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Monday, June 17, 2013

William Allen- Teacher & Soldier

The following is a sermon which was given at First Presbyterian Church in Galesburg on Memorial Day 2013 in honor of William Allen who gave his life for his country in WW2.

Time To Remember

I did not attend theology school but I will have you know, I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express. Some probably expect me to give a sermon connected to sports. I did think about a sermon entitled “Jump Shots and Jesus”, but my wife vetoed that. I even thought about one entitled “Wisconsin and Heaven- The Same Area Code”, but Carl Strauch warned I might be excommunicated.

I really appreciate the opportunity to speak this morning. I am going to share a story involving the death of a soldier in war. This week we saw a tremendous tragedy take place in Oklahoma. The story of my soldier and of the Oklahoma tornado, beg the question, ”Why?”  In the book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Harold Kushner states, “It is not because God intended it or planned it. Bad things happen to good and bad people because we live on earth, and earth is not a perfect place.”

For us as Christians, the Bible is pretty clear that faith in Jesus and in Christianity does not guarantee a good life, but the opportunity for a perfect eternity.

I agree with Jewish Rabbi, Jerome Epstein who says, “My understanding of God does not permit me to accept that every bad or good thing that occurs is a reward or punishment. There are times when bad things happen to good people. We need consolation, not anger; love, not hate. The God I serve and pray to daily has charged me not to blame but to help.”

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,    
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,   
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Time is so hard to deal with. When we were young, the clock never seemed to go fast enough.  We couldn’t wait to get our driver’s license. We couldn’t wait to get out of high school.

As we have gotten older, often the clock seems to go too fast. We may even wish we could turn back the clock. As we get older, there are people we miss. We never quite get over the loss of our loved ones.
Ben & Ruth Allen putting flowers
on Bill Allen's grave.

The highlights of life are in our relationships with people. Memorial Day should be a day of joy. We should be celebrating the blessing God has given us in our relationships.  Memorial Day is a great opportunity for us to reflect and become inspired by memories of our ancestors.

I would like to share the story of my wife’s uncle, William Allen. Bill was born in 1917 and died in 1945. I never met him but his story inspires me.

William Allen at age 26 joining
the Army for WW2.

In part, I am drawn to his story because of a series of things he and I seem to have in common. He was born on April 16 and myself on April 17. He grew up in a small town, and I grew up in a small town. We were both raised in Protestant families, him a Presbyterian and me a Methodist. We both graduated from Knox College, and then both went on to teach at Galesburg High School. And his little brother Benny, became my father-in-law.
Bill Allen with his little brother, Ben.
They are in front of the family farmhouse in
Alta. This would have been the last time Ben
saw his brother. 

Bill Allen and I were of different generations, and our lives took very different directions.

I grew up in the ‘60’s during the Vietnam era. My generation learned to question the government, authority and war. The Ecclesiastes verse we read today was used by me in a youth sermon in 1970. My sermon was an anti-war sermon saying there was not a time for war. I had a 2S deferment as a college student so I didn’t HAVE to go into the military.

Bill Allen was part of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” In 1943 at the age of 26, he was living comfortably as a teacher at Galesburg High School. 

The "old" Galesburg HS, located in downtown on
Broad St.
He did not HAVE to join the Army but he chose to.  Since first hearing the story of Bill Allen, my question has always been, “Why did he choose the Army when he did not have to?”

Being an English major, Bill was a prolific letter writer. He wrote letters to people in Galesburg and to his family, describing his experiences in World War II. The Allen family saved the letters, and later published them in a book. Those letters and conversations with Ben have helped me to try to understand Bill Allen.
Book of Bill Alen's
letters- published by
his family shortly after
the war.

I was intrigued as his letters revealed parts of his personality. He had an enjoyable sense of humor.
·      During basic training, he reported, “There’s one thing I don’t understand about the Army. They issue you a good comb, and then cut off all your hair.”
·      He described his training in a Concealment and Camouflage Course. He wrote to GHS faculty members, “Now I know many ways that I can hide from the principal when he comes after me.”

When Bill had decided to join the Army, he delayed his entry. He waited until he finished directing “A Christmas Carol,” the GHS fall play. He did not want to let his students down.

