A Godly Man

“We were not heroes,” declares Louis J. Rael!

Nineteen year old Private First Class Louis J. Rael, waiting for orders to cross the English Channel for the Normandy Invasion, June 5, 1944


“…We were just ordinary boys, coming of age and forced to face life threatening extraordinary conditions in the realities of war,” continues Rael in recalling events of his  U.S. Military service during WWII.

“I was drafted into the U. S. Military” recounts Rael, “at age 18 under a measure signed into law on November 14, 1945, by then U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declaring ‘Teens -- men age 18 and older – will join the manpower pool to win World War II.’  My brothers were in the military at that time and so as early as age 17, in spite of the adamant advice of one of the elders of the local Adventist Church in Albuquerque N.M. -where I had my membership- I really wanted to go, join my brothers and serve my country!”

The following is an account of some of Rael’s military challenges, in his own words:

“At the age of 16, I was baptized into the Seventh-day-Adventist Church, so the Army was a true test of my religious convictions.  The policy of the Adventist Church was that no Adventist soldier was to bear arms.  And so the General Conference of Seventh-day-Adventist’s contacted the military authorities, and I myself carried a copy of a statement by President Roosevelt that ‘all conscientious objectors shall be exempt from carrying arms and shall be assigned other duties in the military, as needed.’

“And so, at the draft board when I filled out all my papers - on the advice of the Church leaders - I signed on as a ‘conscientious objector.’  So after my physical I was classified as ‘1A-O’ which means I was in perfect health to go and the ‘O’ designated me as an objector.  And so I said to myself, ‘okay, that’s taken care of, I’m covered!’

         “About a couple of weeks after passing my physical examination at the draft board I received a letter that I was to be picked up to report to the induction center at Fort Bliss, a United States Army post in El Paso, Texas to await further assignment. There again I started wondering what was going on because all most all of the other young recruits were there no longer than 2 weeks before they were assigned to different training centers all over the country. 

“After about a month or so, all of my buddies that had been inducted with me had already been assigned, they were already gone.  And so I finally went to the company office and I asked the Sergeant there in the office ‘what’s my status, sir?’ And he said ‘what do you mean?’ I explained ‘those fellows that came with me are gone and I’m still here!’  ‘Well’ he replied, ‘I’ll check on that.’ 

“And so about a week later I was called to report to the clinic where they injected me with 2 shots and said ‘you get ready because you’re shipping out tonight!’  And so that night they picked us up and took another fellow and me together to the local railroad station there in El Paso.  They gave us meal tickets along with our orders in a separate sealed envelope.  They further instructed us not to open the envelopes for at least 12 hours.  Beyond that they didn’t give us a clue regarding our destination. 

“This other young fellow and I were assigned a Pullman car with bunk beds in the passenger train.  It was late at night and we just sat there wondering about our assignments.  We were both thinking the same thing: ‘where are we heading?’  And so finally we looked at each other and wondered out loud ‘what could happen if we open this envelope prematurely? Nobody will know!’  Curiosity got the better of us and it took no longer for him to say that than for me to rip open the envelope!

         “We were both pleasantly surprised to discover that our assignment was to Aberdeen Proving Ground, a US military base located in Harford County in the state of Maryland.  My partner said ‘I’ve heard about that place, it’s a technical training center.  I took an auto mechanic course and I have a certificate.  What about you?’ he asked.  I explained to him that in high school at age 15 or 16, I had taken a welding course and received a certificate from NYA a local training school in Albuquerque.  NYA (National Youth Administration) was a government sponsored school for training young people in some kind of a skill.  I also worked briefly at the air base there in Albuquerque as an aircraft welder. 

“So we conjectured that because of our respective vocational skills we were being assigned to what the military calls ‘an ordinance’ which is sort of a department for the maintaining of military equipment, e.g., weapons, tanks and other vehicles.  And it would have been a good deal because after basic training they would have sent us to a technician school where they would teach us all the tricks of the trade for the repair and maintenance of weapons and all the other heavy military equipment.

“So when we arrived there we were eagerly anticipating our new assignment.  They picked us up at the railroad station there in Maryland and assigned us barracks. Then the next morning they got us all together for the orientation lecture.  This fellow, a non-commissioned officer, a Sergeant lined us up and said ‘the first thing we do here is assign you your rifle.  I want you to record you serial number on a tape and attach it to your assigned weapon.  That’s going to be your rifle and you are going to be responsible for that weapon. 

“My heart sank as I fell in right at the tail end of the line.  Then is when the wheels in my brain started turning and I said ‘wait a minute here!’ So when I finally got to him I said ‘Sergeant sir, I will take this rifle and I will put my serial number on it as ordered but that’s about all I can do because I am a conscientious objector and as such I am not supposed to handle weapons, that would be against my religious convictions, sir!’  He looked at me incredulously and uttered a tirade of profanities retorting ‘I’m giving you an order soldier, you take this rifle and you are going to have to talk to the Chaplain about your objection!’ 

