Inspiration to overcome life’s biggest hurdles can be discovered in books like Unbroken. Published in 2010 by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, Unbroken is the courageous true story of Louis Zamperini. Audiences raced into the World War II tale of a former distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics who’s commissioned into the U.S. Army Air Forces. When his plane suffers mechanical difficulties and crashes into the Pacific Ocean, Zamperini is left drifting on a raft for 47 days. Reaching the Marshall Islands leads him to further suffering as a Japanese prisoner of war for two-plus years. Zamperini’s fight for survival resonated with many readers, who kept the biography at #1 on The New York Times best-seller list for 14 weeks.
Acclaim for the Los Angeles Times’ Book Prize winner grew when the film premiered on Christmas Day 2014 with star Jack O’Connell and grossed $163 million worldwide. Moviegoers still emotionally engrossed by Zamperini’s will to survive often enjoy reading other books like Unbroken. The nonfiction genre is overflowing with well-written, historical pieces that recount people’s resilience against seemingly insurmountable odds. Books like Unbroken take readers to dark places, such as war, abuse, and slavery, to capture the human spirit’s ability to withstand and conquer adversity. These real-life reads also portray the power of amnesty as Zamperini forgave “the Bird,” his sadistic guard. Find more white-knuckle, gripping stories about fortitude with the following 30 books like Unbroken.
#1 – A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II
Adam Makos and Larry Alexander
Military historians Makos and Alexander transport readers back to 1943 Germany. Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown’s B-17 Flying Fortress is left severely damaged after a bombing in Bremen. A Messerschmitt fighter controlled by German ace Franz Stigler looms closer. But instead of hitting the trigger, Franz makes the unlikely, heroic decision to allow Charlie’s return to England.
#2 – Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II
Louis Zamperini himself brings readers one of the best books like Unbroken, Devil at My Heels. Here he recounts firsthand his extraordinary journey from a world-class NCAA miler to Word War II bombardier and POW. Despite being declared dead by the Army Air Corps, Zamperini tenaciously endured years of torture and forced slave labor to return home.
#3 – The Thin Red Line
With a foreword by Francine Prose, The Thin Red Line was published in 1962 to provide James Jones’ firsthand account of World War II’s brutal Guadalcanal Campaign. As a member of the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Regiment, he realistically portrays the Battle of Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse, and the Sea Horse. With gruesome imagery, Jones shows the thin line between the living and dead on the battlefield.
#4 – Code Name Verity
Unlike most books like Unbroken, Code Name Verity is a historical fiction piece taking place in 1943 Nazi-occupied France. Two best friends, Kittyhawk and Verity, flying a British spy plane over Ormaie crash. Verity is arrested by the Gestapo and forced to reveal her mission or be executed. She intricately writes a confession detailing British efforts and her close friendship with Kittyhawk, but will it be enough to save her?
#5 – Operation Mincemeat
London Times writer-at-large Ben Macintyre shaped this true story about the most successful World War II deception. In 1943, two RAF intelligence officers conceived a bizarre plan to let a dead body wash up on the Spanish coast. The goal was to hoodwink Nazis into thinking Allied powers would invade Southern Europe from Greece or Sardinia, not Sicily. Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu’s ruse ultimately leads to Allied victory.
#6 – The Boys in the Boat
Daniel James Brown
Louis Zamperini certainly wasn’t the only success story at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. From the despair of the Great Depression rose nine working-class boys striving for Gold. At the University of Washington, the sons of farmers and loggers trained for crew competition. Against great odds, the boys defeated favored teams from the East Coast and Great Britain. Brown compiles the boys’ vivid memories into an unforgettable story of endurance.
#7 – Flags of Our Fathers
James Bradley and Ron Powers
Adapted for the big screen like many books like Unbroken, Flags of Our Fathers centers on the 1945 Battle of Iowa Jima, the most horrifying fight of WWII’s Pacific Theater. Its pages plunge readers into the personal stories of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman who ultimately raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. End chapters also detail the aftereffects of Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
#8 – Escape From Davao
John D. Lukacs
Escape From Davao is filmmaker John D. Lukacs’ debut, 448-page novel about the rarely discussed story of WWII’s boldest prison break. On April 4, 1943, 10 American and two Filipino POWs planned a successful getaway from Japan’s most notorious prison camp. From their capture at Bataan to their maltreatment behind bars, Lukacs captures the remarkable resilience and resourcefulness of soldiers fighting in the Pacific.
