EDITOR’S NOTE: Emeritus Southern Baptist missionary Jesse L. Kidd, who served for many years in Brazil with his wife Wilma, will turn 90 in September. But in 1944 he was 20, a soldier in the U.S. Army as World War II staggered toward a bloody end. “We were mostly just boys, only lately out of high school,” he writes. “We knew little about the meaning of life. We were about to start learning in the cruelest manner the meaning of death.” On a brutal march, Kidd also was about to meet an unexpected guide. Kidd’s reflection about his life-and-death experience In honor of his service and other members of the U.S. military on Memorial Day.
SAN ANGELO, Texas (BP) — World War II was raging in Europe and all over the Orient. In March 1944, my turn came to enter training for military service.
In November that year, we boarded a troop ship in Los Angeles. Thirty-three days later we landed in Bombay, India. A year and a half later we boarded a troop ship in Shanghai, China, to return to the United States.
Most of what happened between those dates I have tried hard to forget. What is written here is worth remembering.
In Bombay we boarded a troop train and traveled to Ledo in the northeast corner of India near the border of Burma (now Myanmar).
From Ledo we traveled by truck convoy to Myitkyina near the center of Burma. On Dec. 25, 1944, we ate Christmas dinner standing at hastily built tables made of bamboo.
The next day we started the longest march of any Army outfit during World War II. Our objective was to recapture the Burma Road from Japan so that badly needed supplies could flow through to China.
On the day we started our march, we were ordered to throw away everything not absolutely necessary for the march. I was about to toss a little New Testament on the pile of discarded things when a Chinese soldier standing nearby said, “Soldier, don’t throw that away. You are going to need it.”
Surprised, I asked how he learned to speak English and how he knew about the Bible. He said that he had attended a school in China run by missionaries from the United States.
I kept the New Testament. He was right. I would need it.
There are not many of us left to tell the story. We were mostly just boys, only lately out of high school. We knew little about the meaning of life. We were about to start learning in the cruelest manner the meaning of death. We would wrap our dead in their GI blankets and bury them in shallow graves. There was no time for mourning. We would grieve later.
For now: Keep moving. Keep your eyes open. Keep your attention focused. Behind enemy lines there is no time for grief, hunger, homesickness. And you do not get tired.
Our supplies were dropped from planes by parachute. Sometimes the enemy beat us to the place of the airdrop.
When our mission in Burma was finally accomplished we were flown over the “hump” into China. Gen. Chiang Kai-shek had decreed that no foreign troops would fight on China’s soil to liberate China from Japan. Our task would be to teach the Chinese troops how to use American weapons.
First we were to rest and recover from the months of fighting in Burma. We were camped near the city of Kunming in southwest China. Japan had lost Burma and now they began pushing harder than ever to take over all of China.
Our rest was cut short, too short. We were moved into central China to help deliver supplies to the Chinese troops. An airport near Chinkiang was enlarged to take care of the heavy traffic.
We were working 24/7 to unload the incoming planes. They carried everything from the nuts and bolts of war to pack mules and mule feed.
Orders came to evacuate. Japan was pushing hard and gaining rapidly. We were ordered to move out immediately.
Retreat, withdraw! From the American soldier’s point of view, nothing in our training had prepared us for retreat. Not since we entered Burma had we retreated one foot. Now in China we were being ordered to retreat.
Our officers told us that any who dropped out of the march would be left behind. If they fell into enemy hands they would be tortured and executed without mercy.
About mid-afternoon I could not go on. I crept into some thick bushes to hide. I must have passed out. I was not the typical robust infantry soldier. Still not fully recovered from the long, hard fight in Burma, this march was too much.
I am not sure how long I had been in those thick bushes when I became conscious that someone was prodding me into awareness. It was an old Chinese man. He wore a long, gray robe. This indicated that he was not of the laboring class.
He had a pronounced curvature of his spine and walked with the aid of a long, wooden staff. He motioned for me to get up and follow him. He had me take hold of his staff with him. He picked up my heavy infantry pack and started slowly down the road.
It was almost dark when, about five hours later, we reached the old ancestral temple where the other soldiers were making camp. I offered to pay him but he refused my money. I decided to share some of my food ration with him. I turned to open my pack. When I turned back to my rescuer, he was gone.
In the years that have come and gone, I have come to think of my rescuer as God’s angel sent to aid me.
“The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear him and delivers them.” Psalm 34:7.
“In all their afflictions he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them.” Isaiah 63:9.
There was no reason for a man of his status to be out on the road on a tumultuous day of war. The years have not dimmed my memory of this event. I had walked with the “angel of his presence.” He carried my heavy pack.
Jesse L. Kidd is an emeritus missionary with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board who lives in San Angelo, Texas. Reprinted courtesy of the San Angelo Standard Times.