I was only in third grade when our school janitor, Mr. Bandon, felt I had done something courageous, and shared with me some stories of courage about an army buddy of his named Private Johnson. He told me how Private Johnson had courageously stood up to his own friends when it was tough. “But there was one other time he showed great courage,” Mr. Bandon said. He then told me one more story.
The Germans were gradually retreating as the Allied forces were fighting their way across Europe. Now and then the Germans would make a stand, but they were losing their will to fight and would soon continue their retreat.
At one point, Mr. Bandon’s battalion came to the edge of a frozen potato field about two hundred yards across. It was late fall, and the ground was frozen and the air was cold. A German battalion ended up reaching the opposite side of the open field at about the same time, and both sides opened fire, both with rifles and heavy artillery.
Two young girls, unaware of the two approaching armies, had been out in the potato field trying to dig through the hard soil for anything they could find to eat. When the firing started, they dropped to the ground, frightened and crying. After the shooting had gone on for a short time, without any warning, Private Johnson suddenly ran out from behind the heavy armaments and ran toward the girls in the midst of a hailstorm of bullets.
The firing gradually subsided as both sides curiously watched to see what he was up to. He ran to the two frightened girls and tucked one under each arm.
Everyone expected him to turn and run back to the safety of his own line, but he didn’t. Looking up and seeing a small home at the edge of the enemy position, he saw the frightened mother screaming for her daughters. He ran toward the home, right into the line of the enemy.
German soldiers were there with the mother to meet him, and he handed the girls to them. The crying mother fell on her knees at his feet and scooped the two little girls into her arms, sobbing her gratitude.
Private Johnson then turned and ran back to his line while both sides still held their fire. Even after he crossed back to the American position, and collapsed from loss of blood, no one fired. Both sides seemed unable to fight after seeing this selfless act of kindness performed by a soldier in behalf of daughters of his enemy. The German battalion just moved on in their retreat, and the American battalion held their position and did not pursue them.
Mr. Bandon knelt down beside his wounded friend and worked with others trying to stem the flow of blood. The battalion colonel, who had once almost had Private Johnson shot for standing up against an order that was wrong, came up beside them.
He looked down at Private Johnson and shook his head. “Johnson, you are a fool!” He then paused as the tears started flowing down his face, the only time Mr. Bandon ever saw him cry. “You are a fool, Johnson, but I wish I was half the man you are.”
Private Johnson looked up, smiled, and then closed his eyes, never to open them again. He had given his life for children of the enemy.
Mr. Bandon finished his story. “Somewhere in Europe stands a marker. Whether it even has a name on it, I don’t know. But it represents the life of the most courageous man I have ever known. He showed courage to do what was right in every situation he faced, and finally, in the end, he did so in one of the greatest challenges of all.” He paused briefly, trying to control his emotions, then finally continued.
“The rest of us bravely stood up to the enemy, but if it was right, he courageously stood up for the enemy, and that takes the most courage of all.”