#9 – Hart’s War
Penned by the best-selling author of The Analyst in 2000, Hart’s War is a World War II thriller focused on Second Lieutenant Tommy Hart. He’s the ill-fated navigator of a B-25 shot from the sky by German enemies. Captured in 1942, Hart becomes a POW in Bavaria’s Stalag Luft 13 camp. When Lincoln Scott, a Black Tuskegee airman, is targeted for a fellow prisoner’s murder, Hart courageously steps up in the soldier’s defense.
#10 – In the Kingdom of Ice
In the Kingdom of Ice is the spell-binding, heroic tale of Captain George Washington De Long’s crew aboard the USS Jeanette. On July 28, 1879, the 33 men leave San Francisco behind for the Arctic Ocean with hopes of reaching the North Pole first. Yet two years later, the ship sinks after breaching ice. How will the men survive being abandoned a thousand miles north of Siberia?
#11 – They Shall Not Have Me
French modernist painter Jean Hélion wrote They Shall Not Have Me to vividly depict the fear and danger of being imprisoned under the Nazi regime. Hélion’s infantry platoon is unable to outrun the German army, leading to his placement in a concentration camp. He candidly shares the inhumane, barbaric conditions in which he lived for 20 months before making a daring escape in 1943.
#12 – Helmet for My Pillow
Helmet for My Pillow is Robert Leckie’s autobiographical account of World War II that was transformed into an HBO miniseries, The Pacific. In January 1942 after Pearl Harbor, Leckie enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. From basic training on Parris Island to brutal combat on Guadalcanal, he shares the horrors of war while detailing the reasons why soldiers bravely entered the battlefield to defend America.
#13 – Empire of the Sun
Awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Empire of the Sun is a 1984 fiction novel based on J.G. Ballard’s personal experience in World War II. Jamie Graham, a young Brit, lives in the Shanghai International Settlement when its occupied by Japan after Pearl Harbor. Stranded from his parents and starving, Jamie surrenders and is interned at Lunghua. The coming-of-age, survival story shares every ghastly detail, including the bombing of Nagasaki.
#14 – Lost in Shangri-la
Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff wrote another of the Greatest Generation nonfiction books like Unbroken in 2011. Near the end of World War II, a U.S. military airplane deemed “The Gremlin Special” crashes into the dense New Guinea jungle. Only a Women’s Army Corps member, young lieutenant, and severely wounded sergeant survive. Read of their stunning efforts to fight off the cannibalistic Dani tribe and be rescued.
#15 – Matterhorn
Instead of World War II, Matterhorn presents an epic, visceral story about the tragedies of the Vietnam War. Waino Mellas, a young Marine lieutenant, is dropped with the Bravo Company into lush mountain jungle. The men find themselves battling both North Vietnamese guerrillas and perilous monsoon conditions. Almost as daunting, they also face racial tension and competition in their own ranks. For 30 years, Karl Marlantes compiled this powerful parable on the all-consuming terror of war.
#16 – The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy
Judith L. Pearson
Judith L. Pearson brings light to a patriotic story ignored for decades. Virginia Hall, a Baltimore-born Foreign Service officer, was assigned to France when Hitler invaded in 1940. She helped lead the Resistance movement and attracted the dangerous attention of the Gestapo. Despite one close escape, Virginia returned to France in disguise. Here the courageous spy captured over 500 Germans and sabotaged Nazi transport.
#17 – All the Light We Cannot See
Often compared to Unbroken, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII novel centers on Marie Laure, a blind, 14-year-old French girl. When her locksmith father vanishes from Nazi-occupied Paris, Marie flees to her great-uncle’s citadel of Saint-Malo. But in the countryside, she meets Werner, a German orphan belonging to Hitler Youth. Through their intertwined yarns, Doerr paints a sweeping portrait of life and survival in war-torn France.
#18 – Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Featuring an introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, Endurance is a nonfiction tale about Ernest Shackleton, a polar explorer. In August 1914, his crew of 27 men sails for Antarctica to cross the globe’s most mysterious continent. After traveling thousands of miles, the ship becomes moored in thick ice floes. Thus Shackleton begins the unlikely, 850-mile journey to the nearest outpost in South Georgia by lifeboat.
#19 – Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
Published in 2003, Flyboys is a best-selling, nonfiction book like Unbroken that tells the harrowing truth of what happened in an undisclosed World War II incident. Nine American airmen flying raids over Japan are shot down on Chichijima within the Ogasawara archipelago. Brutally graphic passages follow as the POWs are tortured, killed, and subjected to cannibalism. The sole escapee, Lieutenant George H.W. Bush, would later become the 41st President.
