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For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
-- Matthew 17:20
Soldiers in the Vietnam War scrawled slogans on their helmet covers, these according to the temperament and sentiments of the individual. Catchphrases such as "Kill! Kill! Kill!" and "Kill 'Em All, Let God Sort 'Em Out" were popular for those soldiers who were new in-country and had not yet confronted the reality of combat. Helmet graffiti changed dramatically as newbies became veterans. Crude inked-in Christian crosses appeared, along with "You and Me, God" and "Yea I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death."
It should not be surprising that soldiers turn to God to bring reason to chaos and sanity to madness when they live with death all around them. One reporter embedded with American troops in Iraq in 2004 asserted that not a single soldier he'd talked to was not seeking a stronger connection to God. Scorched by the fires of war, many warriors discover faith that has been missing from their lives. Others gain a greater sense of God. Few are not in some way touched by the supernatural as they struggle for understanding, comfort, and protection.
"In my...experience," noted Arthur Kammerer, 102nd Infantry Division, World War II, "I've seen [combat] make killers out of some, cowards of some, Christians of most."
Army Private Paul Curtis may have said it best. After being pinned down at Anzio, Italy, in May 1944, he tried to explain combat in a letter to his brother.
"It's beyond words," he wrote. "Take a combination of fear, anger, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, disgust, loneliness, homesickness, and wrap that all up in one reaction....It's a comfort to know there's One Who is present at all times and...ready to help you through....Without faith [in God], I don't see how anyone could stand this."
Marine Lance Corporal Nathan Jones,
Just another day in 'Nam. "Death Defying Delta" Company, redubbed by "Chargin' Charlie" Company as "Dyin' Delta," moved out of Camp Evans in the late afternoon and slogged at a forced pace down the dusty road Âtoward the village of Cam Lo some five klicks (kilometers) away. About three miles. An Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) company had stumbled onto a company of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and got itself pinned down. Dyin' Delta expected to kick some serious ass, drag Marvin the ARVN's bacon out of the fire, and be back within Evans's wire-and-bunker perimeter by nightfall.
Marine Lance Corporal Nathan Jones, a wiry kid from Oklahoma, glanced back up the road at the black snouts of a 155mm howitzer battery silhouetted against the white-hot afternoon sky. He shifted the M-60 machine gun to a more comfortable position across his shoulder; he would trade out the gun later with his assistant gunner, a new in-country cherry called Bill. He wondered what they would be having for evening chow when they returned to Evans. NVA and Viet Cong (VC) rarely stood up to a Marine company on the prod.
Although only nineteen, Jones was one of the vets in the outfit, having just completed Operation Pecos to kick the enemy out of Khe San and back across the border into North Vietnam. He had been wounded there, a glancing head blow that earned him a certain respect in the Marines and, along with a quarter, a cup of coffee back in the States.
Cam Lo, a typical village of straw or tin huts, sat clustered between the road and rice paddy squares sectioned off by hedgerows of mangrove. Marines trudged into one side of the settlement and out the other, scattering pigs, geese, chickens, and bare-assed little kids. If ARVN was in contact out there, it was one quiet contact. Most likely, the NVA had already pulled up stakes and hauled out.
About a kilometer beyond the village, platoon leader Lieutenant Been ordered Jones and his A-gunner to set up their M-60 in rear security. Ordinarily, three Marines made up a machine gun crew, but Jones's section was short a man. That left him and Bill. While the rest of the company forged ahead to check on Marvin, the two Marines bipodded the M-60 in a hedgerow that overlooked a dry-season rice paddy. A 7.62mm M-60 machine gun, the infantry grunt's primary defensive weapon, was capable of chewing up terrain and flesh at five hundred rounds per minute out to a maximum effective range of 1,100 meters.
Dyin' Delta melded into the landscape, out of sight and sound. Shadows grew long. Jones watched the sun turn red as it sank into the horizon. Mosquitoes buzzed around his helmet.
Suddenly, all hell busted loose from the direction of Delta Company's advance. It started with the distant loose rattle of AK-47s in groups, the cyclic chop of enemy 51mm machine guns, the crash and bang of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Marines responded with M-16s, M-60s, and light mortars. It was immediately apparent that Delta was clashing with an enemy force far greater in size than its own -- and that that force was standing up and determined to wipe out the Americans in full-scale battle.
