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“There are no atheists in fox holes.”

That was a saying during the Second World War.

“There are no atheists in fox holes.”

How can this be said without fear of contradiction? Surely every soldier didn’t become religious when he was in a small hole in the ground with artillery shells exploding all around him. Surely every soldier didn’t come face to face with his own mortality and wonder what lay beyond life. Or did he? Or did he?

I’ve had some experiences in fox holes. I’d like to tell you about one of these experiences. It was January 1944 in the mountains of Italy. We had just taken a hill from the Germans and we were ordered to dig in to consolidate our position. Norm McLeod and I decided to share a fox hole. With shells exploding around us, it didn’t take very long to dig a crude hole in the ground.

It was cold and wet with a mixture of snow and rain. The only shelter around was a flimsy tent the officers used as a command post. The rest of us were exposed to the weather. Our company was spread out in a rough perimeter, facing toward enemy lines. It was our responsibility to be prepared in case of an enemy attack. We felt very vulnerable. Soaked through, we were cold, scared, miserable and exhausted. As night came on we tried to get some rest. Rest we needed. Although the fox hole was small it was our best friend. It was our salvation. Although artillery shells exploded occasionally, and mud and dirt would fall down on us, we felt fairly safe in our little hole in the ground. Of course the fox hole was not deep enough to stand up in.

The only comfort and warmth we could get was to hug each other. Gone was the self-pride and false bravado of the past. This hugging another comrade was a necessity – this was survival!

Then we were faced with another problem! A combination of rain and snow and seepage started to bring icy cold water into the fox hole. It was bad enough to be wet, but to lie in a puddle of icy cold water, that was unbearable! We took turns bailing the water out. We used our helmets. We took the inside liner out of our helmets and used the metal part only. So, we bailed in this manner. It became very useful in another way also. It made a very good pot to urinate in. We felt it might be suicide to get out of the fox hole to urinate, with shells bursting occasionally, so we did our job in the helmet, and then poured it out over the rim of the fox hole. Finally, we were too exhausted to even bail, so we lay down again and tried to get some rest.

Before I drifted off to sleep, Norm seemed to have something he wanted to get off his chest. I had no choice but to listen.

“You know, Herb,” he said through chattering teeth, “I wasn’t meant to be a soldier!”

I didn’t say anything but I thought to myself: “Who in the hell was!”

I had known Norm since I first joined the outfit, over a year ago. Norm was talkative, Norm was opinionated, and he didn’t hold anything back. His favourite topic was ridiculing religion and religious people.

I slept fitfully between explosions but then I was awakened by someone mumbling. It was Norm. He wasn’t mumbling incoherently, he was actually praying! I didn’t catch it all but I heard one baffling part of his prayer. He was opening up his heart and soul to a great unseen power. Strangely, he wasn’t asking to get home safely, he wasn’t asking that he live to the ripe old age of 40, 45, or even 50. His only plea was that he would live to see the dawning of another day. He just wanted to live through the night!

Norm’s prayer got me to thinking. What made me think I was invulnerable? What made me think I was going to live through this hellish war? If a shell landed in the fox hole or even real close we could be killed instantly! I started to do some very serious thinking.

I was 23 years of age. I felt in my heart that I was not going to be killed. Then I got to thinking – that’s the way some of my buddies had felt – they felt they were going to survive the war. They had talked openly of the things they were going to do after the war. When peace and security would be a way of life. My best friend, Smitty, had great plans for the future, Lieutenant Airth had great plans for the future, so did Sergeant Briddon and Corporal McIvorr. These comrades had exciting plans for when they returned home, but they all died in a little pool of their own blood! I felt in my heart I’d live to return home to my family and loved ones. But would I ever be the same person? I knew I’d never be the same person I had been before I joined the army. I was certain I’d be a better person! A more caring person! A more loving person!

Then I got to thinking of the soldier next to me. This cold, wet, miserable individual I was hugging had experienced a great transformation! My mind went back to former times. Norm had been a doubter, a disbeliever, and atheist. He continually mocked any of us who professed to be Christians, and most of us were Christians – we believed in God, and the religion we had been taught since childhood. However Norm would have none of this. He would shout at us: “wake up you poor bastards! Are you so blinded by faith that you can’t see the hypocrisy of it? How can you believe in a God who would let this cruel, useless slaughter go on? I’ll tell you this. I will never cower down. I will never, ever pray to a fictitious someone or something that I know does not exist!”

And yet, on that cold, wet, miserable night January 1944, that’s exactly what Norm McLeod did. Curled up in a ball next to me, with teeth chattering, I heard him say the things he vowed he never would say. I heard him pray to God. I heard him promise to be a better person. I heard him pray to God that he would be spared to live another day.

It was then that the haunting saying came back to me. A saying I had hardly believed before. But the proof of the saying was lying next to me, the wet, cold comrade I was hugging in this slimy, greasy hole in the ground. This disbeliever had become a believer! This proved the saying beyond any shadow of a doubt – there are no atheists in fox holes!