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Seventy-three-thousand U.S. troops landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944 as part of what is still the largest military invasion by land, sea and air in human history.
Of the roughly 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, only about 450,000 are still alive today. That’s about 2.8 percent. If those percentages hold true for D-Day vets, there are just over 2,000 Americans alive today who landed on Utah and Omaha beaches or who were dropped behind enemy lines as part of that invasion.
We lost at least one more of them just last week, but he wasn’t just a number to me — he was my friend. His name was Jim Hamby, and he grew up in the mountain town of Lenoir, North Carolina. He was barely 19 years old when he boarded a landing craft headed for Utah Beach with the rest of his platoon.
He had never seen combat before and wasn’t ashamed to admit how scared he was. He and his platoon crouched down as the shells from enemy guns began to rain down around them. They could feel the concussion when the landing craft in front of them received a direct hit. That unfortunate boat lodged nose downward into the sand and blocked their prescribed path to the beach.
As they veered to the right, the current caught them, and Jim and his platoon wound up landing on a small stretch of totally undefended coastline. They made the D-Day landing without taking a single casualty.
Jim always remarked on that episode in his life with gratitude. He didn’t offer any suggestions as to why he had been spared the horror that awaited so many others, but he was thankful to have survived that day and eventually to have returned home to meet and marry his wife, to raise four children and to be part of the lives of six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Jim lived a full and rich life.
As memorable as Jim’s D-Day story was, it was another story reflecting on his military service that made the deepest impression on me. One day, I was leading a Bible study with a group of senior adults and we were talking about the different images we have of Christ — as a shepherd caring for the flock, as a social revolutionary or as a Passover lamb. Jim shared with us a different picture.
He talked about being an 18-year-old boy still clutching at his mother’s apron strings when “Uncle Sam” called. He felt scared and out of place long before he ever heard of D-Day. But when he arrived in England, he met a new platoon sergeant, a grizzled veteran of the first World War who inspired confidence in all of the green enlisted men.
Jim said, “I just went from my mother’s apron strings to his. I was determined to stay right behind him — to go wherever he went and to do whatever he did. And that’s what I did, from Utah Beach all the way into Germany until the surrender.”
Ultimately, Jim believed, following that sergeant was what allowed him to make it back home.
It was a remarkable image of trust that Jim shared with us on that day. I was so caught up in his recollections that I had nearly forgotten the discussion that had prompted them when Jim finally reached his conclusion.
“And that’s the same way I see Jesus,” he said. “I don’t always know where I should go or what I should do, but I figure he does, so I try to stay right behind him.”
And that’s what Jim did for most of the nearly 94 years of his life. He tried to stay right behind Jesus.
I’m grateful to have known Jim Hamby. I’m grateful to have heard so many of his stories and to have been his friend. I’m grateful that following Jesus has allowed Jim to make it to the eternal home that Christ prepared for him.
And I’m grateful for the image of Jesus as a grizzled veteran of life who we can trust in the midst of crises and conflicts, who we can follow when we’re not sure where to go or what to do.
Tito Madrazo has been the senior pastor of Woodland Baptist Church since 2013. He also teaches courses in preaching and congregational ministry at Duke Divinity School.