In The News

22 Dec 2014

Unbroken: what makes some people more resilient than others?

“We hit the water nose down. The plane exploded. I felt like someone hit me in the forehead with a sledgehammer. Everything almost stood still for a moment. I looked around and the plane was completely blown apart.”

Louis Zamperini was talking to an interviewer on CBS in 1992. He died earlier this year at the age of 97, but his extraordinary survival story receives a big screen tribute this Christmas in Angelina Jolie’s biopic Unbroken.

A champion distance runner who competed at the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini joined the American Air Force at the outbreak of the second world war. In May 1943, his plane was shot down over the South Pacific, killing eight of the eleven crew and leaving Zamperini and two others stranded in a tiny life raft. Enduring shark attacks, a burst of machine gun fire from a passing Japanese bomber, and the loss of their friend Mac from starvation, Zamperini and pilot Russell Phillips held out for 47 days.

By the time they reached land in the Marshall Islands, both were too weak to stand. But their struggle had only just begun. They were picked up by a passing Japanese warship and transferred to various concentration camps, where they suffered sadistic beatings and threats of death on a daily basis until their release in August 1945.

As Zamperini recalled in the same interview for CBS, “They took great joy in telling us we were going to be executed. They would always go through the motions, gesturing with samurai swords and so forth. So every morning we woke up thinking, well this is it.”

Zamperini endured sustained physical and psychological trauma on a scale few of us can imagine. When he returned home he suffered from depression and persistent nightmares. But over time he forged a new career as a motivational speaker, touring the US promoting the power of forgiveness.

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