Study Guide

Louis "Louie" Silvie Zamperini in Unbroken

By Laura Hillenbrand

Louis "Louie" Silvie Zamperini

Catch Him If You Can

Louie is the hero of the story. He's the guy who almost breaks the four-minute mile, gets swept up by World War II, shot down in the Pacific, punches sharks in the face, survives numerous POW camps, lives, goes home, marries, and finds God. Through it all, he remains… say it with us… unbroken.

We spend a lot of time with Louie as a young boy, before the war starts. He's resourceful and fast-thinking, and he grew up in Torrance, California, just like Dirk Diggler. The childhood scenes—and the fact that most of Louie's childhood stories end with "and then I ran like mad" (1.1.17)—serve to show us how tenacious he is. The kid who never gives up grows into a man who can push through anything.

Even without the war stuff, Louie goes through quite the transformation in his boyhood. Like Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Louie goes from "his hometown's resident archvillain [to] superstar" (1.3.3), and like Robert Downey, Jr., he is sometimes called "Iron Man" (1.3.3). He's also called the "Torrance Tempest" and the "Torrance Tornado," and he's the "youngest distance runner to ever make the team" (1.3.33) in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, He even gets to meet Hitler, who calls him "the boy with the fast finish" (1.4.27).

(We realize getting a compliment from Hitler is like a memoirist getting a blurb from James Frey, but it's neat how Louie plays a Forrest Gump-like role in world history before the war.)

Fear of Flying

When Louie is young, "He wanted nothing to do with airplanes" (1.1.22)—which is a sure sign that he will have something to do with airplanes. Sure enough, despite being "jittery and dogged by airsickness" (1.5.23), Louie is made a bombardier. In other words, he's the guy who drops the bombs and gets to shout the classic phrase bombs away.

Louie is skilled at hitting his targets and playing pranks on his friends during down time, like when he clogs a crewmate's "piss pipe" (2.7.10) with a wad of chewing gum.

Remember the resourcefulness we talked about? Well, it doesn't just come in handy for pulling pranks. During one close landing in the Super Man, Louie manages to splice cables together, tie all the men down, tend to wounds, and ready a parachute, all as their plane is practically flying upside down. It's too bad that the Green Hornet isn't as resilient as Louie is.

Lost at Sea

Louie's perseverance and resourcefulness shine when the Green Hornet goes down. Adrift on a raft with Mac and Phil, the only other surviving crewmen, Louie manages to keep them all alive. He kills an albatross and makes it into bait; he fashions Wolverine-like claws out of fishhooks; and he doesn't resort to cannibalism, even if Mac does start looking like a McDonald's dinner.

Unfortunately though, he can't keep Mac alive, and Louie has a harrowing near-death experience of his own. By harrowing we mean kind of nice: "He saw human figures, silhouetted against the sky. He counted twenty-one of them" (3.16.45). They are singing, and Louie swears he's not hallucinating, even though Phil doesn't hear or see them. Louie will hear them again later in the first POW camp he is imprisoned in, and this vision plays a part in his acceptance of Christianity after returning from the war.

Radio Found the WWII Star

Other places perseverance and resourcefulness come in handy: high school, Survivor, Japanese POW camps. After forty-six days at sea, Louie and Phil are rescued. Well, we should really say captured, because the two men are shipped to a POW camp, the first of several they will be shuffled between over the next two years.

The conditions are pretty terrible (see our analysis of suffering in the "Themes" section for a taste), and to make matters worse, Louie is dogged by Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a sadistic corporal who makes the Marquis de Sade look like a fun-loving Ellen DeGeneres. The Bird does all he can to break Louie, but Louie remains—all together now—unbroken.

Louie's strong morals shine through, even at his lowest moments. When Louie is able to send his family a message on Radio Tokyo, it validates their hopes that he's still alive. But when the radio men try to strike a bargain with Louie by offering to feed him if he'll read messages they wrote, he refuses to be a propaganda tool.

Dead Man Limping

Louie survives two years of being in various POW camps, even though everyone else thinks he's dead. He's even told "Zamperini's dead" (4.33.11) at a clinic and has to prove his identity with the contents of his wallet. He quickly returns to what he knows best: being a WWII-era Ashton Kutcher and punking a track and field recruiter who thought he was dead.

Although Louie is thrilled to be alive and home, he has no direction in life. He injures his ankle and knee doing manual labor for the Bird, and thinks, "I'll never run again" (4.33.23), so after the war, Louie's lost and… well, we almost said broken, but from the title we know that he's not broken. But he's close. Cracked. Almost shattered. Think of some more synonyms for us, guys.

The term PTSD didn't exist in the 1940s, but that's what Louie is going through. He sees the Bird "lurking in his dreams" (5.34.16) and plots ways to exact his revenge against him. Ironically, this obsession merely keeps Louie feeling like a victim of torment: "The paradox of human vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer" (5.37.16). In other words, hatred hurts the person who holds it in their heart.

Eventually, Louie gets married, has a child, finds God through Billy Graham, and realizes "I am a good man" (5.38.25). He has been drinking heavily for years at this point, but he dumps it all out on the evening he prays in Billy Graham's tent. Later Louie returns to Japan and forgives the men who abused him, even the Bird, with "a radiant smile on his face" (5.39.18). Yup—this dude is definitely unbroken.

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