Outside the perimeter of the fight, a klick away, Lance Corporal Jones and his A-gunner could do nothing but listen to the discordant thunder of the engagement and keep a nervous eye peeled into the gathering darkness to make sure no additional enemy moved in from the rear. As the fighting raged back and forth, Jones listened with alarm and dread as one M-60 after another ceased its chugging. Soon, all of Delta's M-60s were quiet, either killed, knocked out, or jammed. By comparison, the tinny cacophony of M-16 rifles sounded ineffectual and last-stand desperate.
What in hell had Delta walked into out there?
Darkness clasped the land firmly in its fist. Artillery from Camp Evans poured high explosives (HE) into the fray, trembling the earth and choking the air with smoke and dust. Illumination flares filled the sky like fierce miniature suns, skittering fearsome shadows like shape-shifters. From out of these shadows and light appeared a runner crawling, ducking, and dodging, shouting the password repeatedly to prevent being shot by rear security. He collapsed next to Lance Corporal Jones, panting, his eyes wide with terror.
"We walked into a battalion, a U-shaped ambush," he gasped. "Jones, the captain says you got to get your gun up there. It's the only one left. Jones, they're killing us! They're killing us all!"
Like good Marines whose buddies were in trouble, the two machine gunners grabbed their vital weapon and ammo and took off with the runner guiding them. They eluded NVA fighters several times in the darkness as the enemy began closing the trap around Delta. Breaking through the defensive perimeter, Jones was stunned by the numbers of dead and wounded dragged to a casualty collection point near a thicket of mangrove. Their moans and cries pulsed the night air. Dyin' Delta was living up to its name. It departed Camp Evans with 180 men; only eighty would return.
Lieutenant Been met the gun crew. He was a big man with courage to match. But tonight, like everyone else, he was scared. He directed Jones to the front of the ambush where the M-60 could do the most damage against concentrated attackers. Parachute flares blazed overhead. Howitzer shells banged around the outside perimeter, but to little effect since the enemy was close in and hugging Marine lines.
"Tanks are on the way, but they're not going to get here in time," Lieutenant Been explained. "We're surrounded, but the company is going to break out and leapfrog by platoons back toward Cam Lo. Our platoon will set up a base of fire to cover the rest of the company while it busts out. Then the company will set up and cover our asses while we pull back. Jones, we gotta hold the bastards. Understand?"
Muzzle fire twinkled from all sides as the ruthless NVA closed in. From the protection of a dike, Jones lay down a cyclic rate of fire while Bill fed belts to the gun, raking the machine gun back and forth, spraying steel and lead and death into the thickest concentrations of muzzle flicker, weaving red tracers like streaks of lasers. Lieutenant Been and Sergeant Jackson, the platoon gunny, fought desperately on either side of the M-60, emptying magazines of 5.56 through their M-16s. Jones was so absorbed in the brutal business of killing that Lieutenant Been's sudden exclamation failed to sink in for a moment or two.
"My God, they've left us!"
Jones's head snapped around. The eerie ghost light of parachute flares hanging against the black sky revealed their plight to be even more grave than they could ever have imagined. Orders had apparently been misunderstood in all the confusion and chaos. The stay-behind platoon had withdrawn with the rest of the company, leaving only four Marines behind to hold off an entire battalion of hard-core, pissed-off NVA: Lance Corporal Jones, his A-gunner Bill, Lieutenant Been, and Sergeant Jackson.
Terror jolted Jones's body like lightning. Violent death could be the only outcome of this screw-up.
"Let's get out of here!" Been hissed.
Jones leapt to his feet with the M-60 and its last belt of ammunition. Firing from the hip, he backed away from the dike, wheeled around, then bolted with the other three Marines across a rice paddy in a reckless bid to catch up with the retreating Delta. Maybe they had a chance if they could reach the hedgerow on the other side. Bullets lashed out at them from all angles, snapping. Green tracers threatened to entangle them in spider webs.
Run! Run! Run!
In their haste to decamp, they raced headlong into a squad of enemy soldiers left in the hedgerow to snare stragglers. The NVA opened fire with a startling crash of point-blank AK-47 fire. The four Marines hit the dirt. By some miracle, none of them was hit, although they found themselves in one awkward position -- marines on one side of the hedgerow, gooks on the other. They had to go through the Viets in order to catch up with the company.
Muttering and sounds of movement came from the other side.
