While the graphic images from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison have fixated so many, I continue to be drawn to a different picture from our current war. It is a photograph of several U.S. soldiers in Fallujah kneeling in a huddle to pray for a fallen fellow soldier.
This image, which appeared on the front pages of many newspapers a couple of months ago, vividly reminded me of the importance that prayer has played in the life of our country from its earliest days. Particularly during times of domestic and international conflict, Americans of every persuasion have repeatedly turned to prayer to acknowledge the presence of a higher power, to put life and death in perspective, and to take stock of the consequences of human decision and action. At no time was this more evident than 60 years ago today, as the United States, Canada and Great Britain launched the D-Day invasion.
For weeks in early 1944, rumors had circulated about a massive European offensive that the Allies were about to undertake by land, sea and air. Apprehensive fathers and mothers, wives and girlfriends prayed more earnestly than ever for their boys on the front as they anticipated the launching of the long Allied push to Berlin and the defeat of Adolf Hitler's powerful war machine. The only questions that remained were where the invasion would take place -- and when.
In April, the Writers' War Board secretly commissioned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to write a prayer to be read on NBC radio by actor Ronald Colman once the invasion was underway. In her "Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army," Millay pleaded, "Oh, let the battle, Lord, be brief, and let our boys come home!" She voiced the fear of all Americans that the nation's young soldiers would be awaiting their fate in the "anteroom of Death," prepared and "expecting every moment to be called by name." It was a haunting poem, and when it was read on the evening of the invasion, millions of Americans listened and pondered its meaning.
When D-Day finally came, shortly after midnight on June 6, America awoke to the news that Allied troops had just landed on the coast of Normandy, in France. Charles Wilson, the CEO of General Electric, arrived at Washington's Union Station early that morning to meet a colleague. As he walked onto the bustling concourse, through which more than 100,000 people passed every day, he felt a sense of expectancy in the air. Soon the news quietly being passed from person to person reached him: The invasion was underway. Wilson, describing that day years later in a magazine article, remembered the powerful effect of the news on him and commuters throughout the station.
Looking off into the distance, he noticed a woman sitting on a hard wooden bench quietly fall to her knees to pray. A businessman seated next to her quickly followed, and Wilson watched as soon one person after another knelt and began to pray in silence. The scene was repeated spontaneously throughout the terminal, turning Union Station for a few fleeting moments into what Wilson described as a "house of worship." Then the audible hush that had fallen over the station lifted as people returned to their business, going off in separate directions.
Americans that day poured into the country's pews to pray, to reflect and to hope. The New York Stock Exchange opened its morning session in silence to allow individuals on the trading floor to pray for the troops. The editors at the New York Daily News decided to run the Lord's Prayer on the paper's front page. Outdoor prayer rallies were held everywhere, from New York's Madison Square to small-town parks across the country.
Half a world away, 130,000 men were landing on the shores of Normandy with the help of 4,000 sea transports. Another 23,000 paratroopers were being dropped from the skies by 10,000 transport planes and gliders. On that first day alone of Operation Overlord, the Allies incurred more than 10,000 casualties, and an estimated 2,500 lost their lives.
Reminding the Allied forces of their momentous undertaking, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had tried to buoy the troops before the landing in a written message distributed on the eve of the invasion. "You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months," he wrote. "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. . . . We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good Luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
For many of the men, it was only natural to carry miniature prayer books, crosses, scapulars and Stars of David to sustain them spiritually and psychologically, and to remind them of their mortality at such an hour. After landing on beaches with code names such as Omaha and Utah, the troops began to make their way through forbidding terrain and a barrage of enemy fire. The enormity of the potential casualties quickly became clear as soldiers were shot and killed in numbers no one could have imagined.
Once they had successfully scaled the 100-foot cliffs along the Normandy coastline, the Allied troops signaled their commanders with the code words "Praise the Lord." It was a bittersweet climb for those who had made it that far, as they realized that so many of their fellow GIs would never see home again.
Keeping abreast of developments at Normandy as best he could, President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the need to bolster the American people and prepare them for any outcome. Rather than address the nation on the radio that night with the kind of speech he had delivered so many times before, he decided to offer a prayer. With the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and presidential speechwriter Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt delivered a prayer that echoed the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in the last weeks of the Civil War.
"Last night when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation," Roosevelt began. "It has come to pass with success thus far. And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. . . . .
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. . . . Thy will be done, Almighty God."
The war in Europe was far from over, lasting another 11 months. But the D-Day invasion signaled the beginning of the end for Hitler.
Turning to prayer had been the most natural of American instincts. It offered a way for people across religious, racial, ethnic, economic and social lines to come together to share such a seminal event, to raise their sights to a higher power and to ask for support in facing the daunting task before them. Like the more recent days following Sept. 11, 2001, when people of different faiths and backgrounds came together as a national family and assembled at such places as Washington National Cathedral and Yankee Stadium, it was an American moment.
As the United States once again watches its men and women die on overseas battlefields, prayer continues to play a catalyzing role. It may come in the form of last week's Memorial Day proclamation by President Bush, calling on the nation to "pray for the strength and safety of our troops," or in the reverential gatherings of U.S. soldiers thousands of miles away from home, who find in prayer the insight and courage to face combat.
No matter how the country continues to evolve, the need and desire of the majority of Americans -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so many others -- to pray appears to remain as resilient as ever. As it did on that extraordinary day 60 years ago, it reminds us all of the transient nature of life, the price of human folly, the need for healing and the enduring, steadfast hope we as Americans share in our future.
Author's e-mail: AmPrayer@aol.com