Love, Faith and the Lost Battalion

Read at the Wall Street Journal

Also available in audio format at Our American Network

Daisy’s scream from the next room woke him; he leaped bolt upright out of bed. Then, falling, his left eye smashed the edge of the bed stand, and he blurted out “Ahhuumph” as he hit the ground and the air gushed out of his lungs. Mr. Callis listened intently to the noise-monitor in the dark for any clues from his demented wife in the next room. He could hear his own heart throbbing, but nothing more. He tried unsuccessfully to crawl to her. The bleeding laceration emanating from his eye and his new shoulder and chest injuries reminded him of the time sixty years ago that he’d been injured and trapped in a foxhole in the French Alps, a member of the famed WW II’s Lost Battalion. Rescue came then, and it would come now, since the morning phone call from his daughter had gone unanswered as he lay stranded on the floor hours later peering at the sunrise through the window.

Ford Callis, a 91 year old WW II survivor, ended up on our ICU service that day. Lying helplessly on the floor after his fall, he developed enough muscle breakdown on the “death crawl” (his words) that his kidneys shut down from toxic injury. He also developed a bleeding stress ulcer and a new blood clot in his left leg, all of which made for complicated medical circumstances that nearly ended his life. Yet Mr. Callis asked only, “When can I return home to care for Daisy? She’s waiting for me in Ridgetop.” It was there they had lived for over half a century since he returned as a heroic survivor of The Lost Battalion in 1944. That is where she chose to buy their rustic home, using her savings earned as a “riveter” making planes during the war.

The day I met Private Callis, he looked weak and pale, and our team of white coats swooped in to “save” him, unaware that his real rescue had occurred through a sacramental promise many decades earlier. Before becoming a soldier, when he was 20 years old, he and Daisy had married in Ridgetop, TN. Shortly thereafter, he went through military training and shipped off to Naples as a member of the 36th Infantry. The company made its way to the Vosges Mountains of French Alps, where the Germans surrounded them and began starving them out. After failed rescue attempts by the two other battalions of the 36th Infantry, they became known as the Lost Battalion. After 8 days without food and water and being stuck in foxholes drinking from a pond and literally eating worms, they were finally liberated by the 442nd Regiment Nisei Japanese Americans.

Sporting a shiner and a smile from his ICU bed, he said again, “Doctor, I need you to get me home to my wife as soon as possible.” His dutiful daughter stopped staring at the blood dripping into his IV and said, “Yep, that’s his main mission in life, and he refuses to fail.” This was the setting in which I would learn about rescue. Not rescue from a fox hole in the Alps or rescue from the floor in Ridgetop, but the type of indelible change in a soul that no personal injury or Earthly event can undo.

“Having someone believe in me and waiting for me back home, that is what gives me purpose. I am more than myself because of our marriage.” He went on expressing his hope that people not give up on marriage when the sparks of romance seem distant. Mr. Callis reminded me of the words of Bonhoeffer, when he wrote from a Nazi prison to his niece Renate Schleicher: “Marriage is more than your love for each other…In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed in a post of responsibility toward the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 42-43)

We were privileged to meet this man from the Lost Battalion, a story that generated lots of discussion on rounds that day. As it turned out, however, Ford’s and Daisy’s story was not a tale of military or medical rescue, as exciting and perhaps technically interesting as those were, but one of marital rescue. This covenant has actually liberated their souls and given them a higher purpose. For each of us that day, whether married or not, we caught a glimpse of where our true North lies and a reminder of when we are at our best—in serving another.

As he regained color and strength, I sat at his bedside on the morning of discharge and he said, “Doc, you know it takes three people to stay married. Daisy, me, and God. This is not just a civil agreement, we are one.” I was thankful that I had witnessed firsthand such a tangible example of the closing line in Bonhoeffer’s letter to his niece on the eve of her marriage, “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

Wesley Ely, MD, MPH
Professor of Medicine and Critical Care
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine


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