It was a perfect morning for Fred Ingellis to honor his fallen brothers. A train rumbled beyond the tree line as the 86-year-old moved over the freshly mowed cemetery grass underneath a flawless cerulean sky.
It was so breezy and cool that he didn’t even break a sweat as he planted flags on the graves of veterans.
Ingellis, one of five brothers who served in World War II, started his yearly task Wednesday morning in the northeast corner of Tupelo Memorial Park. He made his way southward, dropping flags into stone urns and sinking them in the soil as he inched row by row toward an ancient magnolia that loomed over the landscape like a sacred mountain.
For a quarter of a century Ingellis had performed this ritual, working alongside other veterans who each year for Memorial Day set out some 5,000 flags in 21 cemeteries throughout the area.
Ingellis stopped for a moment and produced an old, laminated photograph of himself and his four brothers, all of whom had come home safely from the war.
“Which one am I?” he said, incredulously. “The good looking one, of course.”
The philosopher Paul Tillich once said that faith is a matter of ultimate concern, meaning concern about existence, as well about God and life and death. Few things force one to confront that concern more than war.
Any combat veteran will tell you it’s one thing to speak of death in the abstract, but it’s something else altogether to see a battlefield strewn with the bodies of dead friends.
War is not an easy topic within the Christian faith, and it touches on everything from eternal salvation and the taking of life to Just War Theory and God’s protection and favor.
For men of faith, especially World War II veterans, those who’ve stared into the jaws of what Shakespeare once called “the dogs of war,” the ideas of God, country and sacrifice are woven together into a red, white and blue garment that comforts them as they near the end of their lives.
The desire for meaning, for something to motivate us to rise each day and face the world is, perhaps, the most universal human experience.
Veterans say that the sheer horror of combat can destroy a person’s preconceived notions about the meaning of life and make civilized society seem a little absurd. In those situations, they say, God is the only real comfort.
“You can cling to a lot of things, but I always felt like I was living with the Lord pretty close by,” said Bill Nettles, who served in World War II as a second lieutenant with the 69th Infantry Division out of Camp Shelby.
Nettles, 87, commanded a platoon of 40 men whom he led in such noteworthy campaigns as helping take Fort Ehrenbreitstein in March of 1945.
A life-long Southern Baptist, Nettles’ faith carried him through miles of endless marching, as well as sleeping in fits and starts on unforgiving, freezing terrain.
The Rev. E.S. Furr had a similar experience. No good soldier is completely without fear of dying, if for no other reason than to go on serving his country, and that fear was part of what made Furr to cling to his faith tighter than ever during his service in World War II.
“I believe I prayed for safety – for myself and for my fellow soldiers – more than for victory,” said the retired United Methodist minister who saw a lot of combat in Alsace-Lorraine with the 7th Infantry Regiment, Company E.
Not even the comfort of family was left to Furr when his older brother, William Frazier, was killed by a mortar shell in the Ruhr Valley. Still, his faith helped him soldier on.
Among Furr’s treasured remembrances of his late brother is a letter he sent home shortly before his death in which he talked about his own faith. Paraphrasing the letter from memory, Furr said, “We went to chapel Sunday morning in deep snow. The chaplain was saying to me, ‘Look neither ahead nor behind, but, rather, up into the shining face of God.’”
While serving as a paramedic at Ft. Knox in Kentucky, Leon Marcy had plenty of wounded and dying young soldiers looking up at him from the operating table. For more than three years, beginning in 1942 he treated the wounded as they came in broken from the field of battle.
Though Marcy never saw combat he saw the devastation it caused, and he said that without his Southern Baptist faith he couldn’t have taken it.
“I got a real sense of the sacrifice these men made,” said Marcy, adding that it was not unlike the sacrifice of Christ made to insure the freedom of others.
“They also had a great sense of obedience, a calling to serve God and country,” said Marcy.
The Bible is filled with examples of God sanctioning violence and war, from Joshua’s army circling the walls of Jericho to the future king, David, killing the giant, Goliath.
Even though the Sixth Commandment explicitly says, “Thou shalt not kill,” civilized society and the Christian tradition have both made room for warfare, under certain conditions.
St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas formulated criteria for just war, including the advancement of good and the thwarting of evil, as well as the ultimate goal of bringing about peace.
In World War II the U.S. was fighting the forces of fascism, trying to stop megalomaniacal tyrants who ordered the extermination of millions because of their ethnic and religious identity. Hitler and his allies also had plans for world domination and for advancing an agenda antithetical to the Christian gospel on many levels.
By Christian standards, if ever there was a just war it was World War II.
As a man of faith, Nettles wasn’t in a hurry to take up the sword, but he viewed soldering as a matter of justice and duty. When the time came to kill, he didn’t blink.
In Leipzig he found himself charging toward a German solider who was lowering a 50-caliber machine gun on his unit. It was, as Nettles said, kill or be killed, not only for him but for his men, and he shot the man dead.
“I made my peace with killing early on,” said Nettles. “The Bible teaches that if your government needs of you, it’s still in the purview of religious man to take life.”
Furr is thankful he never had the misfortune of seeing a man fall directly from his rifle fire, but he knows that he took life, and it still bothers him.
He thinks his faith made him a more merciful soldier.
In the closing moments of an exchange on the battlefield of Alsace-Lorraine, Furr, suffering from a shot through the leg, had drawn a bead on a young German solider.
“He ran toward me with his hands up screaming ‘Comrade, comrade,” said Furr. At that moment Furr heard his mother’s voice in his head saying, “some mother’s son,” so he lowered his rifle and forced the soldier to help him hobble back to base.
Nettles also feels Christianity affected the way he soldiered.
As his platoon moved across the German landscape, the men occasionally sought shelter in the homes of civilians. Unfortunately, in the chaos of war it was not unusual for soldiers to take what did not belong to them, but Nettles always forbade his men to loot or otherwise to dishonor people’s property. He felt it unbecoming a soldier to steal, and his men absorbed his moral principles.
“As an officer my men looked up to me and I knew it was important to show that my faith made a difference in the way I conducted myself, even in war,” he said.
In the end, Furr is proud to have served his country, but if he had to do it over again he’d probably be a conscientious objector. He doesn’t feel he was meant to be a soldier, but, he concedes, a lot of good soldiers probably felt that way.
So far as the theological significance of war goes, Furr said he doesn’t often quote “Yankee generals,” but perhaps William Techumseh Sherman had it right.
“War,” Furr said with a smile, “is hell.”
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal