A Haven From Battle
American Protestant soldiers in World War II confronted a severe dilemma that challenged their faith in a matter of life and death. The war itself indeed proved that faith was a central part of these veterans’ lives, so due to religion’s multifaceted purpose—as defined by Religious Studies Professor Kelly Denton-Borhaug—that could entail satisfying a personal need like comfort in a time of difficulty.
One reason why I find specifically Denton-Borhaug’s definition of religion to be so compelling and valuable is that it is rooted in practicality. Of course, doctrine and dogma are important characteristics of religion. The Bible’s stories and narratives of ancient patriarchs, kingdoms, and so forth and the lessons and morals derived from them are all obviously important in Christianity. However, religion can be much more, as Denton-Borhaug explains:
“The emotional and energetic communal ties forged through facing the rigors and dangers of war meet a deep psychological human need to be a part of a community, by investing meaning and purpose into one’s own group. This points to ‘functionalist’ definitions of religion, which emphasize not core doctrines or dogmas, or belief in various deities, but the functions of religion that serve various needs of individuals and society.”¹
So, it is this “functionalist” type of religion that she refers to that I use to characterize veterans using their religion to satisfy their personal needs. To elaborate, functionalist religion can provide several existential functions such as helping individuals claim identity, which is applicable to many American Protestant veterans of World War II.
Identity could be attained through religion. For example, Gene Pflughaupt served in the U.S. Army in the European Theater of the war, traversing France, Germany, and the Rhine River, as well as experiencing combat in the Battle of the Bulge (1944-1945). Pflughaupt grew up in a Methodist household around Chicago, regularly attending both church and Sunday school. He was brought up learning Biblical verses and hymns, which came to be as fundamental to his personal identity as the mere fact that he was from around Chicago. Pflughaupt was a practicing Methodist, which was an important part of his upbringing and religious disposition.
In the clip of an interview with Pflughaupt, he demonstrates how he relied on his religious background during his service in the war. He relied on his knowledge of certain verses and hymns from the Bible to help him as he was sitting in a foxhole fearing enemy gunfire. However, this was not entirely spiritual. Rather, it was a tactic used during wartime. Pflughaupt not only drew upon his identity as a Christian when he recited those Biblical passages, but he also recalled his home and family to escape or remove himself from that situation in that moment. It offered a temporary reprieve in the midst of chaos. The action did not necessarily fulfill a spiritual need, and Pflughaupt never mentioned any connection to God in those moments. In fact, he said that recalling Biblical passages simply helped him to stay awake and vigilant against an enemy attack. In this case, Pflughaupt did not turn to his religious beliefs as a spiritual escape to something ethereal. Instead, Pflughaupt used Biblical verses and hymns to help him through combat by allowing him to escape to memories of home. Religion was a central part of his personal identity, helping him through combat. So, I would not characterize Pflughaupt’s reliance on Biblical passages during war a spiritual need. Rather, I would characterize it sheer nostalgia more inclined to promote personal identity than spiritual expression.
Reverend Owen Edwards served in the U.S. Navy, actually driving LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks) to transport troops to the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord in 1944. Having studied at Southern Baptist Seminary to become a reverend, Edwards clearly devoted his life to religion, and Christianity was clearly a major part of his life and personal identity.
As seen in the clip from an interview with Edwards, his faith helped him get through the war. During a bombing in England where he was stationed, Edwards recalled a particular verse from the Bible, John 15:16: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you” (John 15:16 [KJV]). Edwards says that he recalled that particular verse in that fearful instance to comfortably go to sleep during the bombing. That spiritual connection meant that Edwards was drawing on his Christian identity to seek comfort during war.
Another clear example of functionalist religion at play is the service of David Downey, who served in the U.S. Navy as a cook and a butcher aboard ships.
Downey prayed because he emphatically believed that prayers to God would get him through any situation. Like Pflughaupt, Downey sought security through religious ritual, but he also displayed a strong sense of spirituality. This is most certainly not to say that Downey is more spiritual or a better Christian than Pflughaupt but that Downey articulated a clear spiritual connection with God. For Downey, it was deeply comforting to seek God’s help because it shattered any notion that life’s difficulties were insurmountable. Based on that comfort, he clearly found his own way to endure World War II, which was his religious identity as a devout Christian that he used to his own benefit.
The service of Albert Wess was a story of endurance, showing how religion was not necessarily just a haven from sheer warfare. Wess served in the U.S. Army, specifically joining a famous truck convoy known as the Red Ball Express, which brought supplies for the Allied Powers to the frontlines in France and other parts of the Western Front in Europe.
Wess expressed his gratitude for God’s blessings regardless of the racism he suffered during his lifetime, including his service. Wess’ story is an important reminder that physical battles and literal fighting were not the only horrors of war. While combat brought a great deal of pain and trauma for many, other types of horrors made service difficult for others. For instance, for Wess—a black American—it was a degrading and offensive stunt for Hollywood to release a film, “Red Ball Express” (1952), based on a unit predominantly made up of black servicemen, but starring white actors. Furthermore, Wess mentions in the first clip the trouble he faced just for being black during his training at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi. He and other black servicemen were unpleasantly unwelcomed by some white servicemen at Camp Van Dorn. Once, an abhorrently racist police officer pulled Wess over on the side of a road, harassing him, and even threatened him by sticking his gun up Wess’ nose. Despite all of this nasty racism, it is quite noble that Wess remained strong through it all and did not let this kind of deplorable racism beat him down.
In the second clip from his interview, Wess discusses self-preservation, an integral idea to his identity that it is everybody’s personal responsibility to work hard for God’s blessings, regardless of war, racism, or any other hardship. That is certainly how he used religion to benefit himself because he rationalized it as picking himself up with God’s help to overcome the war and racism simultaneously. Wess’ relationship with God is evidently a part of who he is, guiding his attitude and outlook on life. Wess is simply grateful for God’s blessings in his life, which empowered him more than any war or racism could bring him down.
¹ Kelly Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice, and Salvation (Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub., 2011), 129-130.