Neal Maxwell in the Foxhole

by Elder Bruce C. Hafen
from A Disciple's Life -
The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell

During the middle of the battle for Okinawa, Neal was part of a mortar squad that fired at Japanese positions hidden in the hills. His own mortar position created an obvious invitation for the enemy to locate and eliminate his firing capacity - and him. They needed only to direct their own artillery and mortar fire at the place where Neal's squad sent up its shells. By identifying his position and comparing where their shells hit, they could direct their fire closer and closer until they had done their deadly job.

One night in late May, the shrieking noise of artillery fire caught Neal's attention with a frightening realization. Three shells in a row had exploded in a sequence that sent a dreadful message - the enemy had completely triangulated his mortar position, and the next series of shots would hit home. Suddenly a shell exploded no more than five feet away from him. Terribly shaken, Neal jumped from his foxhole and moved down a little knoll seeking protection, and then, uncertain what to do, he crawled back to the foxhole. There he knelt, trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer he had ever uttered, pleading for protection and dedicating the rest of his life to the Lord's service.

Neal later called this "one of those selfish, honest prayers" that many people offer in times of great stress. He didn't feel entitled to anything in particular, and he knew many of his combat buddies prayed that night as fervently as he did. Yet he did have very personal reasons for looking to heaven for protection. He was carrying in his pocket a smudged carbon copy of the patriarchal blessing he had received before leaving home. He had read the blessing frequently enough to know this part especially well:
I bless you that as the agencies of destruction are manifest . . . you may be preserved in body and in mind and your intellect be quickened by the spirit of truth . . . that you may rejoice in the power, the love and the mercies of the Redeemer. I seal you up against the power of the destroyer that your life may not be shortened and that you may not be deprived of fulfilling every assignment that was given unto you in the pre-existent state.
After the prayer, Neal turned his attention again to watching the night sky, which was earlier ablaze with flashing, fiery noises. His body spontaneously tensed up as he waited, searching the darkness for sounds and clues. But no more shells came near him.

Later he wrote:
After that triangulation occurred, the shelling stopped at the very time they were [about] to finish what they had been trying to do for days. I am sure the Lord answered my prayers. . . . The following night they began to pour [more] shells in [on our position], but almost all of them were duds-either the ammunition had gotten wet or they were not exploding in the very thick, oozing mud. . . . I felt preserved, and unworthily so, but have tried to be somewhat faithful to that promise that was given at the time.
He would occasionally talk about those two nights in the years that followed, never offering more details about the experience but usually adding something like, "I foolishly thought at the time that I could pay the Lord back, and now, of course, I'm in greater debt to Him than ever."

Over the next few weeks, Neal wrote several short letters home, some of them scrawled on postcard size military "V-mail" notes designed for the haste of combat conditions. He was not ready at first to share what had happened. Perhaps he didn't want to worry his family, and army policy limited what he could say. Beyond that, the experience had been almost too personal to describe in writing. Its meaning went far beyond what mere words could explain.

At the same time, without much explanation, he began sending some of each military salary check with his letters to be saved for his mission.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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