From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Vision

I thought being raised in a devout Roman Catholic family would give me the faith and courage to face any hardship a young man of nineteen would be asked to bear, but I quickly realized that nothing can prepare a young man for war.

Originally assigned to a supply division during World War II, I found myself at the front when the generals began stripping the rear units for more replacements to cover their heavy losses. As part of Patton’s Third Army, I joined up with a squad that spearheaded the American advance through France. Our job was to probe the front line, looking for the enemy. Hitching rides on the back of tanks and armored vehicles, we drove through many French towns, all the time pushing back the German troops. When we made contact, my squad would deploy on the flanks, setting up a fifty-caliber machine gun, and wait for our infantry to close in. The German soldiers were first rate; well trained, highly disciplined and unwilling to give up their conquered territory, they fought viciously in retreat. We were always a prime target, and German artillery fire was deadly accurate. Many buddies, as well as guys I barely knew, were hit. I lived moment to moment, always in fear of being the next GI carried out. This pattern persisted day after day. Village after French village was leveled in our effort to push the enemy out, towns and cities reduced to smoldering rubble. Witnessing all the destruction— seeing guys like me, getting killed or wounded—I despaired that I would ever see my home and family again. The ruined French towns were also filled with civilians looking for lost loved ones, digging through debris for anything that might help them live. Through all of this chaos, I prayed constantly for the strength to continue. Dog-tired, constantly on the move, alert every minute to the possibility of enemy fire and numb to the violence surrounding me, I was drained of all hope for my survival.

As we approached the German border after endless months of fighting, one last nameless French village lay ahead. A recent artillery exchange had left the town another smoking wreck, and we probed cautiously forward. Riding in the back of a half-track, my vision obstructed by the haze from still-burning fires, I caught a glimpse of a bombed-out Catholic church. There, on the only standing wall, was a crucifix, the body of Christ, arms still outstretched, eyes lifted to the heavens, untouched by the destruction around it. I could see the wounds Jesus had received at the hands of a different enemy, but he had been left perfectly safe from this battle. I instinctively made the sign of the cross, tightened my helmet strap another notch and gripped my rifle even firmer. If he had made it through, I could make it through. Although almost destroyed by the harsh reality of war, now I was able to continue. I carried this sight within my heart and mind into many more battles through the war, and then safely home. The image has never left me.

Paul Charlillo

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