Maurice Brookes: US Army Air Corps

We were sitting down, stuffing our faces with some delicious Dairy Queen dilly bars, the perfect addition to a hot day at D-Day Ohio (more on that later), and I saw this darling fly boy watching us. So I popped over and introduced myself. He said "I was wondering when you were going to come over." So I laughed and asked him where he was from. He said,

"Have you ever heard of Shakespeare? Stratford on Avon? I'm from Stratford."

Turns out Mr. Brookes was born and raised to with his English parents in the hometown of the beloved writer of all things remarkable, William Shakespeare. In 1931, when he was 9 years old, his parents immigrated to Pittsburgh for a "better life." When the war came he joined the Air Corps and trained as a flight engineer in Texas, and then was stationed in New Mexico training new airmen. Towards the end of the war he was sent to Guam to get ready for the big move on Japan but thankfully it all ended before things came to that. He also mentioned he had a brother who was a flame-thrower in Saipan.

While we were talking, he opened his wallet and pulled out an old picture of an adorable gal with fluffy blonde hair. Very proudly he introduced me to his wife. "I met her on a furlough, and married her on the next one a year later. " he pulled another picture out and said "This is from the day we met!" I can think of few things more precious and loving than a 95 year old gentleman, 70+ years later still carrying with him for all the world to see and admire a picture of not only his life long sweetheart, but the day he met her!

The whole time we talked, I couldn't help imagining him as a darling rosy-cheeked 9 year old, English boy coming to our country, learning the American way, fighting for both our countries, and now, our Mr. Brookes, a lovely gentleman of 95 relating these stories. 

"To D-Day and Back"

When I met Mr. Robert Bearden for the first time at the Reagan International Airport in the D.C. airport last September, I found out that he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, a POW, and Head Yell Leader at The University of Texas. All these things were enough to leave me in awe, but little did I know about the truly amazing life he has led. 

Mr. Bearden joined the paratroops in 1942 after serving in the Texas National Guard since 1940. Becoming a paratrooper was not simply a routine decision for Bob Bearden; it was a proof of manhood.  He was not as big as the other guys and as a result he felt he needed to prove himself. The paratroops had a reputation for being the toughest of the tough. People stood in awe of them. That was a very desirable image for a guy whose stature had not been what he would have hoped; and there was no sneezing at the extra $50 a month for jumping out of an airplane. 

In 1943, the life of a paratrooper was far from ordinary. People say fact is stranger than fiction, and in Mr. Bearden’s case, I am inclined to agree. One day, he and a buddy came across a baboon tied with a chain in the middle of someone’s junkyard. It was customary for the units to have a mascot. One 507th unit had a jumping German Shepherd and another had a goat. If their company, Company H of the 507th, had a big baboon as their mascot, that would surpass everyone else’s. So they got the idea to bag it and take it back to barracks. After a valiant attempt to commandeer the furious monkey, they were forced to leave it, but not without a great number of scratches and cuts.

Mr. Bearden certainly did not live a dull life during his training and got into a good deal of mischief, but his war had hardly begun by June of 1944. On the evening of June 5th, after rigorous training in the U.S. and in England, Sergeant Robert Bearden was put on a plane and sent across the English Channel to be dropped over Normandy with the rest of the 82nd Airborne. Like so many of the Airborne units dropped over Normandy, he was separated from the rest of his men. After a more than intense few days on the ground in France, which included the battle for Fresville, an ear injury resulting in his first Purple Heart, and a recommendation for a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) for saving a Lieutenant’s life, Sergeant Bearden was captured by the Germans and his experience as a POW began. 

Mr. Bearden, after multiple transfers, ended up in Stalag IIIC in Keustrin, Germany. In June of 1944, he weighed in at 163 pounds; just 90 days later he was officially registered with the Red Cross as a POW and was weighed in at a grand total of 98 pounds. 

Finally on January 31 1945, (a date which Mr. Bearden has never forgotten) he was liberated by the Russians. This was an ordeal in and of itself. The Russians had a signifiant hatred for the Germans, and as a result, he had to witness a great deal of brutality from his own liberators. Initially Sergeant Bearden’s plan was to travel and fight with the Russians, cross the Oder River, and then go through Berlin to ultimately end up with the American Forces. After seeing the way the Russians fought and the amount of Vodka they consumed, resulting in “freak” accidents that kept killing liberated GIs, he finally decided a Plan B was necessary or else he would end up in one of the “accidents” himself.  So on February 2, 1945, Plan B took affect. About 20 ex-POWS traveled along the Russian supply lines and hopefully, if they traveled far enough and long enough east, they would arrive back home. For Bob Bearden, that meant TEXAS! 

