On the Military Road to Rationalism: Donald O. Worrell

By Donald O. Worrell


Donald O. Worrell then and now. Below, next to FFRF’s Atheists in Foxholes monument, Lake Hypatia, Ala.


Shortly before I was shipped overseas in November 1944, as a rifleman in the 75th Infantry Division, my favorite aunt–Aunt Mamie, down in my hometown of Eufaula, Alabama–gave me a little pocket bible with a copper plate covering it.

I appreciated her love and concern, of course. But I was no more religious then, at 19, than I am now, at 82. The Little Blue Books I began ordering from E. Haldeman-Julius, the great freethought publisher in Girard, Kansas, when I was 17 years old, had put me well on the road to Rationalism. So I certainly didn’t believe any so-called “holy book” was going to protect me from harm in battle. I promptly deposited it in the appropriate receptacle–the garbage can. But then I thought, as a purely practical matter, maybe I could carry the little metal plate in my breast pocket. So I retrieved it.

A month later, in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge in the freezing Ardennes Forest in Belgium, a tiny piece of German 88-millimeter artillery shrapnel, about the size of a dime, tore through my overcoat and field jacket, dented that copper cover, and fell harmlessly into my shirt pocket. I guess my Aunt Mamie had saved me, after all.

That story always reminded me of the old Woody Allen joke about the berserk evangelist: “Years ago, my mother gave me a bullet. I put it in my breast pocket. Two years after that, I was walking down the street when a berserk evangelist heaved a Gideon Bible out a hotel-room window, hitting me in the chest. That Bible would’ve gone through my heart if it wasn’t for the bullet.”

Perhaps I should have been carrying the copper plate in my hip pocket, instead, because a couple of weeks later, a piece of shrapnel about the size of a quarter hit me–as Forrest Gump put it–“right square in the butt-ocks.” I still remember the exact words I screamed: “I’m hit! Oh, God, I’m hit!” But I wasn’t calling out to any deity–I was just yelling in pain, shock, and disbelief.

I dragged myself back to the nearest aid station, where they slapped a bandage over my rear end, gave me a shot of morphine, piled me in an open Jeep with three other wounded GIs, drove us about 20 frantic miles at breakneck speed over shell-pocked roads, and put us on a train headed for an Army hospital in Dijon, France.

My uniform was so muddy and bloody, the medics had cut off all my clothes, including my “Long John” underwear, and just wrapped me up in two wool blankets. The seriously hurt soldiers were in a separate section of the train; the ones in my car had relatively minor wounds, in the arms, legs, shoulders, etc. On the train, there happened to be a beautiful, red-haired Hollywood movie actress named Madeline Carroll. Probably nobody remembers her now, unless you’re my age, but back then, she was a big star.

She was serving as a sort of morale booster, going from one man to another, down the line, chatting a few minutes. I could hear her coming toward me, asking each GI the same questions: “What’s your name, soldier? Where’re you from? Where’d you get hit?” And they’d show her. Well, everybody else had on at least their “Long Johns”–but I was buck-naked between two wool blankets, and I was hit in the butt-ocks. So I was wondering, “What in the hell am I gonna say?” Anyway, she finally got around to me–and I just pulled back my blanket and pointed to my big naked butt. She broke out laughing, kissed me on the cheek (no, not that cheek), and went on her way.

After I returned to the front lines following a month in the hospital, a couple of pieces of metal more substantial than the little bible cover probably really did save my life. First, a piece of shrapnel hit my steel helmet, went halfway around it, and lodged in my plastic helmet liner. Later, three pieces of shrapnel slammed into the cartridge case I wore around my waist, damaging the bullets, but sparing me. The Hand of God? My dear old religious Aunt Mamie would’ve said so, I’m sure.

Late one night in March of 1945, on the outskirts of Aachen, Germany, another GI and I were reconnoitering through a small house when we were quite surprised to come upon four German soldiers sound asleep on the floor in one room, lit only by a candle in one corner. We poked and kicked them awake, and yelled for them to line up against a wall. Suddenly, one of them pulled a pistol from his shoulder holster. By pure chance, I happened to spot his movement, and I instinctively whirled around and shot him twice, in the heart, point-blank. I didn’t even look at him again, because I could hear the blood gurgling in his throat, and I knew he was dead.

Later, a couple of other GIs rummaged through his papers and photos, and learned he was the same age as me and that he had a pretty wife and an infant daughter. One of the GIs took his “Gott Mit Uns” (“God With Us”) belt buckle as a war souvenir. (Napoleon had it right: “God is on the side of the most battalions.”) Then they dragged him, feet-first, out of the house into the yard. Years later, I could still hear the sound of his head hitting the steps.

I received a Bronze Star with V for valor for my actions that night. But I never felt very valorous. Just extremely lucky. Perhaps, needless to say, it’s a strange sensation to know you’ve killed a man, especially at such close range. Actually, at the time, I felt little or nothing–it was like shooting into the floor. But, in the 60 years since then, I’ve thought about it quite often, and I only feel sadness. If we had met under different circumstances, that young German and I might have been friends. Almost certainly, we would not have been enemies.

The amazing thing is that those were the only two shots I fired during my entire time in combat, from December 1944 to May 1945. And I’m sure there were others in my outfit who never fired at all. We were always the ones being shot at–not so much by small-arms fire (rifles and machine guns), but constantly being shelled from afar by artillery and mortars. And I’m sure the same situation existed for many German soldiers– theywere always being shelled by our artillery and mortars. Military historians sometimes glorify artillery as “the Queen of Battle.” Certainly a cruel and vicious “queen.”