“And so I took the rifle and put it on the rack while all the time thinking ‘what am I going to do?’  And so very early the next morning the order went out ‘okay fellows, get you rifles and let’s go!’  In basic training that’s the first thing they do, you know.  I tried to explain to the Corporal in charge of our platoon telling him ‘you know, I’m really not supposed to be here.’ He responded ‘what do you mean, Rael?’ I then explained to him ‘I am a Seventh-day-Adventist and as such I am a conscientious objector.  We just don’t handle arms.’  He said ‘well, I’ll tell you what, everybody that falls out in formation when the order is given must fall out with a rifle, and you must do so.  If not the superiors will call you on it!’  But right there I could see the hand of the Lord working, because he then said ‘we have big barracks and they are coal heated.  We need somebody here to keep the fire going, so you just stay here and there will be no questions asked because somebody has got to be here."

“Later I went to the company office and talked to the company 1st Sergeant and I told him about my situation.  I said ‘sir, it seems like there is something wrong here in my situation;’ and then I had to go through that story again!  He then responded ‘well, I don’t know anything about that but there’s not much I can do, you’re just going to have to talk with the Chaplain about that, he’s the one that makes those kind of decisions.’  I then reminded him that we as conscientious objectors have the right, recognized by President Roosevelt, ‘to refuse to bear arms.’

“So then I went to the Chaplain, a Catholic Priest and he started lecturing me saying “I know, it’s a tough time, we’re at war here and we need young people to bear arms in order to defend our country.’  I respectfully replied ‘yes sir, but I am a Seventh-day-Adventist and we don’t believe in carrying arms.’  He then said ‘well, let me see what I can do for you, I’ll let you know.’ 

“So the next day I went back to the 1st Sergeant and said ‘what was the outcome?’  He retorted ‘oh, there’s nothing they can do about your situation, that’s all just a bunch of malarkey, you’re tricks are not going to work here, you’re in the Army man!  Forget about all the business man, we’re at war!’  And so I respectfully inquired ‘Sergeant, is there any way that I can talk to the Camp Commander?’  Now in spite of the lump in my throat, those words came out of me, I don’t know how!  He looked at me like I was crazy and shouted ‘Camp Commander?’ and I replied ‘yes sir, I need to talk to somebody about this because I feel that I do have some rights here that are being overlooked.’  He retorted ‘man, you don’t know what you’re talking about, do you really want to see the Camp Commander?’ I replied ‘I do sir’ and to my surprise he replied, ‘okay, we’ll make arrangements.’ 

“And so on the very next Saturday, while I was in the barracks attending to the fires as assigned, a fellow that ran errands for the company came in and said ‘are you Rael?’  And I replied ‘I am.’  He then informed me that I was to report to the Camp Commander.  I said ‘great, I’ve been waiting for that!’  He then instructed me to follow him and we went way out to a large building a distance away and walked up to the Commander’s office and he pointed and said to me ‘see that door right there, just knock on the door and go in when given the order.’ 

“And so I knocked on the door with nervous anticipation and heard a robust and commanding voice ‘come in!’  As I entered I saluted the Commander who was sitting behind a big desk involved in shuffling through some paperwork, barely looking up to make eye contact and did not acknowledge my salute.  He was sort of an older gentleman and he pointed to a chair and said ‘sit down here son!’  ‘Son?’ I said to myself in total disbelief.  Those were the very first words of any respect I had received since my induction!  He continued fiddling with the papers on his desk and eventually addressed me saying ‘well son, I understand that you are having problems with your commanding officers.’  I replied ‘sir, I don’t know whether we can consider that as a problem but I am a conscientious objector, I was registered as a conscientious objector and we have word from our president that we can be exempt from carrying arms.’

I further explained to him ‘I am ready and willing to serve and to go anywhere as ordered but I can’t in good conscience handle an arm.’ 

“So then the Commander just started chatting with me and carrying on an amicable conversation while inquiring about my religious affiliation asking ‘son, are you a Seventh-day-Adventist?’ I replied ‘I am sir.’  He then said ‘you know, in these documents you have a certificate here for some skilled training, welding.’  I replied ‘yes sir, I am a certified welder.’  He then commented ‘you know, this is just exactly the young people that we need in this outfit.  This is what this set up is for, maintenance ordinance.  What you’ll do here is go through regular basic training and then after you’re through here you will be sent to a technical school to brush up on your skills.  And when you have completed your training you will automatically be a non-commissioned officer. But honestly, I don’t find any record here as you being classified as a conscientious objector. So that is the question.’  I replied ‘sir, I was’ but I didn’t have the documents on my person to prove that.  He then informed me ‘okay, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’m going to get in touch with the draft board and further investigate this thing.  Then I’ll let you know through your commanding officer what I have decided on this matter.’

