A Lost Bar, & an Unlikely Prayer- John Costello
In November 1944, when still with C Company, of 398th Infantry Regiment. I’d hit the ground because of shelling by 88-millimeter artillery. I didn’t have a good grip on my M-1. I started to move my hand to better grip the rifle. A voice said, “Don’t move.” When the shelling was over, I found shrapnel from the very last shell had destroyed the gas-powered return mechanism ruining the rifle. It was where my hand would have been.
I was not always a BAR man. I was made one when I was transferred from Company C to a newly formed Company A of the regiment. Since being reassigned, I’d been wounded in December 14, 1944 in the first assault on Fortress Bitche. I rejoined the company right after the first of the New Year.
It was now early February 1945. One night the company cooks provided us with a hot meal under very strict light security conditions. Flashlights held directly over each pan of hot food aided us in finding our way through the chow line.
A BAR is unwieldy. I was barely 5’8”, and I’d done poorly firing it in basic training. The weapon weighs 16 pounds even without the accessory bi-pod and base plates. I couldn’t keep the weapon up on my shoulder as I went though the chow line. I put it down outside, behind the mess tent. I got food, ate it and went back for my BAR. It wasn’t where I’d left it. I was told later that the cost of the BAR would be taken out of my pay. No one believed I hadn’t lost it on purpose.
February 7 dawned. For some time, I’d had the premonition that February 7th would be special in some way. The hunch was right. Around 5 PM or a little earlier, I was sent to the rear to bring back K rations. I felt weak, half-sick, and not at all sure I had the strength to carry the rations up to the front line.
The trail was covered with slushy, half-melted snow. I got the box of rations up on my right shoulder and balanced it there precariously. At a very slippery place on the trail, I lost the rations trying to balance the load and keep my feet. The box went flying, and I found myself on my butt in the snow.
In a split second, without thinking about it, I blurted aloud words I never should have thought, let alone said.
“God damn it, I’ve had enough!”
I was sorry immediately. I didn’t follow up with any sign of contrition. But, I was genuinely sorry and shocked at myself. God will ignore it, I hoped.
But my eye caught sight of an unusual light 100 feet ahead, off slightly to the left of the path. It was abut 10 feet above ground and like no other light I’ve ever seen. It was an iridescent white, and seemed cold. It did not illuminate anything around it.
This ‘light’ seemed to exist in a plane or dimension all its own. Somehow, it appeared to ‘pulsate’ to a predetermined beat. At each ‘beat’ rays of light emanating from a center light disc, would grow brighter, then dimmer. Each ray tilted toward me and then back, as each ray simultaneously grew brighter, then dimmer.
I was mesmerized and afraid of what might happen next.
Abruptly the light was gone. Not more than 50 seconds elapsed from my first awareness of it until it vanished.
Still sitting in the icy snow, I was shaken and chastened. How had I had the guts to address God as I did? What I suspect is that the light was a presence. I cannot presume to say it was God, or came from God, or even why it came, but the connection seems inescapable.
Maybe God would forget or ignore my utterance. I picked myself up, got the box of rations up on my shoulder again and delivered them.
At about nine that night, I found out God hadn’t forgotten.
It seemed innocent at first. I head the distinctive ‘wump’ sound of a detonating mortar shell deep in the woods. Ours, I remember musing, as it exploded on what I felt sure was the German side of a very irregular front line.
A second mortar shell exploded much closer with a frightening roar. My terror was immediate. That was far too close! Mortar barrages come in sixes. Four more would be coming and much nearer. I had been lying on my back on blankets; a shelter-half tied to two huge trees was above me.
I might have only seconds to live, I thought.
No time to worry. Hope and pray. I flipped to my stomach; my hands flush by my sides.
The third mortar went off closer than the second. I tensed in aching dread. If death were coming it would be in the next shells. The deadly rain was in the air.
“Oh, God,” I managed in desperation.
I heard no warning whistle before the fourth mortar fell, only a startlingly loud bang. I could hear its shrapnel whizzing by inches from me. Then, in quick succession, the fifth and sixth mortar shells exploded at greater distances to my immense relief.
Now, all was quiet. I was acutely aware of my body. I felt no pain. I moved mylegs, then my toes. I then tried to move my arms. My right arm wouldn’t move. I couldn’t feel my right hand at all.
Then I felt a dull pain. I got up clumsily. Fearfully, I looked at my hand, then my arm. I still had both. The pain was in my arm, but at least I was whole.
In seconds the platoon was by me. No one else was wounded. Others who otherwise would have been hurt had been in an abandoned old German observation post. The acting C.O., a first lieutenant, apologized over and over for what he said were American mortars somehow misdirected.
I figured that already but only heard conflicting explanations from the army. I was simply grateful I hadn’t been killed. I had to sign an army payroll before being evacuated in order to comply with an army regulation. I scrawled the signature with my left hand.
My right arm healed in a little over three weeks, but I came down with hepatitis with pronounced jaundice at a replacement depot. I spent over six weeks at another army general hospital. Finally the division could spare a six-by-six truck to pick me up from a second replacement depot. The day I rejoined A Company was May 8, 1945.
Germany surrendered that day which meant the petulant ‘prayer’ to dignify the impromptu outburst by calling it that, had been answered. This says more about God’s mercy than I deserved.