Jones had never felt such fear in his entire life, not even at Khe San. He was afraid his trembling hands would rattle his machine gun and give them away.
Overhead illumination faded as the last parachute flare sputtered out and fluttered into the rice paddies, returning full night to the battlefield. Dyin' Delta required cover of darkness in order to withdraw successfully. Uneasy quiet accompanied the return of darkness. Furtive movement all around signaled the gathering of enemy fighters to finish off the four cornered Marines.
A Chicom grenade sailed over the mangrove thicket and struck the ground nearby with a plop and the hiss of a burning fuse. Jones buried his face between his arms. The explosion shook dust out of the ground and almost kicked him off the earth. A tiny shard of red-hot shrapnel nicked his chin with enough force to almost tear off his head. It left his ears ringing. Lieutenant Been uttered a sharp sigh as an even larger piece of the grenade ripped into his arm.
They lay on their bellies waiting for the inevitable attack.
Jones had maybe a half belt of M-60 ammo left. The lieutenant was out of M-16 cartridges. Sergeant Jackson and Bill were on their last magazines. Jones removed his remaining grenade from his belt harness and tucked it against his ribs where he could reach the arming spoon. Determined not to be taken alive and tortured, he would fight as long as he was able. Then, at the end, he would pull the grenade pin and take as many of the bad guys with him as he could.
He began to pray, hard and earnestly, but silently. "Lord God, just get me out of this if it be Your will..."
His life seemed to flash before his eyes from the time he was a little boy in Oklahoma. He saw the faces of his mother and father, as though they were actually standing right in front of him.
Then, even more astonishing, even more unbelievable, a tiny light appeared. Like a dim lightbulb rising out of the earth. To his amazement, it grew and grew until it completely enveloped him in a cocoon of warm luminescence.
Suddenly, he no longer found himself in a scary place. Everything in the whole world turned silent. All was peace. Even the air he breathed was pure and sweet-smelling. A great and wonderful calm overcame him. He was no longer afraid.
A voice issued from somewhere, as from the light itself. It was so full of compassion and caring that the unseen speaker seemed to wrap the Marine in loving arms. The voice said, "Don't worry, my son. You are going to be just fine."
The light faded. An artillery round exploded somewhere off the left flank. Jones returned the grenade to his cartridge belt and whispered to Bill, "We're going to be all right."
Yeah? Bill was dead quiet, but his silence spoke. Where have you been? We're surrounded.
"Open up and give 'em what you got left," Lieutenant Been whispered. "We'll try to break through and catch up with the company. That's all we can do."
On his signal, the four Marines sprang to their feet and opened fire. Jones burned off the last of his M-60 ammo as they crashed through the hedgerow, stampeding directly over and through the assembling enemy soldiers. Incredibly, not a shot, not a single shot, was even fired at them. It was as if they were invisible.
Tanks that had joined Delta Company to establish a hasty defense outside Cam Lo village were the most welcome sight the lost Marines had ever seen. Later, Lance Corporal Jones asked his companions what they thought about the remarkable light at the hedgerow.
"What are you talking about, Jones?"
He told them about his experience. Lieutenant Been mulled it over.
"There was definitely something that got us out of there," he said.
Nathan Jones has devoted the rest of his life to serving God.
Army Sergeant Kevin Crawford,
The rising red sun hung two fingers above the flats. Temperatures were already approaching the 100-degree mark. Heat shimmers obscured the two-lane macadam highway that stretched like a single black ribbon from the outskirts of Baghdad to Tikrit. Here and there mud-colored cottages crouched next to the road. Little children scurried out laughing and shouting and waving at the convoy of eight lumbering U.S. Army tractor-trailers, each coated with a patina of desert dust.
Kids or not, Sergeant Kevin Crawford, thirty-three, constantly swept watchful eyes back and forth between the road and the children along its sides. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the occasional ambush were common hazards. Intervals between vehicles allowed overwatch while at the same time keeping each clear should the truck ahead trigger something. As noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the convoy, Crawford drove the command truck second back from the lead.
Next to him in the cab, nineteen-year-old Private Rhoden rode shotgun. He seemed to absorb his sergeant's unease. He leaned forward, tense and sweating, peering ahead, hand resting on the stock of his mounted M-240 7.62mm machine gun. Dust swirling in through open windows caked his face and made his eyes shine round and oddly white.