“Boy I mean to tell you, I stayed awake almost all night praying about this predicament!  It was the following Saturday morning that while sitting on my bunk I heard someone yell out my name ‘Rael!’  It was another kid who informed me ‘you better pack up, you’re leaving here!’  And I excitedly responded ‘I’m ready, but where am I going?’  ‘I don’t know,’ he replied back.  And sure enough, that night they picked me up and I wound up at Camp Grant, Illinois, a medical training center. Instead of equipment repair training I was shipped off for training as an Army medic.  Any other assignment other than medic training required handling a weapon. 

“So when another kid and I arrived together at Camp Grant, a large military medical training center in Rockford, Illinois, located roughly 30 miles from superiors and peers on refusing work on Saturday.  Franklin D. Roosevelt made a statement, which I carried on my person giving us the right to be exempt from unnecessary work during the Sabbath hours.  I also explained to my C.O. that I was willing to perform any assigned work at any other time of the week but Saturday was my day of rest and worship.  The Captain came to my defense when I was challenged by the Sergeant stating ‘Sergeant listen, I’m proud to have these boys in my outfit.  Leave them alone, it’s okay, you can put them to work tomorrow!’ 

“It’s just amazing how the Lord works in mysterious ways and I was finally permitted to attend church services along with some of the other Adventist fellow soldiers.  We would all study the Sabbath school lesson, sing, pray and fellowship together.  This was a real blessing and an answer to my prayers!

“So after I completed my medic training at Camp Grant we were given a 2 week furlough and at the end of the 2 weeks they picked us up there and shipped us to Camp Shanks, New York and then overseas.  I crossed the Atlantic with about 48 other fellow soldiers and 50 sailors in a flotilla convoy of other flat bottom transport boats, cargo ships and Navel warships.  That flat bottom transport boat did not cut through the water like a normal ship, it bobbed up and down like a cork and there were a lot of sick soldiers!  We spent 26 day in that boat in the spring of 1943 before reaching our destination at Plymouth, England.  There we were put up as replacement troops in Birmingham, England until the invasion.  There was about 10,000 troops there. 

“It was late one night when they picked a few of us up to take us to our assigned unit which was the Second General Hospital in Salisbury, England.  But we actually didn’t go there.  See, we had been assigned to the unit of the Second General Hospital.  But actually, all of this was in preparation for the invasion.  That was their secret strategy.  So while we were assigned to the ‘hospital,’ the hospital was not in operation at all.  We were all camped out in tents awaiting further orders.  And so we were on alert and on standby for about another couple of months or so.

And finally on the evening of June the 5th, when they gave us orders to board a landing craft of about 100 armed soldiers with standing room only, we all knew it was ‘high noon!’  We crossed the English Channel hitting the beach in Normandy, France in the wee hours of the morning of June 6, 1944. 

“Even before we hit the beach we could see the sky lit up with all sorts of aircraft and artillery fire.  In spite of the noble efforts of our Air Force cover we witnessed a lot of other transport boats blown up around us, all the time thinking we were next! 

“I don’t really like talking about the tragic events that followed in the heat of the battle aside from saying that I witnessed massive casualties all around me.  How can you describe something like that?  People who were not witness to the carnage really don’t understand.  There is no way that I can really put it into words.  We caught heavy fire emanating from enemy battleships and also from heavy artillery weapons from machine gun nests stationed along the shore line.  I witnessed a lot of comrades fall!

“Our duties as medics was to render aid and to attend to the fallen wounded and dying.  From our 50 pound back packs filled with first aid supplies we would administer to their immediate needs; and if they were hurting bad we would give them a shot of morphine to calm them down.  Then we would carry them on stretcher to nearby landing crafts waiting to transport them to hospital ships for more intensive care.  Some would make it and some would not!

Indelibly etched in his memory, Rael says, is the morbid site of the crimson Normandy shoreline stained with the blood of his fallen comrades.  He emotionally recalls a poignant moment while paying last respects at the gravesite of one of his closest buddies who was buried overseas shortly after the invasion and thinking to himself, “…but for the grace of God!”

Rael disclosed that he always carried a copy of Ellen G. White’s “Steps to Christ” - given to him by a dear lady from his home church in Albuquerque, N.M. - in his fatigues pocket and any spare time during the darkest moments of the war experience he would pull the book out and read it for strength and spiritual regeneration.

Louis J. Rael, “ordinary boy” …or “war hero?”  I say the latter!


Military personnel transport “landing craft” approaching the Normandy shoreline on that fateful day of June 6, 1944.

A man of prayer

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