This Independence Day is a fitting occasion to marvel at the Founding Fathers' indispensable contributions to not just the nation they created but humanity itself.

Yet we need not look back 238 years to find inspiring Americans. And that group includes Louis Zamperini, whose long, admirable and extraordinarily full life ended Wednesday at age 97 in Los Angeles.

Born to Italian immigrants in Olean, N.Y., he ran into a few minor scrapes as a kid after they moved to California.

But he then ran into track stardom as "The Torrance Tornado" - and was a two-time NCAA champion in the mile for Southern Cal.

At age 18, he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he roomed with Jesse Owens. He even shook hands with Adolf Hitler, who called him the "boy with the fast finish."

Mr. Zamperini later waged war against Hitler's Japanese allies. Shot down over the Pacific while serving as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in 1943, he and a comrade drifted on a life raft (a third survivor of the initial crash died) for 47 days in shark-infested waters before being captured. The U.S. government, in a letter signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, mistakenly informed Mr. Zamperini's parents that he had been killed.

Yet he was still alive, albeit barely, while enduring inhuman torture from the Japanese during more than two years as a prisoner of war. His two-volume memoir, "Devil at My Heels," includes a chilling account of that protracted ordeal.

The incredible story is also recounted in "Unbroken," a Laura Hillenbrand book that's the basis for a movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, due for release late this year.

After finally getting home to the Golden State in 1945, Mr. Zamperini suffered for several years from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually, with the help of the Rev. Billy Graham and others, he regained his bearings through a deep commitment to Christianity.

He even got over his bitterness toward his Japanese tormentors. As Mr. Zamperini put it in his book: "I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate somebody, you're not hurting the person you hate, you're hurting yourself. It's a healing, actually, it's a real healing - forgiveness."

That healing was so complete that Mr. Zamperini became one of the runners carrying the Olympic torch through Nagano, Japan, at the start of the 1998 Winter Games - on his 81st birthday. He also skateboarded until age 81 - and skied until 91.

Louis Zamperini's very American life leaves an uplifting, instructive legacy of resilience - and the healing powers of forgiveness.