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Fifth in a series on war veterans
Over Regensburg, Germany, flak not only hit the plane, but tore into a crew member and the chief pilot’s thigh. As the pilot tried to stanch bleeding, co-pilot Bill Patten took over the controls.
Patten, 26, was a pilot with the 15th Air Force. He had a wife and daughter back home in Kansas City, Mo. Once in a while he’d read a Bible someone had sent to him, but as a not-too-religious military man, he took little comfort in it.
That day above Germany during World War II, as he tried to maneuver the injured B-17 bomber beyond enemy range, Patten promised God he’d be more faithful if He just helped him land.
It was a promise he intended to keep.
Patten had volunteered for the Air Corps in 1942, hoping to become a pilot. He’d already graduated from college with a degree in aeronautical engineering, worked in production for Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kan., and married his life’s love, Pearl.
During more than a year at airfields nationwide, he learned to fly small single-engine planes, then twin-engines, and eventually four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers.
While stateside, Patten’s biggest struggle wasn’t learning flying protocols or even saying goodbye to his wife and infant daughter. The worst was receiving the wire saying his mom had died from cancer. “I almost washed out then,” he later told me, recalling how he fought to concentrate on flying.
Superiors sent him to Foggia, Italy, with the 15th Air Force in early 1944. From then until the war ended, Patten, a first lieutenant, flew 34 bombing missions. Often his crew targeted German factories producing parts for Nazi equipment. Sometimes he navigated toward Romanian oil fields, supply sources for Axis countries. “Those were tough targets—far away and well-protected,” says Patten.
You were always alert, trying to stay in formation, checking altitude, watching for foreign fighters.
Keeping 12 to 16 planes safely in formation required vigilance and undivided attention, says Patten: “There were midair collisions … lots of near-misses.” He says he was probably too busy to notice how scared he was: “You were always alert, trying to stay in formation, checking altitude, watching for foreign fighters.” Routinely, the acclaimed Tuskegee Airmen fighter escorts protected his formation.
On several missions, his plane lost engines. During others, like the one over Regensburg, attackers riddled the fuselage with bullets and flak. On that one, after breathing his prayer for help, he focused his attention and strength on holding the controls steady, maneuvering away from Luftwaffe planes, and eventually landed safely.
After the war, Patten kept the promise he’d made on that flight. He started attending his wife’s Methodist church regularly and got baptized there. He concentrated on raising his family and rising with Butler Manufacturing, where he became a vice president. He and his wife mourned when they suffered a stillborn boy and girl between their oldest and youngest daughters.
His adult daughters, Cheryl Goodin and Lisa Johnson, say their dad is a humble role model. “He is strong in his faith, leading by example,” says Johnson. They recount how both parents started a church plant that thrives today.
After 70 years of marriage, Pearl died in 2011 from Alzheimer’s disease. Patten faithfully tended to her during those difficult last years. When no longer able to care for her, he drove 90 minutes each way to visit her daily.
“I really loved her,” says Patten quietly. “She was just a wonderful woman.” Then quickly he jokes, “She tolerated me.”
Today Patten, 102 years old, listens to audiobooks and Charles Stanley sermons, works out with his caregiver, and relishes phone visits with friends and 17 great-grandchildren. His daughters say he rarely talks about difficulties. Patten says resolutely, “Well, I just have to keep going.”
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Fourth in a series on war veterans
She had been married four days when her husband left for war in 1944. She didn’t know where he was going, and when—or if—she’d ever see him again. Barbara Larson, 94, shrugs and smiles: “That’s just the way it was back then.”
Larson wedded John at 18. She had already been working in a St. Paul airplane propeller factory, A.O. Smith Corp. Her mom worked in a defense factory. Her brother volunteered for the Navy. Her dad had fought in World War I. Larson grew up with a sense of duty.
Women who took jobs in factories and shipyards during World War II became known as “Rosie the Riveters,” based on the iconic poster of a woman flexing her biceps, with the words “We Can Do It!” splashed above. Plant officials made Larson manager of the tool crib—like a hardware store—her first day on the job. She supervised staff and recorded where tools went.
Daily, she drove a “Hi-Lo lift truck”—a forklift—to deliver supplies throughout what had been animal buildings on the state fairgrounds but were converted into one enormous factory. She recalls zipping through buildings delivering loads of little black diamonds and sanding pads used to polish plane propellers.
But while supporting the war effort at home, she worried about John overseas. She remembers others living with the same fears: “I dreaded seeing employees coming to work in tears because they’d just found out a loved one had been killed or lost in action.” She recalls a neighbor who came barreling out of her house, struck by an awful premonition and screaming her son had been killed. Later that evening she received a telegram reporting his death.
