6 Unbroken Characters You Should Know

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who are the Unbroken characters, and what did they do?

There were many Unbroken characters in the book. Some had large roles, and other were relatively minor. All the Unbroken characters had an influence on Louis Zamperini’s life and story. Read about some of the major Unbroken characters below.

Major Unbroken Characters

The characters in Unbroken are all unique, with their own individual stories. But each one crossed paths with Louis Zamperini in a significant way. These are some major Unbroken Characters to know.

1. Louis Zamperini

The Unbroken book characters of course starts with main character Louis Zamperini. Louie Zamperini was one of the brightest prospects for the 1940 Olympics in track and field. But when WWII started, his life would take a much different path. The story of Louie’s struggles as a young loner, a rising star, a Pacific POW, and a man trying to reclaim his life after years of torment is as unbelievable as it is inspiring. Through Louie’s tale, the depths of the human soul and will to survive are examined. As Louie spirals out of control because of trauma and becomes obsessed with a plot to kill the man who tortured him, he learns that a man is not defined by his history, but rather by the manner in which he seeks a future. Unbroken reaches into the heart of terror and shines a light on what it means to triumph. 

2. Pete Zamperini

Pete was Louie’s older brother by less than two years and was everything Louie was not. Pete was good-looking, well-liked, well-mannered, and charismatic. He had such a good head on his shoulders, his parents often turned to him for advice when he was just a child. He once saved someone from drowning. He was by far one of the most influence characters in Unbroken.

Pete was a protective older brother to Louie and their sisters, Sylvia and Virginia, and Louie worshipped him. Pete was the only person Louie would listen to.

Pete Zamperini also served during the war. He eventually got married and had three children. He coached football at Torrance High, then transferred to a different school and coached track and field. In thirty years as the head track coach, he only had one losing season. When he retired, 800 people came to celebrate him. 

3. Phil Philips

Another one of the important Unbroken characters is Louis’s friend, Phil. The day Louie arrived at an airbase in Washington state, he met another second lieutenant named Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, who would be the pilot of Louie’s plane. Phil was 26 years old, from Indiana, and engaged to be married to his college sweetheart, Cecy. He was quiet and had an ability to cope with stress and adversity amicably and calmly. 

Louie and Phil grew close on the base. Louie’s gregariousness was the perfect complement to Phil’s demureness and vice versa. They were introduced to the rest of their plane crew—the eighth of nine crews within the 372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, Seventh Airforce. They were given a new type of bomber, the B-24 Liberator, unaffectionately known as the “Flying Coffin.”

Together, Louis and Phil survived the plane crash, being lost at sea, and prison camp. They both survived the war and remained friends.

4. Bill Harris

Of all the characters in Unbroken, Louis admired Bill Harris the most (other than his brother Pete). Bill Harris was a POW in Omori with Louis, and took on a leadership role.

What the men wanted most of all was knowledge of the war’s progression. Whenever new POWs were brought to camp, the underground network found ways of mining them for information. Japanese newspapers appeared in camp every now and then, and the prisoners were quick to steal them and get them to American translators. One of these men was a twenty-five-year-old Marine officer named William Harris, who would become one of Louie’s closest friends and an important cog in the resistance wheel. 

William Harris’s skills would serve as both a salvation and curse for the men at Ofuna. He was part of a downed mission in Japanese territory and had managed to escape. He made a run for China, stalking through the woods and consuming ants to survive. He was close to the Chinese border when he was discovered by Japanese civilians and turned in to authorities. 

5. The Bird

The Bird is one of the characters in Unbroken that had a negative affect on Louis’s life. The Bird was responsible for the cruelty Louis faced in the prison camp. Omori was on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay connected to the main city by a bamboo-slat bridge. Watanabe had arrived in winter 1943 and soon became one of the most feared guards in the country. His tactics were so ferocious, Omori became known as “punishment camp.” The prisoners had many names for Watanabe, but the one used the most was “the Bird.” 

Watanabe was from an affluent, privileged family. He studied French literature at university and moved to Tokyo to work in a newsroom after graduating in 1942. When Japan went to war, he quit his job and enlisted. Watanabe’s sights were set on becoming an officer, like his brother, and felt his privilege and education made him a certain candidate. But he was passed over for promotions and told he would never move beyond corporal. That decision would be the catalyst for the suffering of hundreds of men in the years to come.

After the war, The Bird went into hiding, and later faked his own death to avoid living life as a figitive. In 1995, at the age of 77, Watanabe opened up to a London reporter about his past. He told the reporter he wanted to apologize to the POWs. He said he’d been acting under direct orders and had just been trying to promote discipline. He denied using anything but his fists to punish them. 

6. Cynthia Zamperini

One of the Unbroken book characters that appears later is Louis’s wife, Cynthia. One spring night in Miami Beach, as Louie drank at the bar, a beautiful blonde entered and stole his heart. He would later tell his sister that after seeing her, he knew she would be his wife. Her name was Cynthia Applewhite, and she was the 20-year-old daughter of a wealthy, upscale family. 

Cynthia told Louie about seeing the newsreel about his NCAA championship race in 1938, when the other racers had spiked his legs. She’d never forgotten that story. She was smitten, and within two weeks, she and Louie were engaged. 

Toward the end of 1946, Cynthia would learn just how deep Louie’s pain ran. The couple was having dinner in Hollywood with Phil, Fred Garrett, and their wives. It was the first time Louie and Phil had seen each other since Phil’s departure from Ofuna in 1944. 

By 1949 Cynthia and Louie were living separate lives in the same apartment as a result of his drinking and behavior. She was still planning on filing for a divorce, but after she attended Graham’s sermon, she came home and told Louie the divorce was off. She’d had a religious awakening, and she wanted Louie to come next time to experience it. After much persistence, Louie finally agreed to go. In time, they healed their relationship and worked to live a happy life. She’s one of the characters in Unbroken that helps him move on and live a healthy and happy life.

All of the Unbroken characters had an important role in the story. Think about how all of the Unbroken characters knew Louis, and how they influenced him, and whether that influence was positive or negative.

6 Unbroken Characters You Should Know

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Unbroken summary:

  • How Louie Zamperini was on track to become an Olympic athlete until the war started
  • The unbelievable story of his capture as a prisoner of war
  • The ultimate fate of Louie and his captors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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