I’m a bit of a WW2 buff. I had 3 uncles who served in the war. Two were Marines, and one of them fought in the Battle of Okinawa. Since I taught American History (ever since the Nixon Administration), my uncles were willing to share stories with me, some of which I could share with my middle-schoolers; others I needed to keep to myself. I do have an interest in the hardware and weaponry of that era, but my main interest is in the human element of military life and combat.
That probably began when I was a little guy listening to the adults around me talk about those poor boys of the 101st Airborne Division who froze during the coldest December in 50 years in the Battle of Bastogne. Later as an adult I had a chance to talk with men who had served in that campaign. Surprisingly to me they held the commander of the division, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, in some contempt. McAuliffe had responded to the German request to surrender with one word: “Nuts!” He had done so from his heated command center. “That was easy for him to do,” said Sgt. Fred Bahlau. “He was in comfort feasting on a turkey dinner while we were being bombarded in freezing conditions!”
Now contrast Gen. McAuliffe with the squad and platoon officers of the 2nd Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. The battalion was ordered to conduct a three-day 115 mile march from their camp in Toccoa, GA, to Atlanta, It was December, 1942. It rained and sleeted, and part of the route was on muddy, unpaved road. They slept in tents. But each night at the end of the day’s march, the officers, who marched with their men, checked the condition of their men’s feet and treated any blisters or wounds they found. Then they checked each other’s. These officers were beloved by their troops. Said Sgt. Bahlau who was on that march, “The men who served under me knew they could trust me because I showed I cared about them, and they proved over and over again that I could trust them. I don’t think anyone can understand the love we shared with each other. When you spend a month in a frozen foxhole with another fellow, there are no pretenses.”
When I think of this story, I am reminded of another of high rank who lowered himself to care for his subordinates’ feet. A hymn says that they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Wouldn’t it be something if they knew our love by our basins and towels, the weaponry of the Christian soldier?
Tom and his wife MaryLou taught in Lutheran Church Missouri Synod parochial schools in Michigan until retirement. Tom serves on our church council.