Larson feared John would be killed, too. She learned he was serving somewhere in Germany. She would occasionally receive letters from him written a month earlier. Even after the war, John would share only that Nuremberg was one battle he fought in. He never disclosed details, saying, “You don’t want to know.”
During their lengthy separation, Larson says, she went to bed praying and woke up praying. She had devotions daily, and on nights she couldn’t sleep she’d lie there and pray more. After work, she’d come home, quickly falling into bed exhausted. She had no desire or energy to go out much with friends.
Every evening she helped her mom hang blankets on windows for mandatory blackouts. They used ration coupon books for necessities, and like their neighbors, they planted a Victory Garden. “All of us sensed we were in this war together,” Larson says.
That blessed day came when her husband arrived stateside at Camp Campbell in Clarksville, Tenn. She dressed in high heels, nylons, white gloves, and a hat and boarded a troop train, standing-room only for the 350 miles from St. Paul to Chicago. Switching trains for Clarksville, a 450-mile trip, shoes in hand by now, she nervously waited to see the man she’d married a year and a half earlier.
“It was wonderful to finally see him,” she grins. “We hugged and couldn’t say a word. We were so happy.”
John died in 2003, after 59 years of marriage and four children—a beautiful life together, declares Larson.
Ruminating on those war days, Larson says simply, “I was a GI wife, a government issue wife. I was just doing what I should.”
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Third in a series on war veterans
Bernie Holritz, 99, loves to tell how God directed every aspect of his life, though never in a straight line. As America battled Japan during World War II, the Navy recruit didn’t expect he’d one day evangelize the Japanese.
Growing up in North Dakota, Holritz felt God was urging him to become a medical missionary to China. But in mid-1941, while in school, Holritz ran out of funds to finish pre-med coursework. With some anxiety over leaving the familiarity of home, he boarded a bus to Burbank, Calif., and took a job with the Lockheed aircraft factory to earn tuition money.
It was one of several times Holritz found himself adjusting his plans to God’s.
In Burbank, he found living quarters with Christians who belonged to a solid church where Holritz grew spiritually. He also learned to share the gospel with people living in Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
But that December, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Before long, Holritz volunteered for the Navy, hoping for overseas assignments. After he took rigorous classes in electrical engineering, radio, and electronics, superiors chose him to stay stateside teaching sailors to service equipment at sea. Holritz was disappointed: He wouldn’t get to serve abroad.
Even today, Holritz feels some guilt when he thinks of other veterans: “All those folks jeopardized their lives. All I did was face cockroaches in Texas.”
He soon realized, though, he was right where God wanted him. While stationed in Corpus Christi, he started Bible studies that became evangelistic outreaches as more men joined. He met his future wife, Jeanette, through a local church. And his desires morphed from pursuing medical missions to focusing on evangelism.
He and Jeanette agreed they wanted to serve in China as missionaries. In the years after the war, the Communist regime started expelling Christian ministries from the country. Because of Holritz’s wartime radio expertise, The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) asked him instead to help start a radio ministry in post-war Japan, where they would “loan” Bernie and Jeanette to Pacific Broadcast Association (PBA).
It would be a life-altering change in direction. Holritz felt prompted in his heart to say yes, and Jeanette concurred with, “Well, honey, let’s go!”
Holritz says he and Jeanette never felt animosity toward the Japanese—or from them—despite the recent war. They did feel other pressures: Securing radio permits from the Japanese government took interpreters and numerous meetings. The constant need to raise funds kept them stressed but praying. Holritz jokes: “We operated with the waterline just below our nose.”
They also struggled to break through the embedded mindset of a pagan culture steeped in centuries of the Shinto and Buddhist religions. And it took years to overcome reticence of Japanese Christian pastors to accept radio because, during the war, radio stations—all government-controlled—had broadcast a stream of propaganda.
God provided Japanese to go on air so the Japanese audience could hear the gospel directly from their own people.
Yet God provided, bringing individuals to help train Japanese to go on air so the Japanese audience could hear the gospel directly from their own people, not foreigners.
PBA’s very first radio programs involved a Christian station in Manila broadcasting into Japan. Several years later, the Japanese government finally OK’d the ministry to buy time on newly commercialized stations. During this same period, the Holritzes started a church: After services they offered yūshoku dendō, or dinner evangelism, in their home. Both the radio ministry and the church still thrive today.
Holritz remembers when a Japanese man came to believe in Christ after one of these meals, having seen his wife’s many profound, lasting changes after her conversion. In front of everyone, the man hugged his wife with joy. “That absolutely never happened in Japanese culture,” remarks Holritz, pointing to the power of the gospel.
Jeanette died in 2011. Holritz still loves technology and Japan. He recently started biweekly Zoom meetings with friends to pray for the country.