Comrades in Arms

    “Comrades in Arms,” Ensign, Aug. 1992, 66

    Comrades in Arms

    Two brothers went to war together, fought together—and expected to go home together.

    Because we were buddies and very close, my brother, Merrill, and I enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry together after Pearl Harbor. We requested that we be permitted to stay together.

    We had been taught the gospel and tried to live it the best we could. We didn’t drink or smoke, we were morally clean, and we abstained from tea and coffee, even when they were the only liquids available. We repeatedly saw the literal truth of the promise given in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants that those who obey shall “run and not be weary, … walk and not faint.” [D&C 89] Many times we were able to keep going when others faltered, and we often helped carry the loads of our fellow soldiers.

    The only two Latter-day Saints in the 5th Cavalry, we were known as the brothers, the Mormon boys. We believed it was more than a mere coincidence that we were not separated or assigned to different units, despite the army’s continuous shifting and juggling of personnel, during our cavalry training at Fort Riley, Kansas, our amphibious training in Australia, and our reinforcement mission to New Guinea. We weren’t separated even after our island-hopping beachhead in the Admiralty, where I suffered a tropical disease that affected my feet and legs so severely that I was told that if I didn’t evacuate, I’d lose them. Our prayers were answered. I persuaded medical personnel to let me stay, and I recovered. We were blessed, and we knew it. We served as real supports to each other. As the younger brother, I especially felt this. And we both continually gave our thanks to the Lord.

    The night before our beachhead, 20 October 1944, was uncomfortably hot. Sleep in the hold of a crowded troop ship had been fitful. For some, this would be the first combat, while for others, it would be one more battle. Judging from the size of our floating armada, I concluded that this one had to be something big.

    “Are you scared?” someone asked.

    “Not really” was my reply, although we were all a bit tense and nervous. We knew that in the next few hours some of us would be killed and others wounded.

    I don’t remember that my brother and I had ever really worried or talked about anything happening to us. We were together. That’s what we had prayed for and asked for, and that’s the way it had always been. We trusted the Lord and had tried to keep his commandments.

    While waiting to go over the side, I opened my serviceman’s pocket scriptures and read the last part of section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. As I read the words “The destroying angel shall pass by them” (D&C 89:21), I got a warm, positive feeling that I would come through okay. Wondering how my brother felt, I leaned down, his bunk being just below mine, and pointed to verse 21: “And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them.”

    “That may be true,” he responded, after a moment’s hesitation, “but if it’s your time to go, then it doesn’t really matter.”

    The activating command, “Prepare to debark,” prevented any further comment or questions at the moment, but as I pondered his answer later, I wondered, Did he sense something I didn’t?

    Being the squad leader, always out in front, my brother was one of the first soldiers hit when the enemy opened fire on the second day. As I hit the dirt, I saw him buckle and slump to the ground.

    I crawled up to where he lay. My hopes were lifted when I found he was still alive. But we were pinned down by enemy fire, and my frantic request for a medic could not be filled. His wound was severe. The bullet, having pierced his stomach, had lodged in his back and shattered his spine.

    He needed medical attention—immediately. With the help of a buddy, I fashioned a crude stretcher out of rifles and ponchos and got him back to where some litter bearers were. I couldn’t follow the medics, but I told him he was lucky to be leaving the mess we were now in. He said not to worry, he’d be all right, and I believed he would.

    About this time, a troop on our right made a breakthrough and joined forces with us. With the enemy silenced, I slumped at the base of a coconut palm, utterly spent and exhausted.

    The other troop had a jeep and a weapons carrier with them, and word was quickly sent that the dead and wounded could be hauled back to the beach instead of being carried through the swamp. My faith and hopes were suddenly shattered, however, when the same two medics who had taken my brother away came back up the trail—bearing the blanket-covered stretcher that was the sure mark of death.

    My first impulse was to refuse to look, as if that would keep him from being dead. But I had to look. So I got up and walked the short distance over to where the stretchers were. As I leaned down and turned back the blanket on my brother’s stretcher, a sudden hush fell over the fifty soldiers gathered around. Not sure what they should say or do, my buddies didn’t say or do anything.

    The world came to an end for me that day, but the war went on, and I went with it. Yet I ached with disappointment in God for being what I mistakenly thought was unfair and failing to keep his promise. And I lost all desire to return home. How could I go back to my family alone?