#20 – Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life
Motivation abounds in Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, another of Louis Zamperini’s books like Unbroken. Just two days before his death at 97, Zamperini finished writing the lessons he’s learned through his perils. Born in California, the 1936 Olympian survived unthinkable abuse and psychological torture as a Japanese POW. Learn how Zamperini found redemption and spiritual rebirth in 1949 for a long, happy life.
#21 – Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission
Ghost Soldiers tells the little-known, woeful stories of American soldiers captured by the Japanese in the Philippines during the Bataan Death March. On January 28, 1945, hand-selected Army Rangers among Douglas MacArthur’s forces hatch an enormously brave plan to liberate 513 surviving POWs. Hampton Sides depicts their high-stakes, 30-mile rescue mission to the Allied prison camp at Cabanatuan.
#22 – Band of Brothers
Stephen E. Ambrose
Ranked #1 for military history on Amazon, Band of Brothers shares the iconic story of ordinary citizen soldiers who organized into the extraordinary Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The E Company became instrumental from parachuting into France on D-Day to holding the line at Battle of the Bulge and capturing Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Through each perilous mission, the men learned selflessness and discovered an indestructible bond.
#23 – The Zookeeper’s Wife
Adapted into a film with Jessica Chastain for 2017, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an Orion Book Award-winning drama based on the diary of Antonina Źabińska. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 to begin World War II, her husband Jan’s zoo was destroyed. Yet in secret, Antonina courageously joined the Polish underground resistance and used the former zoo to help at least 300 Jews escape the Warsaw Ghetto.
#24 – Beautiful Hero: How We Survived the Khmer Rouge
Told from the daughter’s perspective, Beautiful Hero is a death-defying saga about a family of eight caught within Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. As over 2 million Cambodians fell victim to genocide, the Laus fight for their lives with only half a canteen of water. Meiyeng, their shrewd, resilient mother, shepherds the family through starvation, sickness, and slavery for freedom in America.
#25 – American Boys
For fans of books like Unbroken, American Boys is a National Indie Excellence Award winner that unearths a story sunk 1,100 fathoms below the South China Sea. On June 3, 1969, the USS Frank E. Evans is rammed and throttled into oblivion. The obscure collision tragically killed 74 Americans, including three brothers from small-town Nebraska. Louise Esola highlights history’s shattering injustice as these forgotten boys remain off the Vietnam Wall.
#26 – Given Up For Dead: American GIs in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga
Pulitzer Prize nominee Flint Whitlock poignantly crafted Given Up For Dead to tell the unknown story of American soldiers captured at the 1944 Battle of the Bulge. Around 350 POWs who were Jewish or from “undesirable” ethnicities were forced into slave labor at Berga. Whitlock combines firsthand accounts of how the men suffered beatings, disease, starvation, and mental cruelty until their miraculous rescue on April 3, 1945.
#27 – Mawson’s Will
Mawson’s Will is another of the dramatic books like Unbroken taking readers on a journey to the South Pole. In 1911, Sir Douglas Mawson set out to chart nearly 1,500 miles of Antarctic coastline for the British Crown. His crew of three trekked across glaciers for 320 miles until one companion fell into a crevasse with their equipment. Despite looming death, Mawson meticulously continues his scientific observations with unbreakable will.
#28 – Conduct Under Fire
John A. Glusman
At 636 pages, Conduct Under Fire is a massive, page-turning chronicle written from the perspective of John A. Glusman’s father, Murray. After the fall of Bataan, he and three fellow Navy doctors tended to the wounded and dying during some of WWII’s heaviest bombings. Then, they’re captured on Corregidor and faced with the horrors of prisoner life. The POWs come together as family to stay alive under conditions of mass death.
#29 – The Night Witches
Published in 1981, The Night Witches introduces World War II buffs to the young Soviet women who joined the fight against their homeland’s invaders. As Nazi hordes swept into Russia in 1941, three entire regiments of female pilots, including Lily Litvak, are created. Writer Bruce Myles compiled interviews for insight into these quietly determined volunteers’ stories. Also check out Anne Noggle’s A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.
#30 – 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness
In December 1943, five U.S. Army Aviators flew from Alaska’s Ladd Field for a routine test of their B-24 Liberator in Arctic cold. Soon the doomed plane crashes into the wilderness with one lone survivor, Leon Crane. Originally from Philadelphia, Crane is left lost and frigid with only an old Boy Scout knife for protection. 81 Days Below Zero recounts his remarkable 12-week journey toward rescue.
Searching for true tales of resilience that will warm your heart and drain your tear ducts? These top 30 books like Unbroken reassure readers that troubling times can reveal unexpected sources of strength and valor in themselves.
See also: 30 Great Novels About Survival