WWII chaplain joins fight for today’s soldiers
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sixty-eight Christmas Eves ago, during a season dedicated to Peace On Earth and Good Will Towards Men, a young Army chaplain was confronting the horrors of war at the Battle of the Bulge.
For John David Laida, best known in Clarksville for his 28 years of service to First Baptist Church, the memories of serving during those dark days of World War II remain mostly unspoken, even to close family. He chooses instead to focus on the present and future, and on a message he has never ceased to carry forth to the world since the day it changed his life at the age of 17 – that there is a hope beyond the world and its wars and strife, with the power to heal the worst injuries to body, mind and soul.
At 93, Laida is at an age when most people have long left off of taking on new challenges, but the noted pastor and Army veteran feels he has another fight left in him.
To talk to him is to believe he still has the energy for another cause. He doesn’t look anywhere near his age and the voice still conveys power and conviction after more than 70 years of preaching.Since “retiring” from his duties at First Baptist Church 25 years ago, he has continued to preach every Sunday while serving as interim pastor for other churches in need, working full-time hours in part-time jobs. And on Jan. 11 of the coming year, he will join with today’s chaplains and local pastors at Fort Campbell’s Liberty Chapel as they seek to find a way to cope with the ravages of war afflicting a new generation of soldiers and military families.
Laida was washing dishes, working his way through Gordon College, a Christian institution near Boston, Mass., when he heard President Roosevelt speaking about the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
At the time, he was also serving as a student pastor at a country church in Bellingham, Mass., with a small congregation of about 30 people, about 20 miles from Boston.
He wanted to serve as a chaplain, and the Army counted his three years of service as a pastor together with his educational experience to help him qualify. In 1942, when Laida signed up for duty the day after his 23rd birthday, he was the youngest chaplain in the Army.
Laida did his basic training and chaplain school at Fort Devins, where his training as a chaplain amounted primarily to a few simple guidelines.
“They told us we want you to do exactly what you did in your church,” he recalled. “Help people. Minister to them spiritually. I was a Baptist minister, but I was never a “Big B” Baptist as a chaplain because I had to serve everybody. That’s what they said. Be a pastor to all of them. You can’t differentiate. You can’t focus on denomination.”
Laida laughed at the memory of 40 chaplains learning drill and ceremony, basic soldier skills and Army terminology, including the stuff that wasn’t in the manual.
“Thanks to our drill sergeant, we learned every curse word there was,” he remembered, “and it didn’t make any difference to him.
“He knew we were all chaplains and he did respect that, but when he got excited or mad, he let it out. A typical drill sergeant. We got used to it.”
Other things he experienced later were harder to get used to.
“I knew war was bad,” he said, “but I had no idea what my reaction was going to be. Even though I was a chaplain, I was a human being and I saw a lot of guys who went on, I hope, to heaven.
“The thing that hurt me more than anything were those 18-year-olds that they pushed over there into Europe. They gave them about four weeks of training and they were not prepared for battle. I saw them die.”
The first real action for Laida and his fellow soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division came during the worst period of the war on Europe’s western front, in Dec. 1944.
The Third Reich had staked everything on one massive counterattack against the American Army, a large part of which had penetrated deep into France and Belgium on its way toward the German border, forming a bulge that left it vulnerable to being cut off from the sides by German armored formations.
Laida’s division was rushed in on Dec. 17 to block part of the German assault and took the full brunt of the attack’s fury in doing so.
He and his fellow soldiers went in knowing little about what they were going to be called upon to do or what the situation was.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” Laida said. “We didn’t have a newspaper or TV. We didn’t know as much as people in the U.S.”
He hints darkly about his experiences of that time, but still can’t bring himself to discuss details beyond memories of holding the hands of dying boys and praying with them at the battalion aid station where many spent their last moments.
Laida said that while his own faith never wavered, he was confronted by things that made him have to think more deeply about the questions that war forces upon human beings.
“I had soldiers who searched me out because they had seen things and it really got them thinking about life and death.
“There was a lot of, ‘Chaplain, how can God allow something like this?’ That was pretty hard to overcome, especially if someone didn’t have a basic faith to begin with, but it was a pretty valid question to ask.”
A particular memory that sticks with him occurred during the last days of the war as his division was driving fast through Germany. They came upon a town called Kassel that highlighted for him the full ruinous effects of war.
“The only road through the town had been made by bulldozers pushing aside the rubble,” Laida said. “I thought, like everyone else, what a shame. All those magnificent statues and cathedrals, but that’s just what war is.”
Toward the end of the war, Laida was severely wounded and evacuated back to the U.S. where he ended up with other soldiers at Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island, N.Y.
He spent three months recovering. A plain-spoken man, who at his age doesn’t believe in sugar-coating events, he admits to having been psychologically affected by the war and having been close to the edge of an abyss of self-pity as a result of what he had endured.
His turning point came following his recovery when he was assigned as a chaplain at the hospital.
“When I became a chaplain again,” he said, “it was my responsibility to help the guys in the paraplegic ward. They had two men there who were quadruple amputees and when I saw those guys, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I feeling sorry for myself?’”
Laida feels that a big part of the problem for many who return from war is that they withdraw within themselves. As a man of faith, he also feels that without a belief in something greater than themselves, many who turn within find little there to sustain them through the hard journey back.
“The reason I was able to overcome that,” he said, “is because I saw that there were people in the world who needed me more than I needed to think about myself. If some of these guys today could put self aside and try to help someone else, it would make a difference.
“Jesus spent all of his life helping other people, as an example that we ought to emulate as his followers – to be of service to others.”
It is a message that some might consider overly simplistic, but one that Laida feels is key to helping many who are wounded by war, particularly those who are wounded psychologically, morally and spiritually.
However, he is going to the Jan. 11 meeting of chaplains and pastors at Fort Campbell with an open mind, being more interested, he says, in learning what he can do to help the soldiers he still feels a responsibility for, 70 years after donning the uniform.
Information from The Leaf-Chronicle