A Few Choice Passages From ‘Unbroken’

Louis Zamperini (AP)

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 book about the trials and tribulations of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic-caliber runner who was captured by the Japanese in 1943 and spent the rest of the war suffering unimaginably in Japanese POW camps. What follows are a few passages from Unbroken that came to mind for some reason today.

Louie had been on Kwajalein for about a week when his cell door was thrown open and two guards pulled him out. He flushed with fear, thinking that he was being taken to the sword. As he was hustled toward what seemed to be an officers’ quarters, he passed two girls with Asian features, walking with heads down, eyes averted, as they retreated from the building. … The ranking officer stared coolly at his captive. How do American soldiers satisfy their sexual appetites? he asked. Louie replied that they don’t— they rely on willpower. The officer was amused. The Japanese military, he said, provides women for its soldiers, an allusion to the thousands of Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Filipino women whom the Japanese military had kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. Louie thought of the girls outside. …

And then there was Gaga. Something about this affectionate little duck, perhaps the fact that he was beloved to the captives, provoked the guards. They tortured him mercilessly, kicking him and hurling him around. Then one day, in full view of the captives, Shithead opened his pants and violated the bird. Gaga died. Of all the things he witnessed in war, Louie would say, this was the worst. …

Raymond "Hap" Halloran was a navigator who parachuted into Tokyo after his B-29 was shot down. Once on the ground, Halloran was beaten by a mob of civilians, then captured by Japanese authorities, who tortured him, locked him in a pig cage, and held him in a burning horse stall during the firebombings. They stripped him naked and put him on display at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, tied upright in an empty tiger cage so civilians could gawk at his filthy, sore-encrusted body. He was starved so severely that he lost one hundred pounds. …

The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: ALL PRISONERS OF WAR ARE TO BE EXECUTED. What followed was a six-week frenzy of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them. Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape. The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants. Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking. …

Away from their officers, the guards told a different story, telling the POWs that the army had issued orders to kill them all in August. This might have been dismissed as a lie, but that July, a civilian worker known for his sympathy for POWs warned a prisoner that an execution date had been set. The date he gave was the same as one that had reportedly been mentioned to prisoners in at least two other camps. All of the Naoetsu POWs, the civilian said, would be killed on August 22. …

The POWs were so disturbed by the obvious famine among the civilians that they stopped stealing at the work sites. It was clear to them that Japan had long ago lost this war. But Japan was a long way from giving in. If a massively destructive air war would not win surrender, invasion seemed the only possibility. POWs all over the country were noticing worrisome signs. They saw women holding sharpened sticks, practicing lunges at stacks of rice straw, and small children being lined up in front of schools, handed wooden mock guns, and drilled. Japan, whose people deemed surrender shameful, appeared to be preparing to fight to the last man, woman, or child. …

In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935— more than 37 percent— died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate. …

In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese massacred all 5,000 Korean captives on Tinian, all of the POWs on Ballale, Wake, and Tarawa, and all but 11 POWs at Palawan. They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down. On the morning of September 2, 1945, Japan signed its formal surrender. The Second World War was over.