Laura Hillenbrand deserves a book of her own. She meticulously researches historical events and creates compelling narratives that take you there. It’s creative genius, if you ask me.
When she finished “Seabiscuit” she ran across the unbelievable story of miscreant turned Olympian turned World War II hero, Louis Zamperini. The tale was so sweeping that she would spend the next seven years doing detailed research to confirm it.
She interviewed Louis, interviewed witnesses, plowed through endless records, checked and double checked. She was suspicious of any detail that would burst the bubble and show Louis to be a fantastic liar. She doubted everything, verified everything.
In the end Louis’ story, “Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” was confirmed to the minutest detail. She never found a single lie but found Louis’ amazing memories to be accurate.
The fact that Laura dedicated seven years of her life to the project while suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome is a testament to her determination and scholarship. The book was published with fifty pages of corroborating footnotes.
Which brings us to four jaw-dropping paragraphs on page 167, right after a section detailing Louis’ intellectual acuity and far reaching memory.
On the fortieth day adrift in the vast Pacific after their bomber crashed, Louis heard singing.
Voices meant rescue! They were covered with the remains of a shot up raft to keep the sun off. Louis sat bolt upright, pulled back the canvas and stared at the horizon in all directions. There was nothing.
Until he looked up.
There, in a bright cloud, floated twenty one human figures, silhouetted against the sky – singing the most beautiful song he had ever heard.
Naturally, he was astonished. He felt absolutely clear headed. He had never hallucinated before. It didn’t feel like a dream or vision. He listened to the song and memorized the melody until they faded away.
Louis asked Phil, the pilot, if he had heard it. Phil hadn’t heard or seen anything. Everything was exactly as it had been. Louis hummed the song for days.
So, here’s the question. Was Louis Zamperini lying?
There was no need to tell the story. He had nothing to gain. He could have kept it to himself.
Laura Hillenbrand couldn’t verify what Louis saw since Phil saw and heard nothing. She had been able to verify everything else to the smallest degree. She could have left the story out of the book.
But there it is. Angels. Singing. Over the Pacific Ocean. In broad daylight.
So, either Louis Zamperini lied . . .
Or we live in a world where angels sing . . .
Over the Pacific Ocean . . .
Or a field where shepherds watched their flocks . . .
Photo: the ceiling of the entry to Marmorkirken by vitamindave via Flickr
Since writing this piece more than a year ago it has become one of my most read and searched posts. After watching the searches for months I began to wonder if people were looking for a way to disprove and discredit Louis’ story or Laura Hillenbrand’s work. I feel the need to repeat that Laura is an award-winning historical writer who lives and breathes research and that this book took seven years of her life to complete. Here is a paragraph from her acknowledgements:
“In opening his world to me, Louie could not have been more gracious. He sat through some seventy-five interviews, answering thousands of questions with neither impatience nor complaint. He was refreshingly honest, quick to confess his failures and correct a few embellished stories that journalists have written about him. And his memory was astounding; nearly every time I cross-checked his accounts of events against newspaper stories, official records, and other sources, his recollections proved accurate to the smallest detail, even when the events took place some eighty-five years ago.”
~ Laura Hillenbrand