- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

The celebration of World War II veterans as "the greatest generation" for their courage and duty paid little attention to their Christianity, a vacuum filled by a new collection of war stories from a faith perspective.
The book, "Faith Under Fire," recounts the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox experiences of men on the front lines and how they and their families overcame the fear and bitterness of war and in many cases took up religious work afterward.
"I could have filled five books with the stories," said Colorado author Steve Rabey, who settled on 21 representative accounts.
He spent a few months looking for veterans to interview on "the power of faith" in their battlefield experiences. In one case, his wife spotted a military photo at an auto shop, leading to the story of owner Bob Boardman, a Marine who drove a tank at the battle for Okinawa.
Mr. Rabey said his research showed that while the young men and women of that era willingly took on the burdens of war, they were not necessarily a more pious generation.
"These young people had been raised with at least a minimal knowledge and respect for the teachings of the Christian faith before they had been plucked from the farm and sent off to serve in faraway places," he said in an interview.
"For some, Christianity only became real to them when they faced the prospects of sudden annihilation," he said.
The Rev. George Evans, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in McLean and a Navy chaplain who has served the Marines, agrees that the celebration of veterans often overlooks their individual faith as well as the role of religion in the services.
He noted that George Washington first requested chaplains for the U.S. military, and that it was sailors who asked for chapels on ships.
"The Marine Corps is very religious at its heart," Mr. Evans said, adding that "bullets, food and chaplains" have long been the priorities for supplies brought in from the rear.
"During World War II, chaplains were the third most wounded group in the Army," he said. "They were out there by the request of soldiers. It came out of religious feelings" on the war front.
The slogan "greatest generation" rose to prominence in 1999 with the release of a book by that name by NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. His collection of stories of people who grew up in the Depression and came of age during World War II sold 2.3 million copies in its first six months.
Thousands of letters from ex-GIs arrived in response, including the words of a Baptist preacher who as chaplain might have seen a record number of battles from World War II to the Korean War. Mr. Brokaw packaged these as another best seller, "The Greatest Generation Speaks."
During the 2000 presidential election, candidates often referred to the "greatest generation" in speeches.
Although faith was a small part of the Brokaw collections and was showcased in a soldier's story in the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan," religious topics were largely omitted in that period of honoring World War II veterans, Mr. Rabey said.
His collection includes the experiences of a Catholic priest who said Mass among the living and dead on Iwo Jima and a black Tuskegee Airman who said his faith helped him to fight Nazis and to struggle with racism among some American soldiers.
One evangelical Christian survived the Bataan Death March and captivity under the Japanese in the Philippine but overcame his resentment to return to Asia as a missionary. In six such lives, the book recounts a little-known "postwar boom" in U.S. missions abroad by former servicemen.
Another account tells of an Eastern Orthodox sailor who prayed for five hours in the shark-infested waters near Guadalcanal. An Episcopal priest tells his story of observing the Nuremberg war-crime trials.
"God probably heard an abundance of superficial foxhole prayers during the war years," Mr. Rabey said. "But many of the people who survived the carnage and chaos of that time went on to live lives of devotion and commitment."
Their faith typically helped them endure the horrors of war and "helped them make sense of their lives" afterward, he said.
He attended a recent worship service at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and sensed that recruits today had little religious training at home. Their views of the world are "morally fuzzier now than they were in the '40s," Mr. Rabey said.
But his interviews suggest that each generation of war soldier draws on "the wellsprings of faith," he said.


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