Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Last Memorial Day I began to read a book by Laura Hillenbrand titled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Upon its release in 2010 it zoomed to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and was named the top book of 2010 by Time. Once I started it I could scarcely put it down. Hillenbrand skillfully relates the story of Louie Zamperini, who, I'm ashamed to admit, I had never heard of before.

Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent in the 1920s who transformed himself into a world famous Olympic class long distance runner in the 1930s. When war came Zamperini served as a bombardier in the Pacific. While doing search and rescue duty his plane went down and all but three of the eleven-man crew were lost. The survivors, including Zamperini, bobbed on a tiny raft in the Pacific for 47 days until they made landfall on an island held by the Japanese.

The account of how Louie and his pilot Russell Allen Phillips survived the ordeal (the third man died at sea) is astonishing, but their travails were just beginning. Once captured by the Japanese they were sent to one POW camp after another where they endured unimaginable hardship and brutality for two and a half years.

To give an indication of what it was like for these men I'll quote a passage from Hillenbrand's account:
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 the 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 of their fate.

In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese massacred all 5000 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.
Even those who survived and returned home were permanently disfigured, physically and emotionally, by their experience. It was horrific. Reading Hillenbrand's account I found myself asking over and over how civilized human beings could behave like this. It was the same question I had when reading about the "Rape of Nanking" in the 1930s, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were tortured and murdered by Japanese forces in the city of Nanking.

One might be inclined to attribute the Japanese soldiers' suppression of their humanity to their militaristic, racist, totalitarian society, but I think it goes deeper than that. To be sure, people often fall into cruelty when they believe they're racially and ethnically superior to others, but when racism is conjoined with a lack of belief in one's accountability to God it issues in something especially virulent, savage, and demonic. Contrarily, when people have been steeped in the teaching of Christ to love their enemies, to see others as loved by God, and to see themselves as accountable to God for how they treat others they'll be far less likely to submit to their basest hatreds, prejudices, and desires.

Cruelty and savagery lurk in every human heart. Take way the constraints imposed by belief in the Christian God, replace them with racism and militarism, and the awful horrors perpetrated by the German Gestapo and the Japanese military are what one should expect. In a world without God rape and genocide, torture and massacre, violate no moral law because there is no moral law. Nor are they criminal when it's the legal authorities who order the atrocities. Indeed, if the Axis powers had won the war the loathsome architects of these evils would have been feted as heroes. As it is many of the worst tormenters of the American POWs, as Hillenbrand tells us, never had to pay for their crimes.

Zamperini's amazing story doesn't end with his liberation from the camps. I suggest you buy the book and read it. The heroism and courage on display, not just by Zamperini but many, many others, including some Japanese who tried to do what they could to mitigate the POWs suffering, will inspire you.