5 Unbroken Themes From the Amazing True Story

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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What are the most important Unbroken themes? What do they tell you about Louis Zamperini and his story?

There are many important Unbroken themes to consider. In particular, Louis’s resilience and strength are major Unbroken themes that run throughout the book. Read the five themes and examples below.

Unbroken Themes

The major Unbroken themes we’ll go over are perseverance, dignity, forgiveness, war, and faith. Read about each one below and how Louis and others exemplified these themes.

1. Perseverance

One of the Unbroken themes, perseverance, is exemplified by William Harris, an officer Louis met at Omori. Despite horrible circumstances, William acted as a leader to other American soldiers and even attempted to escape. William was a large man, standing at 6’3”, was an actual genius, spoke five languages, and had a photographic memory. He and Louis met one day during forced exercise and formed an instant bond. Louis had not had a real comrade since Phil was taken to a different part of the camp on arrival. The two set their minds to finding more ways to subvert their captors. 

William created a Japanese-English dictionary on one of the rice paste journals to help men decipher the newspapers. Louis also stole newspapers when no one was looking and took them to William, who would look at a map, memorize it, and recreate it on a scrap of paper. Through these tactics, the prisoners learned that the allies were winning the war, which helped inspire them and give them hope for rescue. But that hope came with a weighty fear. 

All over Japan, thousands of POWs were falling victim to the “kill order,” or the Japanese military policy to never allow prisoners to be recaptured by the allies. If an invasion was imminent, the guards were ordered to kill all the men. If the allies kept advancing, Louis and the others wondered if they’d survive long enough to see victory. 

2. Dignity

Another one of the biggest Unbroken themes is dignity, and trying to hold onto it. There are many instances in which Louis Zamperini and his friends showed extraordinary perseverance and resilience. One instance is when Louis refused to read a speech on the radio written by Japanese producers. Louis refused to be a propaganda tool, even though he knew the consequences of refusing could be death. Instead, Louis chose to hold onto his dignity.

Not long after the B-29 sighting, two radio producers from Tokyo’s propaganda station approached Louis about doing a broadcast. His official death notice had been printed in the United States, and they offered him a chance to reach out to his family and correct the wrong. Louis was dubious, but he said he’d do it as long as he didn’t have to read propaganda. 

Across the Pacific, a woman named Lynn Moody was working the graveyard shift at the Office of War Information in San Francisco. At 2:30 in the morning, a colleague asked her to fill in transcribing Japanese broadcasts while they took a break. Over the airwaves, Lynn heard a voice she knew. She’d been a USC graduate and friends with Louis. 

Lynn shouted with joy and typed up the transcript as fast as she could. A copy was mailed to the Zamperinis in Torrance, and the family finally had their answer. Louis was alive. Their jubilation was immense. 

Days later, the producers came back and said they wanted Louis to make another broadcast because of his lovely voice. This time, when Louis arrived, they handed him a speech they’d written. The speech was riddled with ridiculous American colloquialisms and ridiculed the American government for falsely declaring Louis dead. 

Louis was shocked and refused to read the speech. The producers tried to persuade him with a lavish American meal and a comfortable bedroom with a bed and clean sheets. If Louis gave the broadcast, he could live there and never see Omori again. But Louis was adamant that he would not become a propaganda tool for the enemy. Round and round they went, and the request quickly turned to threats. Still, Louis refused, and when he was sent back to Omori, the Bird was waiting for him.

The experience at the radio station gave Louis the answers he’d been looking for since Kwajalein. He’d always wondered why he was spared execution and transferred to Omori to live under the Bird’s thumb. Now he knew that the Japanese wanted to exploit his status as an Olympian to disparage the U.S. government to the American people and had delivered Louis to the Bird to be beaten into compliance. But Louis would never give in.

3. Forgiveness

Louis believed that forgiveness was necessary to move on from his past. He worked to forgive those who’d hurt him, including The Bird. Louis even wrote him a letter.

When the order to apprehend war criminals was lifted in 1952, Watanabe resurfaced. He was not dead. His mother had lied. As a free man, Watanabe moved to Tokyo, married, had two children, and became a successful businessman, making well into the millions of dollars. He saw himself as a victim of the war and the lifted order as proof of his innocence. 

In 1997, a producer from CBS called Watanabe about a profile he was doing on Louis Zamperini surrounding the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, in which Louis would be carrying the torch. Watanabe agreed to meet with him, but after the producer grilled him about his treatment of Louis, Watanabe became defensive. Still, when the producer asked if he would meet with Louis, Watanabe agreed. 

