Thomas S. Monson Tells Stories of Soldiers
Thomas S. Monson loves to share stories from his own life and the lives of valiant people around the world. He often tells stories of war, which brings out the best and worst in people, and opens the doors for amazing valor and service. Following are some stories he has shared as he has spoken to audiences around the world:
As a boy, I enjoyed reading the account of the “lost battalion.” The “lost battalion” was a unit of the U.S. Army 77th Infantry Division in World War I. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a major led this battalion through a gap in the enemy lines, but troops on the flanks were unable to advance. An entire battalion was surrounded. Food and water were short; casualties could not be evacuated. Hurled back by the battalion were repeated attacks. Ignored were notes from the enemy requesting the battalion to surrender. Newspapers heralded the battalion’s tenacity. Men of vision pondered its fate. Then, after a brief but desperate period of total isolation, other units of the 77th Division advanced and relieved the “lost battalion.”
Correspondents noted in their dispatches that the relieving forces seemed bent on a crusade of love to rescue their comrades in arms. Men volunteered more readily, fought more gallantly, and died more bravely.
As I thought of these events, I found myself saying softly, How strange that war brings forth the savagery of conflict, yet inspires brave deeds of courage—some prompted by love. A tribute to those courageous deeds echoed in my mind from that ageless sermon preached on the Mount of Olives: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13.)
Almost forgotten is the story of the “lost battalion” and the terrible price paid for its rescue. Yet the story has much to teach us. Are there “lost battalions” even today? If so, what is our responsibility to rescue them? Their members may not wear clothes of khaki brown or march to the sound of drums. But they share with the lost battalion of the Argonne the same doubt, feel the same despair, and know the same disillusionment that isolation brings.
Thomas S. Monson, “Lost Battalions,” Ensign, Apr 1987, 3
Mercy in Battle
The cruelty of war seems to bring forth hatred toward others and disregard for human life. It has ever been so. Yet, in such degradation at times there shines forth the inextinguishable light of mercy.
During the television documentaries shown throughout the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the terrible toll in human life was graphically illustrated, and gripping firsthand experiences of soldiers who were there were shared. I particularly remember the comments of an American infantryman who told that, after a day of ferocious fighting, he glanced up from his shallow foxhole to see an enemy soldier with his gun barrel leveled at the American’s heart. Said the infantryman: “I felt I was soon to cross over that bridge of death which leads to eternity. Incredibly my enemy, in broken English, said to me, ‘Soldier, for you this war is over!’ He took me prisoner and thus saved my life. Such mercy I shall remember forever.”
At an earlier time and in a different conflict—namely the American Civil War—a historically documented account illustrates courage, coupled with mercy.
From December 11 to 13, 1862, the Union forces attacked Marye’s Heights, a large hill overlooking the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, where six thousand Rebels awaited them. The Southern troops were in secure defensive positions behind a stone wall which meandered along the foot of the hill. In addition, they stood four deep on a sunken road behind the wall, out of sight of Union forces.
The Union troops—over forty thousand strong—launched a series of suicidal attacks across open ground. They were mowed down by a scythe of shot; none got closer than forty yards from the stone wall.
Soon the ground in front of the Confederate positions was littered with hundreds, then thousands, of fallen Union soldiers in their blue uniforms—over twelve thousand before sunset. Crying for help, the wounded lay in the bitter cold throughout that terrible night.
The next day, a Sunday, dawned cold and foggy. As the morning fog lifted, the agonized cries of the wounded could still be heard. Finally, a young Confederate soldier, a nineteen-year-old sergeant, had had all he could take. The young man’s name was Richard Rowland Kirkland. To his commanding officer, Kirkland exclaimed, “All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I … ask permission to go and give them water.” His request was initially denied on the grounds that it was too dangerous. Finally, however, permission was granted, and soon thousands of amazed men on both sides saw the young soldier, with several canteens draped around his neck, climb over the wall and walk to the nearest wounded Union soldier. He raised the stricken man’s head, gently gave him a drink, and covered him with his own overcoat. Then he moved to the next of the wounded—and the next and the next. As Kirkland’s purpose became clear, fresh cries of “Water, water, for God’s sake water” arose all over the field.
The Union soldiers were at first too surprised to shoot. Soon they began to cheer the young Southerner as they saw what he was doing. For more than an hour and a half, Sergeant Kirkland continued his work of mercy.
Tragically, Richard Kirkland was himself killed a few months later at the battle of Chicamauga. His last words to his companions were, “Save yourselves, and tell my pa I died right.”
Kirkland’s Christlike compassion made his name synonymous with mercy for a post–Civil War generation, both North and South. He became known by soldiers on both sides of the conflict as “the angel of Marye’s Heights.” His loving errand of mercy is commemorated by a bronze monument which stands today in front of the stone wall at Fredericksburg. It depicts Sergeant Kirkland lifting the head of a wounded Union soldier to give him a drink of refreshing water. A tablet to Kirkland’s honor hangs in the Episcopal church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. With simple eloquence, it captures the essence of the young soldier’s mission of mercy. It reads: “A hero of benevolence, at the risk of his own life, he gave his enemy drink at Fredericksburg.”
Thomas S. Monson, “Mercy—The Divine Gift,” Ensign, May 1995, 54
In the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, Church member Jay Hess, an airman, was shot down over North Vietnam. For two years his family had no idea whether he was dead or alive. His captors in Hanoi eventually allowed him to write home but limited his message to less than 25 words. What would you and I say to our families if we were in the same situation—not having seen them for over two years and not knowing if we would ever see them again? Wanting to provide something his family could recognize as having come from him and also wanting to give them valuable counsel, Brother Hess wrote—and I quote: “These things are important: temple marriage, mission, college. Press on, set goals, write history, take pictures twice a year.”
Let us relish life as we live it, find joy in the journey, and share our love with friends and family. One day each of us will run out of tomorrows.
Thomas S. Monson, “Finding Joy in the Journey,” Ensign, Nov 2008, 84–87