While waiting to be shipped to Europe, he expressed joy in being able to go to plays on Broadway, as well as later seeing movies in a small theater in England. He expresses appreciation for the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean, of English flower gardens, and the French landscape as well as the wonderful figures of French women.

As I read about Bill, so much still did not make sense to me. He did not seem to fit my stereotype of a soldier’s personality. Why did he enlist?

Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

Going to war was not his plan. He put aside a comfortable life as a teacher and drama coach, and plans for going to Northwestern to law school.

R.V. Lindsay, Supt. Of Schools in Galesburg described Bill’s decision. “He was an artist, creative, and imaginative. The war in all of its horrible aspects came as an awful shock to Bill’s finer nature. There was nothing in military that appealed to anything in his sensitive nature. Yet an inner voice in Bill would not let him rest.”

Early in his basic training, he wrote how discouraging it was to realize how few of his fellow trainees really understood the principles of Democracy and Freedom they were going to fight for. This made him aware that when he returns, he can “serve his country best” as a teacher. It appears to me, Bill Allen was always wrestling not with what HIS plan was, but rather what THE plan for him was.

Psalms 29:11 The Lord gives strength to his people, the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Psalms 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The loss in World War II was horrible. There is a plaque near the entrance to Galesburg High School to honor 63 students and 1 faculty member who were killed in WW2.

It is hard to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective. In Galesburg during WW2, there was a funeral for a member of the GHS community every 15-20 days.

Bill’s letters describe the many challenges and horrors of war. He describes wearing the same clothes and not being able to bathe for over a month, spending the night in a German house with Nazi soldiers in the house across the street.

He talks of the anguish of witnessing death of both friends and enemies. When he was filled with despair, it was his Aunt Mabel he chose to write. He explained this to her, “Not sure I want my mother to think about these things so you are the goat. Today was one of those days which will forever haunt my nightmares.”

He goes on later to tell Mabel about dealing with his best friends death. He writes, ”That’s another shocking thing about this war- a hero, contrary to fiction and Hollywood, seldom dies a hero’s death. It’s just an unlucky hit which gets him when he doesn’t even have a chance to fight back.”

As the war went on, several times Bill expressed concerns about how the soldiers would be able to go from being in war to going back to becoming civilians. He lamented, “We all have a lot of planning for the future and I’ve done a lot of thinking along that line myself. I fear that I’ll never be able to go back to the classroom and earn a living there again.”
Christmas card to little brother Ben.
He teases Ben that he shot Santa's
reindeer in the Louxenburg forest. 

He wrote the following to his Aunt: 
Christmas Eve, 1944
Dear Aunt Mabel,

I should be writing home tonight, but my mood is not conducive to uplifting the home front morale. I'm thinking of all the Christmases of the past and what the day has always meant to our family. Partly because I'm sentimental and it's such a hard time of the year to be so far away from all those I love and the prospects of ever returning seem so remote and partly because I needed the emotional release after living under so much tension of late; I took advantage of the opportunity awhile ago and sneaked off by myself and shed a great many tears. I'm good for another year now and do realize that I've been one of God's favored. To be alive and whole is all one can ask for these days and that is my blessing.        
Love, Bill.

What gives someone the toughness to handle this?
On this picture sent home, Bill writes,
"This is what made the Jerry's run."

When I asked Ben this question, his reply was, “Bill always said he could not have handled it if he didn’t believe this would be the war to end all wars.”  Clearly he was committed to a cause which he thought was bigger than himself. If we believe in something, we don’t just talk the talk, but we walk the walk.

1 Peter 4:10  Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

It was only in passing, as if it were not a big deal that Bill wrote to his parents to tell them he had earned a Bronze Star for heroism. It may be that part of his motivation for down playing his acts of heroism was to save his mother from any more worry than she already had. But his humility points out he did not join the Army for personal glory.  His humility sends the message, “It is not about me.”

As they fought in France, liberating the country, Bill wrote, “I’ve been flower bedecked and kissed by enough teary eyed civilians to repay me for all that I’ve gone through to bring me this far. I might be just sentimental enough to believe that what I’m helping to do now is by far the most useful thing that I ever hope to accomplish.”

