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FIRST-PERSON: These were not professional soldiers

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–D-Day! I was born a decade after it happened, but it has been part of my life for about as long as I can remember.

Maybe that is partly because I was born into a military family — at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver. I occupied the maternity ward just a few months before President Eisenhower was admitted after his well-known coronary, which occurred while he was in Denver.

I read my first book on World War II at the age of 9. It was one in a series of books designed to get young people interested in history –- “We Were There! At the Battle of the Bulge.” I would later read many more of the “We Were There!” books, including one on D-Day. But nothing would compare with the beauty and power of Cornelius Ryan’s depiction in his award-winning volume, “The Longest Day.” June 6, 1944 was truly a very long day.

This came home to me years later when, as a seminary student, I came to work for a man at the Pepsi plant in Fort Worth, Texas. His name was Chuck Miller. I had no inkling the day he hired me, but Chuck eventually would become my father-in-law.

One day Chuck made some comments about having been in the war. It seems he had been a belly turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, and over time I wormed the whole story out of him. He joined the Army at age 16, even before America joined the conflict. Because of his small stature, he was a perfect fit for the cramped space of the turret gun in the plane.

Stationed in England, his crew would fly 35 missions, mostly over German targets, before his tour ended. If you know anything about the life expectancy of B-17 crews, you would know that few of them made it to 35 missions, especially those who were there as early as 1943. I guess Chuck was “lucky.”

He also was gutsy and tough. He had seven confirmed kills and five unconfirmed and more than once flew back to base covered with shattered glass from enemy fire on his turret. There were days he could not sit down on a chair due to the impact of enemy flak exploding right under his seat in the plane.

It is difficult for me to imagine what it would have been like to have been 18, perched on the under-belly of a plane filled with thousands of pounds of explosives, hundreds of miles into enemy territory, with a Messerschmitt ME-109 arching up from beneath, firing his eight machine guns right at me, and yet to hold my position and fire back, praying that I got him before he got me — and knowing that the lives of nine other men in my crew depended on me.

Nine men? Nine kids, more like it. Chuck once told me how the oldest man on his “Fortress,” the pilot, turned 23 just before the Normandy invasion. They called him “Pops.”

These men, and millions like them fighting around the world, were not bred to be professional soldiers. But America’s approach to war stands in contrast to other cultures’ approach. The Japanese general and admiral at Saipan committed suicide as an inspiration to their men before the American invasion.

Americans, when operating at the best of their heritage, have never seen war in that way. War is something that sometimes has to be done. As the often-irreverent but sometimes accurate comedian Dennis Miller said on his television program a few days ago, about every ten years you just have to go out and make an assault on evil in the world. In recent decades that lot has often fallen to America, since we are one of the nations in the world that still believes that. But we don’t love war. We do it as our duty — courageously, out of love for truth and justice, and out of devotion to family and country. Our desire is not for fame and glory in battle; our desire is to do the job, do it right, and then go home to our loved ones. Nine teenagers and a 23-year-old “Pops” are not the classical image of the warrior to be found in the more mercenary cultures.

The Longest Day? On June 6, 1944 my father-in-law flew five missions over Normandy as his crew provided air support for the million invading Allied soldiers and Marines. Starting before dawn, they literally flew non-stop back-and-forth until well into the wee hours of the next morning. It was a day when they flew as many missions as they normally flew in a month. A day that was a month long. I hope our memory of what they accomplished will also linger long. Thousands died that day. Over a quarter-million Americans would perish in the conflagration that was World War II in order to win peace for those at home, a peace purchased through the shedding of their blood on the beaches, hedge-rows, and fields of Normandy, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Anzio, and a thousand other places.

The Longest Day? June 6, 1944 was, perhaps, the Second Longest Day. The Longest Day was faced by another Man, long, long ago. He faced it, not with a million of his fellows, but alone. He faced that day also to give us victory, victory in a very different kind of conflict, but a war no less real, and a war that has left even more casualties across the entire globe than any conventional world combat. On that lonely battle ground that we call Golgotha He won for us peace with God and victory over the enemy through the shedding of His precious blood. We can, then, “reign on earth” with Him, since He was slain and by His blood He “ransomed a people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9-10). Let’s remember it every day.
Chad Owen Brand is associate professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Chad Owen Brand