Last month, I had an opportunity to review Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Although the story is classified as a historical biography of Louis Zamperini, I can only imagine that the work is much more than that for his family as well as the families of other people whose lives intersected his extraordinary life.
If you are unfamiliar with Zamperini, he was a rebellious and undisciplined child who grew up to become a member of the 1936 Olympic team. He would have made the 1940 Olympic team too, but the outbreak of World War II changed his life, like the lives of all Olympians, forever.
During the war, he served as a lieutenant and bombardier aboard one of the hundreds of B-24 bombers commissioned by the Army Air Corps in the Pacific. His plane went down in 1943, sparking one of the most heroic survival stories in history, including his eventual capture by the Japanese.
At the end of the war, Zamperini returned home but landing in the United States was not the end of his story. Like many combat veterans and prisoners of war, he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, compounded by the knowledge that the physical punishment and torture he endured ensured that he would never be able to return to the sport that kept him grounded.
Zamperini was lost. And like some veterans, he turned to drinking to quiet the memories and nightmares that had become his life throughout much of the war. Eventually, he would find faith and a renewed resilience to overcome the gradual spiral into despair. And in doing so, crafted a legacy that, with the help of Hillenbrand, will be remembered for generations to come.
The importance of preserving a legacy for future generations.
Like many people, reading Unbroken prompted me to reflect on my own grandparents, all of whom lived through World War II.
My paternal grandmother grew up in Germany during the war before immigrating to the United States after meeting a U.S. Army Air Corps commander serving in the European theater. My maternal grandmother lived in a very different America than the one we know today while my grandfather had served in the Navy (before the war). While I could share stories about any of them, it was my maternal grandfather who came to mind most often while reading Zamperini’s story.
He wasn’t an Olympian or prisoner of war, but he did have struggles and successes throughout his life. And even though I had the benefit of living with him and my grandmother until I was 10, I sometimes find myself remiss at being able to share only a handful of notes and stories about him with my own children.
As someone who grew up during the Great Depression, he was surprisingly resilient. Unlike one of his brothers, he had told me once, he never stood in a soup line because he preferred to take any job that came along. So in addition to enlisting in the Navy, he took dozens of odd jobs. He set pins at a bowling alley, worked for the railroad, painted signs and barns, and was an engineer during the construction of Hoover Dam, among other things.
The point, sparing additional detail, is that his life left a legacy. And, even if only a portion of it is preserved, these bits and pieces might one day be the inspiration for another descendant to have faith in the face of adversity or the desire to reach for something greater, much like the Zamperini story has inspired others.
Or who knows? Maybe it will be our bits and pieces that will mean something, even if we mistakenly consider those stories trivial today. We don’t have to be a family historian or genealogist to appreciate that our individual legacies, whether we consciously know it or not, will eventually be woven into something bigger as interesting, inspiring, tragic, and romantic as any novel — whether we were people who scraped by during the Great Depression or Olympic champions.
Richard Becker is the CTO of Celebrating Legacy and president of Copywrite, Ink. He is a creative strategist and writer who has made dozens of contributions to companies, government agencies, and communities for more than two decades. His byline has also appeared in the Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, and several publications by Simon & Schuster, among others.