He was describing the satisfaction he felt in bringing joy to others. I am sure in the dark days of battle, one of his inspirations had to have been the images of the grateful French people.

Bill’s Platoon had landed in Normandy a few days after D-Day. Bill was originally a machine gunner on the front lines through the battles as they went across France, Luxenburg, Holland, and eventually to Germany. Later he was in reconnaissance where his job involved exploring positions for troop movement.  In January of 1945 he was given an opportunity of taking a  promotion to desk job away from the front line. This would certainly mean much less risk.

Bill wrote about this chance, “It’s the old conflict of whether I think more of my own hide than I do of the cause for which we’re supposedly fighting. Sgt. Allen’s skin is mighty important to Sgt. Allen, but as I lay the cold, hard facts out on the Belgium snow it seems rather foolish to take a qualified man out of the field and have him win the war with a fountain pen.”  

He stayed fighting with his platoon, his “buddies.”

John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Information on picture of William Allen at Knox
Memorial Gym.

Bill referred to his platoon as his “buddies.” At the end of WWII as they approached Berlin, the battles were tough. Often the kitchen crew stayed farther back, so the norm was to just live on C Rations- simply canned, cold food. If they were to get hot food, someone had to go back to the kitchens to get it.

As his troop was fighting within miles of Berlin, Bill Allen volunteered to go back to the company kitchen to obtain hot food for the members of Company D. After the meal, he again volunteered to return the equipment to the kitchen. In the darkness, he took a wrong turn. His jeep ran over an American land mind placed to protect the rear of the troop. He died on April 19, 1945, just 19 days before VE Day.
Register-Mail article on Bill Allen's

Bill Allen died during a voluntary mission doing something he thought would boost morale of his “buddies.”  He died serving others.

So why would a school teacher choose to go to war?

Did Bill Allen feel hate for the Nazi’s? From the letters, it is obvious he hated what Hitler and Germany had done and what they wanted to take away. From the letters it is clear he felt anger toward Hitler for how he had twisted the minds of young German boys, the same age he had taught at GHS.

But I really believe the story of Bill Allen and the answer to my question is love.  He loved the principles of Democracy and freedom. He loved the beauty of the ocean, and of the flowers in English gardens. He cared for the French people they liberated. He loved his drama students and wanted to take care of them before he left. He loved his family, and he loved his “buddies”.

Love is at the foundation of Christian life. Service is an expression of love for others. Love is what allowed Bill Allen to sacrifice so much and to give so much.

Matthew 5:9  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Bill Allen's grave.

Bill Allen was born in a “Small Town” with small town values that influenced his life, but unlike in the song, Bill was not buried in the same small town.  Bill’s remains are buried in Margraten, Holland along with his brother-in-law, Bob Arnold.  

Before their deaths, Bill and Bob had dinner with a grateful family in Holland. The daughter of this family, Pauline Roukin was five years old when she met Bill in the middle of WW2.
Pauline Roukin.

Sixty-eight years later, Pauline still tends to the graves of Bill and Bob. It is a story of love and service to others. This summer our family plans to visit Holland, and Allen will be one of the fourth generation of the Allen family to be hosted by Pauline and her family.

I would like to close by sharing something written by a student of Bill Allen’s. Jack Brooking was a GHS student of Bill’s. Jack went to Holland for Memorial Day in  1952. Brookings wrote an article in the Register-Mail where he closed with:
“Nestled somewhere in one of his letters, Bill said, ‘I think of you people often, and how much you did to make my months in Galesburg among the happiest of my life. I’ll be back again someday…’ Brooking’s then finished with, “I should like to think that today he is.”

Let us prayer….
Thank you Lord for our ancestors. We know we are where we are today because of their love and sacrifices. During our busy lives, help us to find time to remember. Give us the strength, the discipline, and the love needed to live our lives in such a way that we keep Your spirit and the spirit of our ancestors alive.
Lord, centuries ago You taught our ancestors this pray. And our ancestors passed this prayer down through the generations to our grandparents, who then taught our parents, and who then taught us your prayer. So as part of our heritage as Christian families, we prayer the following just as our ancestors did:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.

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