WWII veteran Wilbur Halvorsen says brushes with death strengthened his faith in God
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Sixth in a series on war veterans
Staff Sgt. Halvorsen yelled for his men to take two shots and keep running, following orders to get downhill in the dark past German snipers and into the Belgium village of Mageret. As Halvorsen knelt to fire his own shots, his M1 rifle jammed. He jiggled the bolt to unjam it, when—phsht!—a German bullet hit him in the chest. He crumpled to the ground, and the Battle of the Bulge went on without him.
Halvorsen had already narrowly escaped death by a German grenade. During his time in the combat zone, he’d seen many fellow soldiers killed. He was a Christian believer who trusted in a divine plan, but as he lay in the snow bleeding, he wondered, would God save him again?
Wilbur “Web” Halvorsen had been drafted into the Army in 1942, when he was 24. An economics graduate and former wrestling captain at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he’d already been working a year at Morton Salt in Chicago for $21 a week when duty called.
After training, the Army assigned him to Company A, 50th Armored Infantry Battalion in the 6th Armored Division as a rifle squad leader. Sent to England in 1944, his division readied itself for the Normandy invasion.
"My faith became even stronger because of the war."
Halvorsen disembarked on Utah Beach more than a month after D-Day, as the Allies continued their assault. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army commanded Halvorsen’s division and directed his battalion to capture Hill 105 outside the town of Brest.
During the American attack on that hill, an enemy grenade blew off Halvorsen’s helmet, and shrapnel lodged in his back. A bullet went through a nearby soldier’s eye, and another killed Halvorsen’s lieutenant. After losing contact with remaining squad members, Halvorsen hid beneath a haystack, then snuck into dense foliage as enemy soldiers strode by.
He survived thanks to five French children who found him and, using an ingenious ruse, led him safely past marauding Nazis. The 11-year-old placed his younger siblings along a path as lookouts. Each signaled when it was safe for Halvorsen to move forward. He made it back to American troops just as his commanding officer was about to declare him missing in action.
Halvorsen was scared that day, not knowing if he would live, die, or be caught by the Germans. But he says, “I prayed every day, and I was brought up with a strong faith.” He believes God was looking out for him and protecting him.
What happened after the bullet pierced his lung in Belgium was further proof. He recalls his thoughts as he lay in the snow, staring at the sky with blood trickling from his mouth, knowing lung wounds are usually fatal: “If I was going to die, I was ready to accept it.” He focused on all his parents had taught him about God, and prayed.
A medic finally arrived. Halvorsen endured a difficult transport, then waited 15 hours at the Bastogne field hospital, where famed thoracic surgeon Maj. Lamar Soutter, who had only recently arrived on a glider plane amid gunshots, operated on him successfully.
“That was a miracle,” says Halvorsen. “Without his expert surgery, I wouldn’t be here.”
After the war, Halvorsen fell in love, married, and moved to Seattle, where he worked in sales. His first wife, Leonie Darro, died in 1989. Later, he reunited with his teenage sweetheart, Marion, who was also widowed. Wilbur and Marion have been happily married 30 years and live on Whidbey Island, Wash.
For his service, Halvorsen was awarded two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, and a French Medal of Honor, among others.
Halvorsen, now 102 years old, says that seeing death and surviving so many close calls during the war forced him to contemplate his own mortality. It also prompted him to call out to God for help: “My faith became even stronger because of the war.”
He adds, “I wish I could give that faith to everybody.”
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