn’t return to base, Zamperini’s plane goes down in the middle of the South Pacific. Against the odds, he and 2 others survived.
Actually, the miracle that he survived could be said about his entire life: impoverished immigrant family, juvenile delinquency, being an Airmen, surviving a plane crash in the middle of the Pacific, surviving on a flimsy raft for 47 days without any food or water other than rain or raw fish here and there, surviving torture by the Japanese for a couple of years and then, finally, surviving PTSD and accompanying alcoholism.
Read the book of you are interested in the life of airmen in WWII (it is amazing how many died in noncombat crashes). Read the book if you are interested in hearing how psychological trauma from war and torture often impacts a person. Read the book if you like surprising endings.
Have watched only bits and pieces of Ken Burns’ documentary but what I’ve seen is moving and makes me want to watch it all at some point. Just a couple things I noticed:
1. The issue of racism. John Hope Franklin’s bit on how he had everything to run a military office, including an Ivy League PhD but couldn’t because he lacked the right color–very interesting character!
2. How much the whole of the US was involved in the war. The ads telling people at home to ration gas so “the boys” will have gas for their airplanes.
3. PTSD. One man tells of a strafing run where his fellow gunner had a jammed gun. So, he could see the damage, destruction, and death he himself was doing to the Germans. His hand “froze” and he had to fly the plane back with his left hand. For years afterward, he would have nightmares of that day and wake up without the use of his hand. Somehow his wife could sense it and offer him his morning coffee to his left hand. I’m sure he never got to talk much about that in public settings. Though he is now in his late 70s, you can see it still is with him. This truly was the greatest generation!
4. Impact on my family. My parents were in their formative years (pre-teen to teen) during the war. I’ve heard stories about rationing, blackouts, and plane spotting against the threat of a German invasion. My mother still makes “hot milk cake.” This was described as an invention of the war to have a good tasting cake without the usual amounts of sugar and butter. Also, my wife pointed out that my mother still cuts both ends out of soup cans and then flattens the can with her foot, just like they did during the war.
5. Heritage and perspective matter. Listen to Miaken Scott’s reflections of being brought up German after the war: http://temple.whyy.org/tv12/thewar_fm_growingup.html