[SLIDESHOW=46454,46453,46452]EDITOR’S NOTE: Veterans Day is Nov. 11.
MCALESTER, Okla. (BP) — Claude Stokes guessed he had about 15 seconds to decide how he was going to die.
It was 1944, and the 20-year-old tank commander was lying face-down in a ditch in the middle of a firefight in central Italy when he heard something sizzling. Claude looked up to see a German artillery shell sticking out of the mud about six inches from his head. Since the shell didn’t explode on impact, he had a choice: stay put to hope for a dud or run for it through a cloud of German machine gun and mortar fire.
Though he wasn’t yet a Christian, 73 years later Claude looks back at that day and sees providence, not coincidence. He believes God spared his life so that he could be used to help others hear the Gospel during more than half-century of service as a deacon at First Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla.
“Polish workers were known for sabotaging ammunition in German factories,” Claude recounted. “Today, I thank some Polish person for making that shell a dud.” It was one of many brushes with death that Claude and his twin brother Clyde would experience during World War II.
At age 19, the Stokes brothers volunteered for the Army, trading the family farm’s tractor for an M-10 tank they nicknamed the “Oklahoma Wildcat.” Claude was the tank’s commander and Clyde its driver. A personal letter from President Roosevelt — in response to an appeal from their father — allowed Claude and Clyde to serve together throughout the war, and their adventures in the Oklahoma Wildcat made them celebrities in news dispatches from the war’s front lines.
But it was their courage on the battlefield that made them heroes.
“This one here is a Silver Star, that’s the third-highest award you can get,” Claude said matter-of-factly as he takes a visitor on a tour of the medals and war memorabilia hanging above his bed at an assisted living facility where he lives with his wife Madlyn, who wrote a 2003 book titled “The Stokes Twins Ride the Oklahoma Wildcat.”
The Stokes twins earned the Silver Star at the Battle of Salerno when their tank took out five German tanks, an ammunition truck, an armored half-track, a pill box and captured 180 enemy infantry. Claude was also awarded a Bronze Star for helping save the lives of fellow soldiers and a Purple Heart, having been wounded twice.
A brand-new medal also hangs there. In August, Claude and Clyde Stokes were named Chevaliers (Knights) of the Legion of Honor for their role in liberating France. Established by Napoleon, the honor is the French government’s highest decoration.
But after 93 years of life, Claude said the thing he’s most proud of can’t be hung above his bed. That’s because it’s measured in eternity — the lives impacted by the Gospel during the spiritual battles he helped fight after the war — beginning with the battle for his own heart.
Claude thought he didn’t need to go to church because he was a “good guy”; he didn’t smoke or drink and took care of his family. Through conversations with a local pastor, he came to understand that it was only Christ’s death on the cross — and not Claude’s good deeds — that could wash away sins.
He was at work one day at the Naval Ammunition Depot in McAlester when he clearly heard God’s voice: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” He had never read the verse from Matthew 3 before.
“I looked around and found there wasn’t anyone in the room but me,” Claude recalled. “I wasn’t too smart, but I was smart enough to know that God had spoken those words.” That night at a church revival service he surrendered his life to Jesus.
In 1950, Claude became a deacon at First Baptist. For more than 36 years he taught a men’s Sunday School class, discipling more than 30 men. Taking cues from his time in the Army, Claude ran the class with military discipline. He referred to the class as an “Army company” and he was their “captain.” Any class member absent on Sunday had to report to him to be excused, or his name was put on a blackboard as AWOL (absent without leave). Claude also threatened absentees with KP duty (kitchen patrol). It was all in good fun, and the men loved it, gravitating to Claude’s passionate pursuit of Jesus.
“I have never seen anyone who could murder the King’s English and get away with it like Claude Stokes,” said Harold Worthen, a member of Claude’s Sunday School class and fellow World War II veteran. “But Claude is the best Bible teacher and scholar I have ever met.”
The change God brought about in Claude’s life was instrumental in leading Clyde to the Lord.
“Claude and I were never separated in World War II or in our lives at that time,” Clyde once said in a Veteran’s Day address. “That worried me as I began thinking: Claude was going to heaven and I was going to hell. It took a letter from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep us together during the war, but it took God’s Son and my surrender to keep us together for eternity.”
On the battlefield, Clyde excelled at driving the Wildcat. At First Baptist, he used those skills to drive a bus that picked up anyone who needed a ride to church. Together, Claude and Clyde also led a ministry to local nursing homes, sharing the Gospel and encouraging residents for 25 years.
Today, the brothers still bear scars from the war. Clyde suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Pieces of shrapnel remain embedded in Claude’s body. His hearing was another casualty, a result of repeated blasts from the M-10’s 50mm cannon.
Above Claude’s bed, a weathered blue mechanical pencil with a chunk missing from its middle also is among the wartime memorabilia. He said it was in his shirt pocket and likely saved his life when it stopped a piece of shrapnel from a German mortar. It happened on Claude and Clyde’s last day of combat. They began the journey back to Oklahoma the next day.
“God had a plan for us,” Claude said with a smile. “He had work to do through us — that’s the reason we survived the war.”
Read more about Claude and Clyde Stokes’ experiences before, during and after World War II in Madlyn Stokes’ book, The Stokes Twins Ride the Oklahoma Wildcat, available at Amazon.com.