My father versus God.

My father never set foot in church again after coming home from the war. Although he never told the entire story of his experiences in the war, he must have seen and done some things that put a wall up between himself and God. As I grow older and have my own complicated experiences with church (though not with God), I have begun to understand my father more that I ever did when he was alive. I know that he was a man broken by war and its atrocities, shattered by what he saw and did in World War II, and for whom faith at a distance became all he could manage. Further complicating his experience was the Purple Heart he was awarded because of his neck injury, but more on that later.

In his rural Georgia town, he was seen and celebrated as a war hero. My father’s generation has been coined the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. Dad was born in 1922 and was just barely nineteen years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was a farm kid from Irwin County, Georgia, whose own father died while Dad was still in elementary school; therefore, he had only a third-grade education. When his father died, he and his brothers were taken out of school so they could manage the farm. The lives of their large family depended on them.

Dad’s mother was a force, and she worked in the fields alongside her sons. Though small in stature, she had a strong will, a strong back, and an undying faith. She was as sturdy as anyone could be. The tale goes that after giving birth to my father in a pantry, she handed him off to one of her daughters two hours later so she could get back to the field. It was the end of the harvest, and there was still much to be done.

Her faith was legendary. She learned to read by reading the Bible, and she read it from cover to cover at least once each year. I don’t remember ever seeing her read anything that wasn’t Christian in nature. The one time we joined her at a church service, it frightened me. She was a member of a primitive Baptist church, where people were often overtaken by the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. I can still see the woman who was on the same pew with us who was overtaken by the Spirit. I had never seen such an occurrence. Her body shook and her mouth spoke gibberish. Her eyes, tightly closed, jerked wildly back and forth, back and forth. I leaned against my mother and tugged at her dress, imploring her to get help for the woman, whom I though was having some sort of medical emergency. My mother shushed me. Later, on the ride back to my other grandmother’s house, I said simply, “Please don’t take me there again.” She assured me she would not, and she kept that promise.

So my father’s mother, who gave birth ten times, brought up my father to be a godly man, to attend church and to always have faith. Somewhere along the way, though, his faith was irreparably broken.

The reason I’m writing this is that one night this week, when again I could not sleep, I thought, “Dad had faith. Why did he never go to church?” I began to trace back the history of his life, as I knew it, to try to answer that unanswerable question. Dad is not here to explain it to me, if he even understood it.

Imagine for a moment that you are hailed as a “war hero” for killing others, and that everything in your upbringing taught you that killing another human would result in your sentence to Hell. After all, one of the ten commandments from God Himself was, “Thou shalt not kill.” Imagine you looked another person in the eye and ended their life. Where would that leave you? How is killing another person in war any different than killing another person in cold blood? How is it not only forgiven but praised?

Here are the few things I know about my father’s history in the war.

He was a paratrooper in the Army. I have a photograph of him landing in an open field. His feet have not yet touched the ground. It was a training exercise, nowhere near the real task he would be given later. I have another picture, somewhere in my myriad boxes, that shows him at the open doorway of the plane, getting ready to jump. That picture always gave me chills, because I knew that the only way I would be able to jump from a plane is if someone bodily grabbed me and threw me from it. My father’s bravery was unfathomable. From farming rich soil to soaring high above it, my father must have been an adventurer. Only the bravest are chosen to be paratroopers.

The mission he was given led him to jump from a plane high above Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, as it came to be known. He, along with many others, flew from England to France and dropped into enemy territory five hours before the Utah beach landing, portrayed so effectively in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

…the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions descended on the peninsula by parachute and glider in the early hours of D-Day. The paratroopers were badly scattered. Many were injured and killed during the attack, and much of their equipment was lost, but the brave paratroopers fought fiercely, causing confusion among the German commanders and keeping the German’s troops occupied. Their efforts; hampered by harsh weather, darkness and disorganization, and initiative of resourceful Soldiers and leaders, ensured that the Utah Beach assault objectives were eventually accomplished. 