For a GI who has lost more than a third of his body weight and survived the brutality of the Germans as a POW to walk across Europe is no easy task. His journey took him through Germany, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Italy where he finally met up with the U.S. Army in Naples. Along the way, he had traveled by boxcar, horseback, buggy, farm wagon, bicycle, and many other forms of transport, but mainly he traveled, as he put it, by “the good old ‘Ankle Express.’” Having witnessed the travesties of war which had mostly been inflicted by the Russians, enough was enough, and the strain was too much. Several of the other GIs had had too much and lost it. Their breakdowns were really wearing on him and the others. He decided if it kept on like that, he would crack, too. He didn’t want to add to their strain, so he set out alone. In Poland he came across an abandoned department store where he not only found some sorely needed fur coats, but 60 pairs of silk stockings. These he stuffed down his newly acquired fur coats and used them as trading all the way home. “They were better than any coin of the realm.” 

He made it to Naples by way of Athens and Greece on a British ship, and from there took the U.S.S. West Point (a Coast Guard ship) arriving in Boston in April, 1945. When Sergeant Robert Bearden finally reached Texas, he was only 22 years old.  

Back in Texas, Mr. Bearden went on to be Head Yell Leader at The University of Texas. Amazingly enough, when we visited Mr. Bearden earlier this year, it occurred to us that his years at UT crossed over with our grandmother’s. He pulled out his year books, and low and behold, there she was! His response was, “I must have known her!”

Now 70 years after his service, Mr. Bearden has lived a full life. After giving his early years fighting to protect our country and seeing the very ugly face of war, he spent two very difficult years coming to terms with all he had seen, and ultimately found peace in Christ in the 1960s. Filled with compassion for others who struggled with heavy burdens, Mr. Bearden founded Christian Farms Treehouse, a work study program for men, expanded in 1978 to include women, who had made tragic mistakes but who could be given hope and new life through the help and guidance of people who truly cared about them and more importantly about their souls. Every time we have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Bearden, hardly a word comes out of his mouth that is not full of gratitude and thankfulness to the Lord. 

Everything I have written has only given a slight glimpse into the life of Mr. Bearden and his service during the war. I have highlighted just a few events. But it is always wonderful when we can read the account from the man himself! And if you want to read his full story in his own words, I highly recommend his book To D-Day and Back from his website: It is really worth reading! 

For Mr. Bearden, his life can be put down to that of a giving one. In World War Two, he offered his life and service to his country: he performed his duties well. Then, he gave his life to the Lord, a willing sacrifice for whatever would be required. Following this, he devoted his life to giving and caring for those who had no hope, and he gave them a hope greater than any other: hope in the Lord.

War and Peace: 1939-1945

75 years ago today, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to the world that Great Britain was officially in a state of war with Germany, thus embarking on what would be six long and bloody years of world war. The cost was high, millions of lives would be lost, but victory came in the end.

On September 2, 1945, exactly six years later minus one day, World War II would officially end with the surrender of Japan on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The photo below of General MacArthur signing the peace treaty holds a special significance for me because as long as I can remember a signed copy has hung in my dad’s office. But it is more than that. My father was named after General MacArthur, and when he was ten years old, his father took him to meet Mrs. Douglas MacArthur. She gave him the autographed picture. It was a very special meeting for my Dad, and he has always been very grateful for it.

I am awed that in the providence of God, two of the most important moments in our history would fall on consecutive days; like two book ends holding together the chapters of events that had engrossed the world for six long years.

August 14 is considered for VJ-Day for many WWII Veterans, but it was not until September 2, that the official surrender papers were signed on the decks of the U.S.S. Missouri.

Louis Zamperini: A Life Unbroken

Louis Silvie "Louie" Zamperini January 26, 1917 – July 2, 2014

This morning I was shocked to read of the death of Mr. Louis Zamperini. You see, in God’s amazing providential timing, I just finished reading the biography on his life Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand last week, and not a day has gone by that I have not thought about his story. 

The story of his life is one I will never forget. After spending his mischievous childhood and youth stealing and getting chased by police, Zamperini eventually channelled his energy into running. Soon he was setting records and ended up in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.    

Louie, fondly known by his friends and town as the "Torrance Tornado".

