Out of the Night

Prodigal:  I almost lost you.

Me:  Yes, but I am here, I am with you.

Prodigal:  Let’s share with each other.

This is from the book Power of Love and this was written by Jack Haring

The Battle of the Bulge.  The final desperate attempt of the Germans to break through Allied lines in Belgium and dash to Antwerp and the sea.  For six days our 84th Infantry Division had been diverted from the Ninth Army in the north to the beleaguered First Army area in the Ardennes forest.  The fiercest fighting of the war, and I, a 19-year old private, was in the middle of it.

My letter home to Pennsylvania was written on a Christmas morning that was sunny and quiet–deceptively quiet.  “The barn I slept in last night,”  I wrote, “made me think of the place where Jesus came into the world.”  Then I began reminiscing to Mom about the good Christmases we’d had as I was growing up–always starting with the traditional dawn service at St. John’s Lutheran in Boyertown.  Church had always been an important part of my life.  I’d started college thinking I might go into the ministry.

The letter home was upbeat all the way.  I didn’t mention anything about the things that had been troubling me.  How I had become disillusioned with organized religion because I saw so few Christians either at home or in the combat zone–certainly not Christians trying to live the way Jesus had taught.  Or how the weather had been so miserable and the fighting so blazing that I feared I’d never live to see Pennsylvania again.

The last straw was being sent to these snow-covered hills and woods where we might be attacked at any moment from out there, some where I was beginning to think that God has forsaken me.

Still, even though we’d spent the last five days floundering around trying to stop the Germans, even though our supply trucks had been captured, at least we’d had a barn for shelter on Christmas Eve, and our cooks were promising us a hot meal for Christmas Day.

“Let’s go, ” Sergeant Presto, our squad leader, shouted.  “Collect your gear and fall out.  We’re going on a mission.”

I groaned.  We all groaned.  There went our first hot meal in a week!

We drove for about ten miles and then the trucks dropped us and sped away.  It was dusk.  Troops were strung out all along dirt road that circled through some hills.  When Presto came back from a meeting with the platoon leader, he gathered the ten of us–we were one man short in the squad– around him.

“Okay, men, here’s what we’re going to do.  This won’t take long and we’re going to travel light.  Leave your packs and entrenching tools here.”  He made it sound so simple.  Intelligence had said that some German infantry were dug into a nearby hill and were causing havoc by shooting down on the roads in the area.  Our battalion’s job was to go up and flush them out.

Single file on each side of the winding road, we moved up the hill.  We moved quietly warily.  At the top, we were surprised to find, not Germans, but an abandoned chateau in the middle of a clearing.  Our squad went into the building.  We found a billiard table and the tension broke as we played an imaginary game of pool using our rifles as cues.

Then Presto came stalking in.  The Germans, he said, were in the woods beyond the clearing.  Our orders were to chase them out into the waiting arms of another battalion positioned at the other end of the woods.

“There’ll be three companies in this deal,” Presto said.  “Two of us will stretch out along the edge of the forest while the other hangs back in reserve.  Now, as soon as we push into the woods, everybody fires, got it?”

We spread out, walked through the darkness to the forest’s edge, than, at a signal, we burst in, opening up with everything we had.  We kept up a brisk pace, keeping contact with our buddies along the moving line, walking and firing for about a mile.  But the forest was empty.  There was no movement…..

The trees in front of us exploded.  Suddenly, the night went bright with every kind of firing I’d even seen or heard of –rifles, rifle-launched grenades, mortars, machine guns, tracers over our heads, bullets at our thighs.  But worst of all, Tiger tanks.  At least six of them, opening up point-black with 88-millimeter cannons.  Their projectiles whined and crashed all up and down our line.

Our intelligence was wrong, I thought angrily, as I flung myself down on my stomach.  They told us there were no tanks up here.  Now we’re really in for it.

Within seconds men were screaming in pain all around me.  I saw a tree with a big trunk and made a sudden lunge to get behind it, but I wasn’t quick enough.  Something tore into my thigh.  There was hot, searing pain.