D-Day History: Airborne and Beach Assault, U.S. Army (https://www.army.mil/d-day/history.html)

He never talked about that day with me except to say that he was there. I don’t know how he survived, or which division he was in (although I believe it was the 101st, because the insignia of the eagle seems so familiar to me). It was a far cry from the open field where he had trained. Imagine jumping from a plane during those dark hours before dawn, into an unlit area, heavily wooded and full of the enemy. Imagine floating down through the blackness, ready to fight immediately upon landing, if you survived the landing. Was my father praying on his way into the unknown?

He did survive. Later that year, he would be part of another major battle – the Battle of the Bulge in the village of Bastogne. This time, instead of parachuting into enemy territory, he went in on foot as part of Gen. George C. Patton’s 3rd Army. This Georgia farm kid saw snow for the first time in his life. It must have been, at first, magical. But I’m certain the magic quickly dissipated as the bitter cold settled into his body, and he realized the ground under him was frozen solid. It was him and his rifle against enemy soldiers who were more accustomed to the hazardous conditions of winter in France. I imagine my father shivering and fighting the very real danger of frostbite and his feeling of not being clean – ever. Bathing was not an option, and it would have been risky to even pull off his boots and socks to give his skin a chance to dry out or rest.

I will never know exactly what he went through, but it was during this part of the war that he earned his Purple Heart. Rifles froze in the bitter conditions and would not fire. The stock and barrel were as frozen as the ground beneath his worn and battered boots. Firing on the enemy was no longer possible, so he mounted the bayonet on the end of his rifle. Any confrontation had to be in hand-to-hand combat, using his bayonet, his fists, and his strength to ensure that the other guy was the one who died. It was in this way that my father became as broken as a man can be. He braced himself to be face-to-face with his enemy. No longer able to distance himself from the reality of his mission, he prepared to and then killed German soldiers, looking them in the eye as he took their lives. He would have seen their terror and their pain. He would have smelled and been covered with their blood. He would have heard their screams, and those would have echoed in his head for the rest of his life.

He was surrounded by young men just like himself who were tasked with killing him in the name of their country and its leader, Hitler. It is likely that he no longer knew–if indeed he ever did–why he was fighting in this war. He couldn’t have known the atrocities that had been visited on the Jews in Europe. I’m sure the patriotism had been drilled into him. He had been trained and was ready (but was he?) to die for God and country, to save the American way of life. But he was in a frozen forest, thousands of miles from home, watching men die–killing some of them himself–all around him. I wonder, did he know how many men he killed? It is likely that he had an idea of it. I can’t imagine that you kill so many humans in war, particularly with a rifle and bayonet, that you lose count.

In addition to the German infantry, he would have faced the danger of the tanks. Two hundred thousand Germans with 1,000 tanks had created the “bulge” in the front line, which the Americans, Canadians, and British sought to push back. Part of the battle included destroying fuel resources that the Germans needed for their tanks. Gen. Patton was a classic war general. He feared nothing but instead inspired his men to push onward. Until the day he died, my father carried the wallet card that Patton had distributed to all of his soldiers just before Christmas 1944, carrying his greetings and his encouragement to them. What must it be like to believe in your leader so much that you carry them with you forever?

It was indeed on Christmas that the Allied forces regained the area of the Bulge and pushed back the Germans in a decisive victory that turned the tide of the war.

At the critical road junctions of St. Vith and Bastogne, American tankers and paratroopers fought off repeated attacks, and when the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne was summoned by his German adversary to surrender, he simply responded, “Nuts!”

Within days, Patton’s Third Army had relieved Bastogne, and to the north, the 2nd U.S. Armored Division stopped enemy tanks short of the Meuse River on Christmas. Through January, American troops, often wading through deep snow drifts, attacked the sides of the shrinking bulge until they had restored the front and set the stage for the final drive to victory.