Then came World War II.  Zamperini served as a bombardier in the Pacific on a B-24 aircraft. After multiple noteworthy bombing raids, in 1943, he crashed in the ocean while on a rescue mission. He survived 46 days in a little raft subsisting on shockingly little to eat and drink. His only companions were the pilot and one crewman who later died, not to mention the ever present sharks that circled the raft. Finally on day 47, the last survivors of the plane crash, Russell Allen Phillips and Louis Zamperini, arrived at the Marshall Islands and were quickly captured by the Japanese. Already in very bad health after almost 7 weeks on a raft, Zamperini weighed in at a pitiful 79 pounds, less than half his original body weight. He and his pilot were taken to various prison camps where they endured experimentation and incessant beatings. One man in particular, whom the prisoners nicknamed “The Bird,” found it his mission to torment and beat the Olympic athlete constantly. The torture inflicted by this sadistic corporal shaped his life for years afterward. 

Finally in 1945, when the war ended, his trials as a prisoner of war were over. Louis Zamperini returned home and was hugged and kissed by his family for the first time in close to three years. 

Louie, reunited with his family after years of separation, is warmly embraced by his loving mother and father. 

To many his liberation from a life as a POW may seem like a happy conclusion to his story, but Zamperini still had years of darkness ahead of him. Like so many other war heroes, coming home was not as easy as it sounded. At first he seemed like his old self, but inside he was still at war. Night after night in his dreams,  “The Bird” beat him again and again. Night after night, Zamperini tried to strangle him to no avail. It seemed to him that his only escape from the man who still had grasp of him was to kill him. So it became his mission to return to Japan and finish off “The Bird.”

Louie with Billie Graham in the 50s. 

But then one day Louis Zamperini’s true liberation came. At a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles, he remembered a promise he made on the raft years before. He had told God that if God got him out alive that he would serve Him for the rest of his life. Zamperini was physically liberated years before when the war ended, but his real freedom came when the gave his life to Jesus Christ. He went home that night, poured out his bottles of alcohol which had become his nightly companion to drown his memories, went to bed, and never dreamed of “The Bird” again.

Many years later, Louie would return to Japan and meet with the men who had tortured him during the war.

To me, that is a true success story. Freed from drunkenness, freed from his flashbacks and nightmares, freed from hatred for his enemies, Zamperini returned to Japan in the early 1950s. He went to Sugamo Prison where Japanese war criminals were held. He found his previous captors and persecutors and told them he forgave them for all they had done to him. While he never had face to face closure with “The Bird,” Zamperini was at peace. 

What I have just given you is a very, very rough sketch of the life of such an extraordinary man. I would really like to encourage all of you to read the biography on his life. It is one you cannot possibly read with out coming away impacted! I for one have been heavily reminded of the power of God’s saving grace and the freedom it brings to those who have endured some of life’s hardest trials. Mr. Zamperini could have lived out the rest of his life in misery like so many others, but because of the beautiful work of Christ in his heart, he lived out a full life of 97 years and used his story to impact the lives of countless others. 

Brothers: Herb and Ed Griffin

Right to left: Liberty Phillips, Jubilee Phillips, Herb Griffin, Ed Griffin, and Faith Phillips

One of the most delightful experiences I (Jubilee) have had while in Normandy was meeting Mr. Herb and Ed Griffin, brothers and both veterans of the Second World War. Mr. Herb Griffin landed at Utah Beach on D+10. Despite having been taken, the beach still had many un-detonated mines. As one of the 79th Infantry Division, Mr. Griffin helped to take Cherbourg. Shortly after the liberation, he was badly injured in the arm by an 88 and was sent to a hospital in England for recovery. Mr. Ed Griffin did not land in Normandy because he was too young at the time (he was two years junior of his brother), but served later on in the war. 

Herb Griffin as an 18 year old soldier.

Mr. Herb Griffin had always wanted to return to Normandy, but never had the opportunity until an unlikely meeting with the fire department when they rescued him after he became unconscious in church. On the way to the hospital, they started talking about his war experiences and a special bond grew between veteran and firefighters. The providential meeting ended up with the firemen raising enough money to send not only Herb, but also his brother Ed, back for the first time to the beach he landed on 70 years ago. 

Mr. Griffin and I listen to "It Had To Be You", sung by Faith Phillips

It was simply wonderful to get to meet them. Faith offered to sing a song from the WWII era for them and Mr. Griffin picked, “It Had to be You.” We were thrilled to see how much they enjoyed the song and even just talking to us. Memories like these are absolutely priceless, and I am so grateful to have been able to meet these two kind and wonderful veterans. 

Taking photos in foreign lands can be quite amusing.