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One of my regrets in a life that has been blessed with few of them is that I never met Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner, World War II Army Air Corps bombardier and prisoner of war survivor who died earlier this month at age 97.
In an era that has reduced the term “hero” to a triviality – applying it to everybody who joins the military or shows up for a government public safety job – he was one of the few who actually deserved the label.
I was “introduced” to him when I was a grade-school kid long ago. The youth Sunday school program at the church my family attended provided a weekly comic book (they were trying to be relevant to the stuff we read all week) that had Bible stories but also told about extraordinary people from our own century who were people of faith.
Zamperini’s story was told in little segments each week – of him getting into trouble as a kid, but then discovering track and being so brilliant at it that he made it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. They told of him, during the war, setting out on a rescue mission in a lemon of a plane and not only surviving the inevitable crash but 47 days drifting in a rubber raft on the Pacific, somehow getting by on rain water, birds and a few fish.
After all that, he was captured by the Japanese as soon as he and a fellow crew member made it to land, and then endured two years of beatings and torture while on a starvation ration of food. Finally, after coming home, he went broke, became an alcoholic and an abusive spouse thanks to what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, then was transformed when he converted to Christianity at a Billy Graham rally. He spent much of the rest of his life working with young boys who were as delinquent as he had been.
It was that last part that, while inspiring, was a mystery to me. I really wanted to hear from him how a guy whose supreme athletic gifts and the prime years of his life were stolen by a war and inhumanly brutal treatment could not only be happy but also forgive his tormenters.
Sure, Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who tortured and killed him, but in my juvenile mind that was different. He was the Son of God, with powers of perception and strength that dwarfed normal mortals. If those prison guards had killed Zamperini, he wasn’t going to be rising from the dead.
I did mature enough by the time I was trying to be a runner myself in high school to view him as a hero not only for what he endured but what he forgave. I knew his was an example I should follow.
What impressed me most was his humility. Yes, he’d received a hero’s welcome when he returned from the war, along with a number of honors and awards. The athletic stadium at his hometown high school is named for him.
But he didn’t trade on his heroism. He never sought much publicity. In general, he was too busy helping troubled kids than to spend time reminding everybody what a hero he was.
And, best I knew, he seemed content to let his fame subside. Occasionally, when World War II conversations would come up, I would ask friends or acquaintances if they recognized his name. Most often, I got a blank stare.
Fortunately, that has changed and will probably change a lot more by the end of the year. Laura Hillenbrand, the celebrated author of “Seabiscuit,” told Zamperini’s story brilliantly in “Unbroken” four years ago. And now, the actress/director Angelina Jolie is completing a movie based on the book that will arrive in theaters just before Christmas.
I have hopes that the movie will dwell on more than his running and World War II survival, although both of those are compelling enough. A touching interview earlier this year with Zamperini and Jolie, which displayed her obvious admiration for him, gives reason to hope that she wants to cover the whole story that, as it says the cover of Hillenbrand’s book, includes not only survival but also redemption.
Faith is not in fashion these days, unless it is one that doesn’t believe in anything and accepts everything. It is caricatured as little more than a society of bigots who are trying to impose their beliefs on everybody else.
Yes, sometimes people of faith say judgmental and insensitive things. Who doesn’t? But, far more often, it is faith that transforms lives for the better.
Zamperini, after all he survived, was destroying his family and his life until he was redeemed by faith. He told that to all who would listen for the rest of his life, without browbeating them. It gave him the power to forgive and to love even the worst of his abusers.
And it left him a happy man, truly at peace. Check just about any interview with him – there are plenty on YouTube – and his optimism and forgiving spirit are obvious.
That is true heroism. It is also a rare thing, and we all are blessed that Louis Zamperini survived to demonstrate it in a long and inspiring life.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org