We were completely pinned down.  The Tiger tanks kept scanning their turrets and firing on every yard of our line.  The German ground troops sent their small arms fire into anything that moved.

The minutes went by.  Five.  Ten.  Fifteen.  Then came a lull in the barrage.  I called over to my best buddy, Kane.  We called him “Killer.”  He was the gentlest guy in our platoon, but we’d nicknamed him that after the popular comic strip character, “Killer Kane.”

“Are you hurt, Killer?”

“Naw.  But I think everybody else over here is.  Presto’s hit bad.”

I called to Cruz on my right.  He was our squad’s B.A.R. man.  There was no answer.  Then I barely heard him whispering, “I’m hurt.  Real bad.  Floyd’s dead.  Corporal John’s hit bad.”

Well, I thought, if Presto’s out and the Corporal, too, we don’t have a leader.

The pounding started again, this time with flares so they could spot us better.  We did some firing back and then the action subsided into another lull.

Down along the rear of our line came a figure crawling.  It was our platoon runner.  “Captain says we’re getting nowhere,” he whispered to Killer and me.  “We’re pulling back in five minutes.  Move out when you hear our covering fire.”

I crawled over to Killer.  “We’ve got to get our guys out of here,”  I said.  “You go up your side and I’ll go down mine, and we’ll drag as many as possible to that big tree back there.”

“How’re we going to get them out of here, though?”

“I don’t know,” I said.”But we can’t leave them lying here.”

We were trapped.  I lay there on the cold ground feeling helpless, that forsaken feeling again.  Where was the God that I had prayed to during all those years of church and Sunday school back home in Pennsylvania?”  And whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do,”  the Bible had said to me clearly.  Was it necessary, when I needed help so badly to ask?

“Oh, Lord,”  I mumbled, “help us.  We’re trying to get our wounded buddies out of here.  Show us the way.”

I had no sooner started dragging Corporal John toward our meeting tree when the firing started up in the center of our line.  There’s the signal for pulling back, I thought frantically, but we can’t do it. The Germans will sweep in on us; they’ll mop us up before we can pull back.

Just as I got to the tree, I saw that Killer had brought back three wounded squad members.  So we had six in all to get back.  I closed my eyes and in desperation said:  “In Your name, Lord, help us.”

I opened my eyes.  In the black of night, moving mysteriously among the shattered trees, a giant hulk came toward us.  The Germans, my heart thumped, they’ve broke out of the brush.  They’re bearing down on us.  No, it was something else, something unbelievable.  It now came into full view and stopped beside our tree.

A horse.

A big, docile, shaggy chestnut, standing there without a harness, as though awaiting our bidding.

Killer and I looked at each other in disbelief.  We didn’t question then where the horse came from, or how, or why; we just got to work.  Moving swiftly, we draped Cruz and the Corporal on the chestnut’s broad back, then Mike and Presto.  Then, with Killer carrying one of our buddies and me carrying the other, we led the horse out of the woods.  At the clearing the horse trotted on ahead of us, straight to the chateau, and by the time Killer and I got there, our wounded were already on medical stretchers.  The two men we carried in were cared for; the medics gave a quick look at my shrapnel wound; and then, as fast as we could, Killer and I went to find the horse.  We wanted to pat him, give him some sugar, anything to make him sense our gratitude.

But he wasn’t there.  We looked everywhere, asked everyone we saw, but no one could tell us anything about him.  He had simply vanished–gone from us as mysteriously as he had come.

The next morning at the aid station the shrapnel was removed from my leg, and at noon Killer and I lined up for our belated Christmas dinner.  The day before, 190 men in our company would have answered the chow call; today there were 35 of us.  All the wounded men in our squad had survived, however, though some were never to see action again.

I have always believed that Christmas night, God sent that horse to reassure a doubting soldier of His presence,even as He had sent His Son for that purpose on a Christmas night twenty centuries ago.

Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few.

Matthew 9:37

Jennifer Van Allen

www.theprodigalpig.com

www.faithincounseling.org

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