Once a week, I meet with a dozen writers in a group called “Mining Your Memories.” We start with a prompt, oftentimes just one word, and write about that subject in whatever way we feel moved. Then we share our stories.
Last week’s prompt was VETERAN.
Ten class members read aloud the stories they’d written. A couple were funny. Others, not so much. Some were downright heartbreaking. Almost all the war stories had one thing in common. When asked what they did in the war, most veterans responded in exactly the same way: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Who can blame them? Those of us who’ve never been to war can’t possibly imagine what it’s like. To be cold. Hungry. Thirsty. Exhausted. Bored. Terrified. Confused. Angry. Sick. Injured. Frustrated. Misunderstood. Powerless. To shoot and be shot at.
How can anyone who isn’t a war veteran possibly empathize with those who are? Sometimes, the best thing we can do is listen to the stories they’re willing to share. That’s exactly what bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand did. Over the course of seven years, she interviewed World War II veteran Louis Zamperini dozens of times. She conducted mountains of research. Then she wrote “Unbroken” (Random House, 2010).
It’s an amazing story. Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Zamperini spend his childhood as a juvenile delinquent and his teenage years as a track star. He competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he roomed with Jesse Owens and shook Adolf Hitler’s hand. Closing in on the four-minute mile, Zamperini was looking forward to competing in the 1940 Olympics.
But war got in the way.
Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier. In 1942, his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. For forty-seven days, he and two other crew members drifted 2,000 miles on a rubber life raft in shark-infested waters. They drank rain water and ate raw fish and birds and suffered in ways I can’t even imagine. One of the men died. The other two were “rescued” by the Japanese Navy.
Then the real trials began.
For more than three years, Zamperini was held prisoner in the worst of the worst Japanese POW camps. He suffered unspeakable torture at the hands of one of the most infamously sadistic of all Japanese prison guards—Mutsuhiro Watanabe, otherwise known as “the Bird.” The last camp where Zamperini was imprisoned was liberated just days before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He returned home to a hero’s welcome.
But soon, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder–a term not used in those days but a very real malady nonetheless–took hold. Zamperini’s days were filled with little more than alcohol and rage. Now 96 years old, Zamperini credits evangelist Billy Graham with saving his life by teaching him the power of forgiveness.
Every American ought to know Louis Zamperini’s story. Soon, perhaps, many more will. “Unbroken” is being made into a movie, scheduled to premier on Christmas Day, 2014. Here’s hoping those who read or see it will be inspired to listen–really listen–to the stories our war veterans are willing to share.
And to thank them for their incredible sacrifices.
(November 10, 2013)