I have an avid interest in the Second World War. I am of the generation whose grandfathers fought in the war and I have always been proud of the contributions made by members of my family. My maternal grandfather, Lawrence Belford, wished to fly bombers but was not permitted because of poor eyesight. Still, he served the Royal Canadian Air Force as a member of the ground crew, loading bombs into Lancaster bombers. He would often recount his memories of the war and at one point I even conducted an interview with him. My grandmother’s brother, Harold, was a Spitfire pilot who lost his life in a mission over the Mediterranean. My paternal grandfather, George Challies, whom I never met, was a Lieutenant Colonel and I am unsure of his contribution, though I believe he commanded an artillery training centre in Quebec. When I was in college I majored in history (my minor was in euchre) and took every possible course that centered around the war years. While I have since turned to other interests I continue to have a fascination with the war and read about it as often as I am able.
This fascination led me to read War and Grace: Short Biographies from the World Wars, a book of brief biographies written by Don Stephens. The thirteen biographies have one thing in common – the subjects are all Christians. A few of these people were believers long before the war began, while others were converted during or after the war.
What I found particularly interesting is that I knew of many of the people whose lives are examined in this book, yet I had no idea that they had become Christians. For example, anyone who has studied the war knows of Mitsuo Fuchida who was the chief pilot for the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbour. He is famous for giving the signal to attack and then crying “Tora! Tora! Tora!, the codeword to indicate that the Japanese had achieved complete surprise. But what fewer know, I’m sure, is that after the war he became a believer and spent the rest of his life in passionate, fruitful ministry to the Lord.
Years after the war Fuchida crossed paths with another subject of this book, Jacob DeShazer, one of the Doolittle Raiders who spent several years in Japanese custody after his plane crashed. In prison he was given a Bible and in his autobiography he writes, “On June 8th, 1944, the words of Romans 10:9 stood out boldly before my eyes: ‘If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.’ In that very moment God gave me grace to confess my sins to him, and he forgave me and saved me for Jesus’ sake…” After the war DeShazer became a missionary and spent much of his life ministering in Japan. His ministry continues to this day.
The final chapter was the one I found most fascinating. The author writes about Henry Gerecke who was the Protestant (Lutheran) chaplain to the Nazi war criminals during their trial at Nuremberg. Dedicating many months to sharing the gospel with these men, he was blessed to see several of the highest ranking Nazis, men whose crimes live in infamy even today, humble themselves before God. I am sure very few have learned in school that among the last words of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, were, “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul.” He then turned to Gerecke and said, “I’ll see you again.”
Part of the beauty of this book is that Stephens writes with a Reformed understanding of conversion. He clearly sought out more than just good stories, but looked in particular for stories of true conversion. He leaves little doubt about those who gave their lives to Christ. The theology in this book is deep and satisfying.
So I suppose this book came as a surprise to me. I knew many of the people, but I knew them only from secular texts which had no interest in the spiritual dimensions of their lives. To learn of the deep faith of these people, faith that was often formed and tested in the most difficult of circumstances, was a very pleasant surprise. I highly recommend it.
Strong, Bible-based theology throughout.
A little bit clunky at times, but still easy to read and understand.
Unique in the spiritual dimension of the biographies.
Well worth reading for anyone with an interest in history or biography.
A fascinating book and one I highly recommend.