Louis Zamperini deserves Congressional Gold Medal, lawmaker says
The Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to an eclectic assortment of figures, including Charles Lindbergh and Walt Disney. Now, a Texas congressman is seeking to present the nation's highest civilian honor to 94-year-old Louis Zamperini, a World War II hero from Los Angeles who survived 47 days in a life raft in the Pacific and beatings from his Japanese captors.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican, introduced the legislation after reading about Zamperini in Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption." McCaul must line up at least two-thirds of the House as co-sponsors for the measure to be considered.
The bill seeks to award the medal to Zamperini, a Hollywood Hills resident who will turn 95 in January, for "his service to the country, sacrifice during the war, and his inspiration to others through his courage as a survivor."
Zamperini was a miler at Torrance High School and USC, setting an NCAA record of 4 minutes 8.3 seconds that stood for 15 years, and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Although he finished eighth in the 5,000 meters, his final lap of 56 seconds caught Adolf Hitler’s attention. He also drew attention for snatching a Nazi flag from the Reich chancellery during the Games.
During the war, after his plane crashed and after surviving 47 days at sea, he was captured by the Japanese and beaten frequently and fed a near-starvation diet during his more than two years in prisoner-of-war camps.
After the war, he drank heavily and suffered from nightmares and marital problems. One day he attended a Billy Graham rally, and he credited the evangelist for turning his life around, leading him to forgive his captors.
After returning home, Zamperini "overcame severe post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a prisoner of war to dedicate his life to inspiring others and being an example for other soldiers to follow," the legislation says.
Zamperini was not immediately available. But John Naber, a fellow Olympian and USC Trojan who has become a close friend of Zamperini, welcomed the idea of Congress honoring a "man who has inspired so many, by his personal example and testimony."
"Louis has endured unbelievable challenges, and he has triumphed over all sorts of adversity, mostly in the absence of spectators," Naber said. "His message of hardiness, seasoned with preparation and coupled with forgiveness has changed -- and continues to change -- people around the country."
Zamperini Field, the Torrance airport, is named after him, as is "Louis Zamperini Plaza," the entrance to USC’s track stadium. In January, he will receive the 2012 NCAA Inspiration Award at the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis, presented to "people who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome or deal with the event."
President Obama recently signed legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the first black Marines for their service during World War II in the face of discrimination, the so-called Montford Point Marines, named after the segregated North Carolina camp where they underwent training.
-- Richard Simon in Washington
Photo: Louis Zamperini. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times