The 24th Transportation Company out of Fort Riley, Kansas, put boots on ground in Kuwait in April 2003, some seven months before. As U.S. troops ripped across Iraq to take Baghdad, the 24th's "Bastard Children" had operational control to four or five different divisions, supporting the 3rd Infantry Division at jump-off, then transferring in order to the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions before finally ending up with the 1st Armored. After the capture of Baghdad, the 24th's trucks ran logistical support and major ammunition pushes to outlying units. Beans and bullets. Two convoys had departed base camp this morning on different mission routes. Something, a little voice, a nagging feeling, something, had told Sergeant Crawford to say an extra prayer with his soldiers.
Prayer was nothing unusual in the company. Crawford prayed every day, morning and evening and before each mission. Lord, keep us out of harm's way and please help me protect my people. He would clasp his Bible, lower his head, and close his eyes. Other members of the 24th joined him. Virtually the entire company came to expect prayer, to depend on it. Even those who were unsure of their beliefs or who preferred not to believe in God joined the sessions.
Each time the enemy mortared base camp near Baghdad International Airport, soldiers rushed to their assigned concrete-and-sand bag bunkers to wait it out. Sometimes the lights flickered and went out. Everyone huddled in pitch blackness and sweated through the stifling heat while listening to muffled explosions outside.
Crawford led prayers at such times, then cracked jokes and made light of the situation to alleviate tension and worry. "I sure hope this is over soon so we can get back out where it's cool."
The temperature inside the bunkers was about 110 degrees, while the "cool" outside reached only 100. People tittered here and there.
Often some truck driver, such as the single mom whose two kids were living with her sister while she was in Iraq, approached the sergeant after the "all clear." "Sergeant Crawford, will you pray with me?"
While other units suffered casualties, the 24th had not yet lost a single soldier, even though the company and its vehicles were exposed to hostile intent nearly every day. Commanders wondered what the company was doing that made it different and seemingly safer than many other outfits. At some point during the deployment, soldiers of the 24th began to feel that something must be watching over them.
"You know, I don't quite know what I believe in," one soldier said. "But I believe this, Sergeant Crawford: every day you pray encourages others to do the same. I wonder if it is a direct reflection of your prayers that we've never lost anyone."
Crawford thought it was due to a lot of people praying.
Private Rhoden, Crawford's gunner and almost-constant companion, frequently questioned his sergeant about his faith during their road trips together. The kid had been new to the company when it first rolled out from Kuwait into Iraq. Crawford, as usual, began the day with prayer.
"You really believe in God?" the kid asked the sergeant as they convoyed at the rear of an infantry unit in contact a few miles ahead.
"Don't you?" Crawford responded, glancing at the kid.
Rhoden was thin-faced with haunted, cautious eyes. He came from a broken home and had bounced around in foster care until he was old enough to enlist in the Army. He sometimes commented how the Army was the only real home he had ever known.
"I don't know what I believe," he said. "What's God ever done that I can see?"
Now, on the way to Tikrit, Private Rhoden was edgy and silent, disturbed only by squelch and magnified voices over the radio as drivers checked on one another and passed along road information. As usual, he had stood aloof during pre-mission prayer, with a perplexed look on his face, eyes open, head unbowed.
"Keep alert," Sergeant Crawford advised the convoy. He had a nagging feeling that refused to go away.
Halfway to Tikrit, the point truck suddenly braked, causing the entire procession to stop. "Sergeant Crawford, something's wrong," the point driver radioed. "There's something up ahead in the road."
The sergeant maneuvered his vehicle into the oncoming lane, stopped again, and squinted into the heat haze. Rhoden's finger curled around the trigger of his machine gun.
Ordinarily, the buckle in the road ahead, a mere interruption in the lane, would have gone unnoticed, dismissed as nothing other than what it appeared to be -- a natural road hazard. However, Crawford decided that if God was looking after the 24th, the least he could do was his part. He ordered the convoy to turn around and return to Baghdad.
An Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team and a Ready Reaction Force, subsequently dispatched to the site, discovered a booby trap containing enough explosives to blow a Bradley fighting vehicle all the way to the Euphrates River. It would have demolished the first truck that ran over it while ambushers in hiding opened fire on the others. Sharp eyes -- and perhaps someone -- had again protected the 24th.
