War is Hell – but God is Present
We’ve honored our United States veterans this weekend…in parades, tributes, and acknowledgements. Veterans were recognized in many churches this morning.
Some of us have seen World War II memorials or museums and the Korean War Memorial. Thirty years ago today, November 13, 1982, the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC. We visited it a number of years ago. I didn’t think it would impact me too much emotionally, until I saw a family of four tracing a name on the wall, weeping together. And then it hit me afresh. The losses sustained in any war are horrific.
Loss of life and limb, emotional scars, PTSD, disabilities that prevent returning soldiers from providing for their families and, for many, steal their hope and destroy families.
And yet, there are men who, like my husband, walked through their years of service in wartime or peace, with integrity. Yes, they came home scarred in some ways. Don doesn’t talk much about his time in Okinawa at the end of World War II, but I know he carried his New Testament in his pocket all through his deployment, that he led men with compassion and wisdom. And there are many like him.
Even where our men spent time as POWs in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ during the Vietnam war, in a hellhole of abuse, punishment, raised and dashed hopes–God was there, available. I recall reading one man’s story of how scriptures he had learned in his childhood came back to memory and helped sustain him through that difficult time.
And the book “Unbroken”, by Laura Hildebrand, (Angelina Jolie produced the movie in 2014) tells the story of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini was an Olympic distance runner who competed in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, in front of Adolf Hitler. He was slated to participate in the 1940 Olympics, which were cancelled when World War II broke out.
In 1941 Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Force as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. He was posted to the Pacific island of Funafuti. In May 1943 his plane was shot down while searching for another lost plane. He and one other airman landed on Japanese shores after having survived in a lifeboat for 47 days. They were subject to the unrelenting sun, storms, circling sharks, and Japanese bomber strafing runs. They didn’t have fresh water or food.
The men collected rainwater to drink and killed birds that lighted on their boat to survive.
On landing, they were captured and imprisoned for two years, suffering greatly at the hands of “The Bird,” a staff sargeant who saw Zamperini, a respected American Olympian, as a key propaganda tool. The Bird was psychotic in his physical and emotional torture of the men, who never knew what would set him off. He practiced judo on an appendectomy patient; he ordered a man who served under him to be hit in the face every day for three weeks; and tied a 65-year old POW to a tree for four days. He was hated throughout the camp, and Zamperini was no exception.
General MacArthur listed The Bird as number 23 on the list of 40 most-wanted war criminals. However, the man was never caught and prosecuted.
After the war ended in 1945 and Zamperini was released, he returned home to become an alcoholic and almost lost his marriage. Then in 1949 his wife invited him to a Billy Graham Crusade, where he heard the good news of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. He committed his life to Christ and began the process of healing.
Zamperini went on to found a camp for troubled youth called Victory Boys Camp, served church youth groups, and forgave his Japanese tormenters. He forgave some of them in person in 1950 when he visited a Tokyo prison where they were serving war-crime sentences. In 1998, at age 81, Zamperini returned to Japan once again to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games. He stated his intention to forgive the Bird, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, but Watanabe refused to meet with Louis.
Along with a very large crowd, Don and I heard Zamperini speak when he was 94 years young. In a wheelchair with a broken leg, he refused to cancel his engagement and, rather than have him fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco, his son drove him here. It was a moving and meaningful time as Zamperini shared his story of healing and redemption, and acknowledge all the veterans listening in his audience. Louis went home to be with his Savior in 2014, at age 97. The Lord who had forgiven his sins and brought him to a place of forgiving those who tortured him. He also was married to his wife, Cynthia, for 51 years!
Blessed is the onePsalm 1
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Whatever you are challenged with today, God is with you. He has promised his children that he will “never leave you nor forsake you.” Call on him. Lean on him. Let him lift you up in his time. And let me know how I can pray for you.