The Battle of the Bulge (https://www.army.mil/botb/)

The battle continued into January 1945. At some point during that period, my father’s best friend, his buddy in war, was killed by a blast from a tank. The ground was so frozen that the men could not dig foxholes. They hid behind and within anything available. My father then had to use the body of his best friend as a shield to save himself. During the assault, he sustained wounds to his neck from shrapnel. Some of that shrapnel remained in his neck for the rest of his life, causing complications and pain. The wounds resulted in the award of the Purple Heart to him. Though he lived, I believe that the day he used his buddy’s body as a shield is the day the crack in my father’s soul widened and refused to ever heal. He was forever broken.

I have no more tales of my father’s war days. I knew him as the broken man. I was born eighteen years after my father’s assignment to Patton’s army–one of the last children in the family–to a depressed mother and an angry, sometimes violent father. Somehow I could see the boy inside him, though. I knew that inside that angry man was a gentle soul who had been broken, lied to, asked to do things he never wanted to do. What had passed between my father and God on the battlefield? He carried a New Testament, issued to him by the Army, as well as the wallet card from Patton. Only the wallet card remained with him to the end.

Oh, he still believed in God, but I think he also felt betrayed by God. He was changed. Whenever my mother would get all of us kids ready for church on Sunday, she would ask my father if he wanted to go with us. He would decline, but he would always say, “Say a little prayer for your Daddy.” From his seat at the kitchen table, fully dressed and drinking coffee, he would wave to us.

He was the least lazy man I ever knew. When I got up in the morning, he would always be dressed and drinking a cup of strong coffee. His clothing was something of a uniform. Starched gray khaki pants with a strong crease down the front, starched white long-sleeved shirt with his cuffs rolled up twice, clean white crewneck undershirt, boxers, black socks, and shined black shoes. He never wore short-sleeved shirts, jeans, sneakers, or anything of the kind. He adhered to his uniform seven days a week. No dry cleaners for him, either. He was particular about his clothes and liked for them to be heavily starched and pressed. It strikes me now that this was his way of always being clean and in uniform, much as he would have been in his pre-battle Army days.

My mother did his washing, starching, and ironing. She cooked his meals. She saw to it the house was clean and the kids were fed and well-mannered. It took everything out of her, but she did it. She had known him before the war, and I can’t help but wonder if that pre-war image is what sustained her love for him. To me, if not to my siblings, it was no coincidence that she died the night before what would have been their 59th wedding anniversary. By that time, Dad had been dead for twenty-four years.

Maybe he did feel betrayed by God. More likely, though, I think he was afraid. I think he felt the weight of all the souls he killed in the war. I think they haunted him and followed him. I think he felt God would release wrath on him for those deaths and that he would be sentenced to an eternity in the fiery pit. That’s what he believed. He would not have been able to rationalize away those deaths. When he came home from the war, he tried to drown the memories with alcohol, which nearly cost him his life and his family. He got sober, but then he simply lived his life dry but angry, violent, and unpredictable. Hell was what he was living through on earth. What had he to fear in the next life?

I wasn’t with my father when he died. I was living through my own hell, homeless but working a call center job. It was one evening when I used the phone at work after hours, calling my mother collect, that I learned he had died. He had been suffering from lung cancer for nearly seven years. It wasn’t unusual for him to end up in the hospital to get one complication or another under control. He was living with only one partial lung and had exhausted all hope of a cure. He protected us from further details. (Now that I’ve been through my own cancer encounter, I know more and wish I had understood what he was going through then.) My mother had been hospitalized at the same time because of an infection or some lung complication of her own. They were together in the hospital but on separate floors. They were divorced, but he was still in love with her. She still loved him but knew she was better off not trying to make a marriage with him.

I’m told my father rang the nurse’s station the afternoon he died. By the time they responded over the intercom, he simply said, “It’s alright. I’m alright now.”

Those were his last words in this life. He had slipped away by the time the nurse came to his room to check on him. I’d like to think that in those final moments, he saw his loved ones. He saw the buddy he had lost in Bastogne, whose body had shielded him from an early death. Maybe he saw all the soldiers he had killed, showing up with love and forgiveness. Most of all, I hope he saw God’s face shining on him, welcoming him into paradise.

Ardis E. Evans, 1922 – 1982. War hero, father, husband, human.

Peace, Jude



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About Me

A writer and solitary soul in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

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