"The outfit that prays together stays together," a driver later commented.
That wasn't the only incident involving the transportation company that remarkable day. The other 24th convoy encountered a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack near Fallujah. Although a rocket struck a vehicle and disabled it, the only casualty was minor. The driver sustained negligible burns to his arm. He sought out Sergeant Crawford once all trucks and personnel were safely behind the wire at base camp.
"What about it?" he asked. "You were praying for us, Sarge. It must have worked."
It went that way for the rest of the year while the company ran its trucks all over Iraq. Drivers gathered around their big dusty trucks and bowed their heads each morning, each evening, and before every mission. The 24th Transportation Company from Fort Riley, Kansas, suffered not a single serious casualty during its tour.
Private Rhoden looked thoughtful and introspective on the plane ride that took the intact unit back to the United States.
"Sergeant," he said at last, "you made me think about a lot of things the whole time we were in Iraq." He closed his eyes, then opened them again. "I'm led to believe there are greater things than any of us can ever know."
Marine Sergeant Tom Cottick, World War II, 1945
Word went out among Marines before they clambered aboard Higgins boats, tracks, and other landing craft to make everything "right" before they met the threat of eternity. Announcements boomed out over the PA systems of LSTs (landing ship, tank) and transports: "Make out your wills. Write your letters home. Church services on deck for men of all faiths. Make peace with your Maker."
Acting Platoon Sergeant Tom Cottick, Foxtrot Company 2/Â€‹24 (2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment), 4th Marine Division, attended services, although he figured he didn't need it since the 24th would sit out Iwo Jima in reserve. It was about time. The regiment had been in and out of hell on earth since February 1944, a year ago, making landings at Kwajalein, Saipan, and Tinian. Cottick had already earned one Purple Heart and two Silver Stars for valor.
He got his Purple Heart and his first Star on Kwajalein for single-handedly knocking out an enemy machine gun nest that had bottled up the Marine advance. His second Silver Star, from Saipan, was not what he would remember most about that ungodly little piece of real estate. What he would always remember, what would sear his nightmares in the middle of sleep for the rest of his life, were Marine loudspeakers pleading with the civilian population and surviving Japanese soldiers as they rushed en masse to the tops of cliffs.
"Please surrender. You will not be harmed. We are taking prisoners."
Japanese soldiers considered surrender the ultimate dishonor. They bailed off the cliffs to smash themselves on the rocks below, followed by a disturbing number of civilian men, women, and children. Sometimes when Cottick closed his eyes he could still hear kids screaming like dying gulls as they sailed off the cliffs in the arms of their parents.
That he had survived all this while many of his buddies were killed along the way seemed nothing short of a miracle. Over 80 percent of the Marines who landed with him on Kwajalein were not there that day.
Sergeant Cottick, his men said, was "one tough bastard."
Iwo Jima, a pork-chop-shaped island one-third the size of Manhattan, was supposed to be a cakewalk. Three days at most. B-29 bombers had softened up the island for the past thirty days. Cottick and the other men of the 2/24 lined the railings of their transport several miles out to sea and watched in the predawn as fire and smoke roiled over the tiny island, which was being pounded by even more aircraft and battleships in advance of landings by the U.S. 4th and 5th Marine Divisions.
The first indication that things weren't going as planned came from loudspeakers aboard ship: "Now hear this! Now hear this! All 24th Marines in reserve, on your feet and get ready to board your landing craft. You are going to hit the beach. The first wave has been wiped out."
For the next thirty-six days beginning on D-Day, February 19, 1945, Iwo Jima was one of the most heavily populated 7.5 square miles on the face of the earth: 100,000 men on both sides fighting with everything from mortars and machine guns to clubs, knives, and fists. The enemy had dug deep into bunkers and caves and had to be burnt out with flamethrowers. The air itself was so lethal that Marines felt that if they inhaled too deeply they would suck in a fatal lungful of blazing lead and steel.
Mount Suribachi, the 550-foot volcanic cone at the island's southern tip, dominated the landing beach. Japanese gunners in defensive blockhouses and pillboxes on the high ground zeroed in on every inch of the island. Machine guns crisscrossed the beaches with blistering interlocking fire. Rockets and antitank guns scythed through American invaders. Every Marine, anywhere on the island, was always within range of enemy guns.