    After that beachhead was secured, the 5th Cavalry was sent up into the high, cloud-capped mountains of central Leyte to hold and patrol some key passes and stop enemy troops, pouring in from the west. Living conditions up there were the soldier’s worst enemy, and the eternal presence of rain and mud meant that clothes and sleeping places (usually the ground) were seldom dry. In addition, rations were often short and rarely good. Troops were rotated ten days up and ten days down to somewhat of a rest area.

    Because I had little desire for rest, I would transfer back and forth from one unit to another, always staying with the one on the line. Although this dark, sunless environment probably did little to help my troubled spirit, it did fill a certain need. It gave me a lot of time to sort through my thoughts and feelings. At times, on dark, rainy nights, alone with my brooding thoughts, I continued to question the justice of God. Why was my brother taken?

    It didn’t matter to me that I was the only one of the original eight still in our squad by the time the Leyte campaign came to a close. Nothing mattered anymore—my survival, my military awards, even our liberation of thousands of civilian prisoners in Manila.

    A few months later, on a one-man patrol on the island of Luzon, I came upon a small village in a valley. Although a sizable enemy force was dug into the side of a nearby hill, the barrio itself, graced by a Catholic cathedral, seemed peaceful and quite deserted.

    I felt a sudden desire to enter that church. Slipping quietly out of the jungle, I cautiously entered the building through a small door on the side. Once inside the church, I saw reminders of the Savior all around me. Those artworks depicting the Savior brought to my mind his life and atonement. I took off my helmet and reverently dropped to one knee. I was reminded that he too had suffered a violent and terrible death, but he had not been bitter or asked for revenge; instead he had prayed for his executioners, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.)

    Was it possible that he could love, understand, and forgive even my misguided actions? Would I ever be able to accept his impossible-sounding invitation to love my enemies?

    This moment in that church became for me a long-overdue turning point. I realized that war and hate and death were neither the end nor the purpose in life. While I still didn’t have all the answers, I began again to feel faith and hope. For the first time in months, I almost felt I wanted to sing.

    Before me, the dusty old organ, long unplayed, responded as I pushed the pedals and touched the yellowed keys. I tried to recall the words of a hymn my mother used to play and sing.

    I could still remember some of the words: “Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard, Hope with her gentle persuasion, whispers her comforting words. When the dark midnight is over—wait for the breaking of day.”

    As I searched this beautiful melody out, playing the tune with one finger, memories, both sweet and special, began to flood my hungry soul. All at once, the worst of my dark midnight was over, and I heard myself saying, “Mom, Dad, I’m alive, and I want to come home.”

    My aggressive part in the war faded away that day, and for the rest of the Luzon campaign, the soldiers in my squad wondered at the change in me. I was thankful that war soon ended, and although it wasn’t the way my brother and I had planned it, I did come home, some Higher Power having clearly intervened. The reunion with my family in Utah was bittersweet, with an important family member missing.

    Once home, I was never quite at peace, though I did find myself thinking of marrying a girl I had met. When the bishop approached me about going on a mission, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave home again, but I said, “Bishop, I’ll go because that’s the way I’ve been raised, but I want you to know I’m making a great sacrifice.”

    I hadn’t been in the Central States Mission very long, however, when I began to realize it was a blessing, not a sacrifice, that the unseen hand that had protected me in spite of myself during the war was still there, that God knew exactly what I needed most, and that he had a mission for me to perform.

    What a contrast! To go from a mission of trying to destroy lives to one of trying to save them was a great blessing, and as I neared the end of my service as a full-time missionary, I was very reluctant to leave. But when Elder Spencer W. Kimball visited the mission and heard me lamenting that my mission was about to end, he said, “Elder, your mission isn’t about to end—it’s just beginning. You have only laid the foundation.”

    Because my mission was such a rewarding and fulfilling experience, I sometimes found myself feeling sad that my brother couldn’t have lived to enjoy some of these beautiful experiences too. He had planned to serve a mission and would have made a great missionary. Then one early morning in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, I had an experience—a dream or vision—in which my brother came to me and said, “Don’t feel bad for me. I’m on a mission doing exactly the same thing you’re doing—teaching people the gospel.”

    Then I thought of the thousands of soldiers killed during the war, including many in our own outfit, who didn’t have the gospel. At last I had the answer I once so desperately sought and prayed for. I saw at last that God had not been unfair, nor does his word or promise go unfulfilled.

    Illustrated by Ken Spencer