By Norris Burkes June 9, 2019
This weekend, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I’m reading “The Liberator” by Alex Kershaw.
It’s a great book in many places, but I’m having a problem with the places where Kershaw negates the contribution of faith in the foxholes.
I’ll admit that I appreciate Kershaw’s efforts to expose the bonehead things said by organized religions, but, as a combat veteran myself, I believe it’s a disservice to our veterans to deny the place their faith played in the battlefield.
I can only suggest that Kershaw will find a place in his future writings for at least three epic contributions from people of faith.
Starting from my obvious slant, chaplains.
Father Francis Sampson, or Father Sam as he was affectionately known, was the real inspiration for the film “Saving Private Ryan.” It was he, and not the character played by Tom Hanks who found Fritz Niland, the real-life “Private Ryan,” who had lost his three brothers on D-Day.
Along with the 501st paratroopers, Sampson landed at Saint-Come-du-Mont on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He gathered wounded in a nearby farmhouse but quickly found his farmhouse aid station overtaken by Germans.
The frightened padre was placed against a wall to be shot, but a Catholic German soldier saved him by convincing his comrades not to kill a priest. The soldiers returned the priest to an Allied medic station where he ministered to German and American wounded paratroopers.
Father Sam was recaptured during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned near Berlin. There the chaplain was granted permission to stay in the enlisted men’s prison to conduct mass for the remainder of the war.
He would often discount his heroism by saying “no pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in times of danger.” Yet a grateful nation bestowed on the humble man the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest American military award, for his selfless help to the soldiers.
After the war, the never-quit-chaplain volunteered for Korea. He retired after that war, but his nation recalled him for the Vietnam War as head of the military chaplains in 1967.
Faith also guided Seventh-day Adventist Desmond Doss. Portrayed in the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” Doss was an American pacifist combat medic who refused to carry or use a weapon of any kind.
Although not a D-Day hero, he was twice awarded the Bronze Star Medal for action in Guam and the Philippines. Doss distinguished himself in the Battle of Okinawa by saving 75 soldiers and became the only conscientious objector in WWII to receive the Medal of Honor.
Finally, no spiritual writing about WWII should omit the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And of course, there’s a movie about him too, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist and Nazi Resistor.” (2003)
His early-20th-century writings chastised the church for avoiding its role in the secular world. Few serious seminarians graduated after WWII without reading Bonhoeffer’s influential book, “The Cost of Discipleship.”
During the war, he took his faith to the mat with his vocal opposition to Adolph Hitler’s genocidal persecution of the Jews. By April 1943, he’d said too much. He left his liturgical vestments in the sacristy when the Gestapo imprisoned him at Tegel prison.
On April 9, 1945, days away from the collapse of the Nazi regime, the German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident was hung for his part in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler.
So, Mr. Kershaw, I’m glad you wrote such a great story honoring those who took these beaches on such a decisive day. I only ask that in your future writings, you’ll find a few paragraphs to honor those who felt the compulsion to follow the dictates of their faith, which cost them their lives.
Contact Norris Burkes at [email protected] or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715.