Unable to dig foxholes in the loose volcanic ash, Marines became sitting ducks. They had to fight from above ground; defending Japanese fought from below ground. The advance was measured in yards, a yard or two a day, real estate bought dearly in lost lives. The cloying stench of death and rot, of cordite and smoke, of fear and horror hung in the tropical air like a toxic cloud. Before the battle ended, 6,821 Marines would die, along with 21,000 JapaÂnese.
Sergeant Cottick caught his foot in wire mesh and severely wrenched it on the first day while clearing an enemy pillbox with hand grenades. It swelled up to twice its normal size, but he had no time for medics. He cinched tight his bootlaces and soldiered on.
One evening at dusk, he glimpsed a Japanese soldier creeping up on a Marine machine gun position. The Jap sprang to his feet and charged, two-handed with a Samurai sword. Cottick yelled a warning. At the same time, he wheeled around and cut the attacker nearly in half with a burst from his tommy gun.
It wasn't the first man he killed. It wouldn't be the last.
By D-plus-eleven days, Easy Company 2/Â€‹24 ceased to exist because of casualties. Those who remained merged into Captain Walter Redlon's decimated Foxtrot Company, which found itself pinned down at the base of Hill 382, known to Marines as "the Meat Grinder." For the past three days, that hellish little knob and its defenders had ground into hamburger every Marine unit that attempted to scale it, including what had formerly been Easy Company. Sergeant Cottick received orders that Foxtrot Company would make the next assault. There was nobody else.
Exhausted in body and soul, filthy, ragged, unshaved, stained with the blood of both friend and foe, the sergeant crawled into a deep shell hole for a moment of respite before he rallied his platoon. He lit a cigarette and lay on his back in the crater, looking up at the clear blue sky. For that moment he shut out the din of battle that surrounded him.
Sergeant Cottick had never been a particularly religious man. God was God and man was man, and God seldom interfered with the petty affairs of pitiful humans. But now, lying on his back in the shell crater below the Meat Grinder and gazing in the direction of where he assumed Heaven to be, he began examining his faith.
Every man he knew embraced the old truism that there were no atheists in foxholes. At least he did after his baptism of fire. Combat, especially sustained combat, was enough to cleanse the soul of any man. In a few more minutes he must lead his platoon up the brutal side of the Meat Grinder. Many of those who went up would not come back down alive. What would happen to their souls? What would happen to his soul if he were one of those carried back down wrapped inside his poncho? For the first time since he began making beach landings in the Pacific, he closed his eyes and prayed.
"Lord, if You can hear me...Lord, I would go through the first three invasions all over again if You will just get me out of this one alive...Lord, if we die today, please forgive one and all of our mortal sins and have mercy on our souls...We done our best."
He opened his eyes, smoked his cigarette, and looked into the sky. Foxtrot's CO, Captain Redlon, slid down the side of the crater and sat at the bottom next to Cottick. A filthy bandage wrapped tightly around his leg oozed blood from a previous wound.
"Sergeant Cottick, the time has arrived to do what we must do," he said.
Cottick's moment with God was over. The crash and rattle and shrill of battle returned with all its immediacy.
"What's left of the company will be committed to a frontal assault, a joint effort with other units on our left and right flanks," Redlon said. "It should break the enemy's resistance."
Cottick looked numbly about. A mortar shell exploded nearby, showering them both with dirt. In a weary voice, Cottick said, "Sir, I have had it. I would like to quit and just walk away."
Captain Redlon understood. He nodded and Âgently wrapped an arm around his sergeant's shoulders. "Sarge, I didn't hear that. This job must be done. We move out and take the hill on my signal, right after the artillery barrage."
Cottick sighed. That was how life was: hills and more caves and challenges to overcome. He glanced up at the sky one more time. By all accounts, he should have been dead by now. Maybe God and he already had a bargain. What was that old verse from the Bible? His mother quoted it. Oh, yes...
Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?
He flipped his cigarette away. He met Captain Redlon's gaze. "I'm ready, sir."
Foxtrot Company took the hill. A few days later, a mortar round exploded next to Sergeant Cottick, peppering him with shrapnel. The cigarette case in his breast pocket caught a piece of steel that likely would have penetrated his heart.
For valorous action on Iwo Jima, he received a third Silver Star and his second Purple Heart. He survived the war and lived into his old age in Michigan.