Across the ocean, the CBS producer told Louis the Bird was alive. Louis almost fell off his chair and said he wanted to see him without hesitation. Before his trip to Japan, Louis wrote the Bird a letter detailing his struggles after the war and his rebirth thanks to Billy Graham. Louis told the Bird he forgave him and hoped the Bird could find Christ. Louis took the letter with him on the day the two were to meet, but in the end, Watanabe refused to come. Whether or not Louis’s letter ever reached him is unclear. In 2003, Watanabe died. 

Forgiveness is one of the Unbroken themes that is explored later in the book, but it’s no less important to Louis’s story.

4. War

Since the book takes place during the war and it was one of Louis’s major life experiences, war and the toll of war is a major theme in the book. I

In early spring 1943, Louis’s crew was slated for another attack. This time, they’d be bombing a tiny island called Nauru, which sat 2,500 miles away from Hawaii. The island was home to immense stores of phosphate, which was an essential ingredient in munition creation. The Japanese had seized the island the previous summer, and Louis’s crew was meant to destroy the phosphate plants. The Super Man would first fly to the island of Funafuti, from where they would set off. 

On an April dawn, Super Man and twenty-two other planes left Funafuti for Nauru. The travel time was six and a half hours, and all men on Louis’s plane were silent throughout the ride. Super Man was in front, flanked by a bomber on each side. At first, the island seemed motionless, and Phil turned over control to the bombsight. Louis located his targets, but fire flared up in the sky around them. The two planes flanking Super Man were shot down, leaving Louis’s plane exposed. 

Super Man took a hit, and a chunk of the plane’s right rudder flew off. Louis was finally able to reclaim control and dropped his bombs on three different targets. His final drop was over a fuel depot, and the explosion destroyed the supply.

Phil turned Super Man around to head back, but Japanese aircraft surrounded them. Louis saw nine enemy planes from his location under the nose. Some of the planes passed by so close that Louis could see the faces of Japanese soldiers inside. The Super Man took enemy fire from every direction. Phil and Cuppernell pushed the plane back toward Funafuti, fighting the damaged plane and dodging enemy attacks the whole way. 

5. Faith

Later in his life, faith was extremely important to Louis Zamperini. He was able to make peace with his life and pain using his faith.

In late 1949, Billy Graham, a young unknown man at the time, came to Los Angeles and performed a miracle. He set up what would become a massive revival residency. In just a month, he went from having 2,000 attendants at his sermons to 10,000.

That first night, Louis became angry when Graham asked the congregation how long it had been since they’d prayed. The words poked at a dormant memory fighting to get out, and Louis felt cornered. At the next sermon, which Cynthia again persuaded him to attend, Graham said something that changed everything: “God works miracles one after another…. God says, ‘If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.” At those words, Louis’s mind woke up.

Louis saw the morning in the doldrums, when he was certain they’d been led there by divine intervention. He saw the wires entangling his body as the Green Hornet sank and waking to find them inexplicably fallen away. He saw the Japanese plane shooting at their rafts but not one of them hit. He saw the prison camps and all he’d endured. Then his mind landed on the memory scratching at the surface—praying in the raft and promising to serve God if he saved him. 

At that moment, Louis felt rain falling from the sky as he hunkered down in the raft. The flashback stopped, and he was suddenly filled with light. When they returned home, Louis threw out every bottle of alcohol and vice he’d used during the last years of despair. That night, he didn’t dream of the Bird. He would never have a flashback or dream of the Bird again. 

Understanding the Unbroken Themes

When considering these themes, it’s important to think about all the things Louis accomplished in his life, and how much energy he put into being a positive force in the world. never lost his charm, good nature, and zeal for life. His body remained strong, and in his 60s, he still hiked the mountain weekly and could clock a mile in under six minutes. In his 70s, he started skateboarding. At 85, he went on an expedition to find the bodies of the nine marines at Kwajalein, but it was unsuccessful. At 90, he was still skiing and climbing trees. 

Louis received many awards in his life, and his parents’ home was made a historic landmark. He carried the torch at five different Olympics, including one in Japan. Despite being declared dead in his 20s, Louis outlived his siblings and wife, the last of whom died in 2008. 

The Unbroken themes of perseverance, dignity, forgiveness, war, and faith can help you understand the book and Louis Zamperini’s story. Consider these Unbroken themes in the context of the book, as well as in your own life and other stories you’ve read.

5 Unbroken Themes From the Amazing True Story

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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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