In our modern society, people like to pride themselves on being hip, cool, and atheist. For some atheists, their parents were atheists. But for others, as they were growing up, their parents did not want to “impose” their belief system (religious or otherwise) on them. Like picking their favorite candies out of a chocolate box, the parents wanted their children to wait until they were old enough to decide which flavor they liked best: Catholic, Methodist or Evangelical. Except handing on the faith is not like picking out the caramel nougat versus the vanilla flavor one. And if they never decide, so be it–except that church weddings are a bit more fancy. Never mind that the parents would be horrified if the child decided to never take a bath or brush his teeth. Never mind that without faith the basis for a value system of right and wrong is always shifting. Why is honesty important? Why should I tell the truth?
This got me wondering after reading a number of books about men serving in the military during World War II, “Are there atheists in foxholes?” If so, why or why not? Of course, there are those die hard atheists who are or were in the military that claim that being in a “fox hole” did not change their viewpoint on God. But for most of us that seems a bit farfetched when we consider if the threat of death were looming imminently before us, what then? What would we do in that moment when the earth is convulsing with the concussions of bombs raining down upon us blasting buildings (and everything that is in them) apart? At that moment would we call upon God’s mercy? Would we believe if not at least hope that there is “life” after death?
I don’t know which book started my “excursion” into the World War II, Unbroken, Monuments Men, Boys in the Boat or maybe even some other, but after reading a number of books I came to some interesting conclusions.
Before I share them, let me first point out what may seem obvious. Not all authors hold the same moral viewpoint. How an author expressed his moral viewpoint determined whether or not I finished a book. I’m referring to a certain moral code of good and evil, not whether or not he believed in God.
As I was reading these books about men serving in the Allied Forces, I was intrigued with the idea of how they dealt with adversity? When circumstances became catastrophic, did they call upon God in prayer? When an unexplainable incident occurred, did they see the hand of God protecting them or was it merely chance or luck?
In The Forgotten 500, after Clare Musgrove bailed out of his B-24 bomber, he prayed “Dear God, I ask you to watch over me and protect me in this place. Please guide me, Lord, and direct me to someone who can help me. Please watch over me God.” In fact, this wasn’t the only time he prayed. Throughout his narrative, he prayed repeatedly.
He was one of many men who had escaped near death by bailing out when their airplanes crashed and not all them prayed as fervently or incessantly as he did. It was a miracle that he had escaped at all. As he was flying back to his base after a bombing mission on Romanian oil refineries, he had been trapped in the ball turret of his plane when it had lost all power. He had hand cranked the ball turret up only to find the plane abandoned and his parachute missing. After frantically searching, he found it and jumped, hoping that he was not too close to the earth for the parachute to open. Even after he pulled his rip cord, his misfortunes were not over. His parachute failed to open. He reached into his pack and dug out the silk parachute.
The Forgotten 500 is the story of Allied airmen shot down in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and the brave men and women who risked their lives to hide them and eventually help them escape.
Escape from Davao is another World War II escape book. It chronicles the amazing escape of 10 American prisoners of war, survivors of the “notorious” Bataan Death March and the Fall of Corregidor, and two Filipino convicts from the cruel Davao prison.
After they had escaped and were lost in a vast swamp, physically exhausted, facing mutiny and fearing death at any moment, the leader requested one of the men–Sam Grashio–whom he thought was the most religious, to lead them in prayer.
“. . . Grashio dropped to his knees and began to recite the ‘Memorare,’ a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary that the Catholic nuns at Saint Aloysius school in Spokane had taught him. . . .
When Grashio finished, it was as if everything they had experienced, both physical agony and mental anguish, had disappeared. The heated confrontations, their aching limbs, the swollen, throbbing wasp stings, the fear and doubt–all vanished. . . .
To a man, the effect of Grashio’s words was instantaneous, calming and curative. None of them would ever be able to explain just what had happened that night on the log. But Grashio knew.
‘I thought a miracle had occurred,’ he would say. ‘I felt now that God would save us.’”
This was one of the most powerful moments of prayer in all of the World War II books I have read.
On the other hand, while prayer or the lack of it is not the main focus of the books I had been reading, in We Die Alone, the man attempting to escape relates why he did not pray.
“In his loneliness, he wished he was able to pray, and lying there waiting to die he tried to set his religious beliefs in order. But like so many young men of his generation, he had grown up without the habit of saying prayers. It was not any fault of his. He had been given a technical, scientific education, and there had not been much room in it for religion.”
We Die Alone is the incredible story of the only survivor of a failed plot to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance in Nazi-occupied Norway and the determination of those who helped him escape. Pursued by the Nazis, he is caught in a blizzard. Becoming very ill and eventually losing his ability to walk, he is hidden alone in the mountains.
Sadly, he did not grow up with prayer and he felt he could not pray. Perhaps if he had grown up with a mother, he would have considered praying, since the author also mentions that Jan had lost his mother when he was young.
Perhaps this young man, Jan, did not pray, but what about all of the others whose lives he touched, who risked their lives to help him live? How many of them prayed for him? Could his escape be related to all the unknown prayers for him?
What are my conclusions? These are just a few of the books I have read. I am sure those who have talked with relatives or read far more books than I could add something more. But my conclusions are quite simple. For those who have not grown up with prayer, where prayer is not a part of life, it feels awkward, even in the midst of hell, when the person is in need of prayer. And of course, as parents, we can do our best to pass on our faith through our prayer life, but ultimately our children have a free will. If we, as parents, however, value the importance of reminding our children to brush their teeth, comb their hair and take a bath for the welfare of their physical appearance, how much more important is it to share a lived example of our faith through prayer for their souls, which has everlasting value. As Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a boy in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not swerve from it.”
Howarth, David. We Die Alone. 1955. New York: Macmillan Company. New York: The Lyons Press, 1999. p. 126
Lukacs, John D. Escape from Davao, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010, p. 206
Freeman, Gregory A. The Forgotten 500, NAL Caliber, 2007, p. 37