Marine Sergeant Richard "Dick" Wilson,
Diplomats fought a war of words in ongoing truce talks in Korea while the real war, the shooting war, settled into a Battle for the Hills, a vicious and primitive seesawing back and forth for the advantage of high ground. It was not unusual for a hill to change ownership two or three times. Fox Company 2/5 of the 1st Marine Division occupied a hill called "Warsaw" about four hundred yards forward of the main line of resistance (MLR). After seizing the hill from the communists, Marines moved into old trenches and bunkers formerly occupied by Chicoms, set up housekeeping, and prepared to fend off enemy probes and day and night mortar fire.
It was early spring, which meant drizzle during the day and ice at night, altogether miserable conditions. The only man who seemed unaffected by the weather and living arrangements was a lanky older Marine known to everyone simply as "Preacher." He was about thirty or so and had a wife and several kids back home. In combat, most men picked up appropriate nicknames like "Mad Dog," "Rag Bag," or "Boot." Preacher got his because he carried a Bible wherever he went and always appeared as cheerful as a meadowlark singing on a wire fence. He constantly found time to stop and read scripture to fellow Marines.
Sometimes Sergeant Dick Wilson envied Preacher his faith. At eighteen, Wilson was the youngest buck sergeant in the 1st Marines, possibly even in the entire U.S. Marine Corps. As a Latter-Day Saint, he had always derived comfort back home from attending sacrament, Sunday School, and priesthood meetings. Preacher helped fill the void in Korea. Together, they often huddled in the trenches, hunched in their ponchos against rain and sleet while they debated God's plan for mankind in general and for themselves as soldiers in particular.
It wasn't the same as peacetime back home surrounded by the Loving Spirit. Nonetheless, Wilson doubted he could have maintained his beliefs and his sanity without these sessions and Preacher's personal prayer and scripture readings. Preacher had an answer for any spiritual or moral question. Everything that man ever needed to know, he said, was in the Bible.
North Koreans and Chicoms commonly attacked or probed lines in the predawn hours when men were the sleepiest and most wretched. First bugles blew and whistles shrilled from the darkness at the bottom of Warsaw Hill. Next came the pounding of massed feet, the horrendous din of rifle and machine gun fire, and rolling sparkles of muzzle flashes. Finally, artillery flares burst like suns in the blackness to illuminate the field of battle.
Young Wilson marveled at the transformation in his friend whenever he put down his Bible to fight. He calmly tucked it into his pack or pocket, hefted his M-1 Garand, and, methodically, with unerring marksmanship, began picking off targets while ignoring bullets chewing the earth around him.
As soon as the probe broke, Preacher would retrieve his Bible and read out loud in the lingering light of flares. "Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident."
"Aren't you ever afraid?" a fellow Marine once asked him.
"Everyone is afraid," he said. "I'm afraid I will never see my wife and children again in this life. But the Lord has promised that He is with me, even until the end of time, and that should I die I will see my loved ones again."
On a surprisingly pleasant morning without rain, Preacher left the chow bunker on his way back to his own fighting position, striding cheerfully along with his rifle slung over one shoulder, the Bible as usual in his hand. He tarried along the way to clap a comforting hand upon the shoulder of a young Marine, to utter encouragement to another friend. Preacher being Preacher.
Unexpectedly, a mortar shell whistled low over the trenches. Chicoms were always lobbing in random rounds to keep Marines on the edges of their nerves. The shell exploded a geyser of dirt, water, ice, and shrapnel almost directly on top of Preacher. When the smoke cleared, he lay on his back in the churned-up mud of that forlorn Korean hilltop, an expression of superb tranquility on his face, the Bible still clutched in his mangled hand.
Wilson had seen dead Marines before, but Preacher was the first personal friend he had lost. It left him numb. One moment Preacher was merrily alive and vital. The next, he was gone -- in a twinkling of an eye, as the scriptures said. It made Sergeant Wilson aware of how suddenly one could meet his Maker. It was a harsh awakening for youth who tended to view themselves as immortal.
Later, Preacher's comrades gathered his personal belongings to ship back with his body. Someone murmured the question on Âeveryone's mind: "How can someone so good, so spiritual, and so religious lose his life while others live who are not so good or who have never even attended church or read the Bible?"
Dick Wilson, rolled up in his poncho, thought about it a long time that night. Preacher, he knew, would have had an answer. Copyright © 2008 by Charles W. Sasser