Just two pages into the book “Unbroken,” its protagonist is in the water, hiding beneath the deteriorating life raft in which he has been drifting across the Pacific Ocean for almost a month. Overhead, Japanese bombers are circling back to strafe him a second time. And sharks are approaching from below.
Death is coming for him from two directions, and your impulse is to verify that this is not a novel, not some outlandish fiction from the Indiana Jones School of Narrow Escapes.
But it isn’t.
The story is true, the man in the water, real. His name is Louis Zamperini and he died last week of pneumonia.
No one who has read the book (a movie of the same name is due on Christmas Day) will be surprised to learn that it took that fearsome disease 40 days to claim this 97-year-old man. If Zamperini was nothing else, he was a fighter. Whatever life threw at him, he threw back. Whatever it piled on top of him, he overcame.
Child of poor Italian immigrants in suburban Los Angeles, he overcame a predilection for petty theft, vandalism and brawling to become a celebrated runner, first in high school, then in college and finally in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Bombardier for the Army Air Corps, he overcame a plane crash, surviving 47 days on a raft in the trackless vastness of the Pacific Ocean, subsisting on rainwater, fish and seabirds.
Prisoner of the Japanese, he overcame daily beatings and torture from a sadistic guard nicknamed “the Bird,” and lived to return home after the war ended.
A cash-strapped alcoholic and wife beater, tormented by nightmares of what the Bird did to him, he overcame his own degradation when he came forward at a tent revival and accepted Christ at the invitation of a young evangelist named Billy Graham. A World War II veteran who would have been fully justified in anger and bitterness over what the Japanese did to him, he overcame those things to carry the torch in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and write a letter of forgiveness to the man who had daily tortured him.