During the last few weeks of the war, there was little, if any, fighting, at least not in our sector, and two strange things happened to me at that time. We were reconnoitering through a bombed-out, deserted German munitions plant late one afternoon, almost dark, to see if we might find any German stragglers who’d been left behind. We never did. But I had gradually gotten further and further away from my squad until I found myself completely alone. Then the first strange thing occurred. I suddenly ran into a young German woman–quite attractive, perhaps a few years older than I was. I don’t know what she was doing there; maybe she used to work there and had gone back to retrieve something. Anyway, we just stared at each other for a minute–we didn’t say a word–and then we both grabbed each other, and held each other, and kissed each other (passionately, I mean.) Then we turned each other loose, and walked away.

The other strange thing happened a little later, when I came upon half a dozen men. They had on dirty, ragged uniforms of some kind, but not German, and they were unarmed, so far as I could tell. I pointed my rifle at them. They put their hands in the air. Then one of them spoke–and they were Italian. I believe they may have been conscripted to work in that munitions plant. But they were our enemies, too, just as much as the Germans. Italy was part of our “Axis of Evil,” along with Germany and Japan. So I figured it was my duty to take them prisoners of war. But I didn’t want to try to find my unit, in the dark, with six POWs in tow. So I just herded them into an abandoned office, with a big desk and a big chair behind it. I sat down, with my rifle across the desk, pointed at them, and I motioned for them to sit on the floor with their backs against the wall, facing me. We found a few candles, lit them, and put them on the desk. And I was prepared to stand guard (or, rather, sit guard) the rest of the night. But, after an hour or two, I fell sound asleep. And I guess they did, too, because when I woke up next morning, they were still sitting, or lying, on the floor. And I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous. Why should I take these people prisoners? This is stupid.” So I just waved goodbye and walked out, and finally caught up with my unit.

* * *

Shortly after VE Day, I was transferred to the Second Infantry Division. My old unit stayed in Reims, France, on occupation duty. My new one was shipped back to the States for the invasion of Japan. How lucky can you get?

We landed in New York Harbor, and the legendary German-born actress, Marlene Dietrich, greeted us at the dock, as a morale-boosting gesture. A famous photographer named Alfred Eisenstadt was there to shoot pictures for LIFE Magazine. He called for two of us to hoist Miss Dietrich on our shoulders for a shot. I happened to be standing close by, so I quickly grabbed one leg, and another GI grabbed the other. (And these were probably the most famous legs in the world.) As soon as LIFE hit the news-stands, I snatched up a copy and looked for my picture–but it wasn’t there. They had used a couple of others, instead. But I can truthfully say–and I often do–that I have felt of Marlene Dietrich’s legs. Well, one of ’em, anyway.

* * *

Several years later, after the information had been de-classified, LIFE ran the detailed military plans for the invasion of Japan. My old division was to spearhead the attack.

* * *

After being discharged from the Army, I re-entered the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, got a degree in Journalism, and worked on four newspapers, in Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Alabama, as a reporter and news editor, before joining NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as an “information specialist” (in plain language, a PR man.)

The Center director was Dr. Wernher von Braun, the famous German-born scientist who created the Saturn V Moon rocket–as well as the German V-I and V-2 missiles which I sometimes used to see, 10 years earlier, flying over our foxholes in Belgium, enroute to their deadly destinations in Antwerp, Rotterdam, and London. They looked like big moons and sounded like motorboats.

One of my duties at NASA was to occasionally accompany Dr. von Braun, as his press aide, on his speeches throughout the country. We never discussed the war.

* * *

On Dec. 6th, 1959–one day before the 18th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor–I married one of our former enemies, a beautiful Japanese girl I had met just four months earlier when I was a tourist in her hometown, Kyoto. We’ve been married 45 years now, and we have a 44-year-old son.

* * *

I recently participated in something called the Veterans History Project, an effort by the Library of Congress to collect and preserve video-taped oral histories of veterans. Preparing notes for my interview brought back memories of things I hadn’t thought about in many years, including some of the experiences I’ve related in this article. The project is ongoing, and you can take part, or just learn more about it, by contacting your local library or logging on to www.loc.gov/vets.

* * *

By a rather remarkable coincidence, my father was also an Infantry rifleman, 27 years earlier in World War I. He suffered from trenchfoot, and was later wounded by mustard gas in the battle of Verdun, France. My feet were frozen, and I was later wounded by shrapnel a few miles away, in Colmar, France.

* * *

At the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Atheists in Foxholes” monument at Lake Hypatia, Alabama, the inscription (penned by FFRF founder Anne Gaylor) reads: “With hope that in the future, humankind may learn to avoid all war.” I’ll shout, “Amen!” to that.

* * *

Annie Laurie (Freethought Today editor) asked me to say a few words about “staying active after 80.” Here’s my usual schedule: I walk half an hour most mornings and swim half an hour most afternoons. I play three rounds of golf a week, two walking, one riding. (I’ve had four holes-in-one. The first three were luck, I’ll admit that–but the fourth was pure skill. Well, maybe not.) And I teach five one-hour ballroom dance classes each week. (I claim to be “The World’s Oldest Living Ballroom Dance Teacher.” My golfing buddies derisively refer to me as “The Mambo King” and “Ol’ Twinkle-toes.”)

Here’s how I became a dance teacher–something I never would have predicted: My wife, who had a natural talent, got a job as an instructor with the local Arthur Murray studio, and later opened her own small studio, which she operated for 20 years. I spent a lot of time there, and she taught me how to dance, and eventually how to teach. After my wife retired and closed her studio, 15 years ago, I just kept on, as a paying hobby, teaching wherever I got a “gig,” which has included the local Senior Center, VFW, American Legion, Elks Club, Moose Lodge, several high schools, people’s homes, Athens (Ala.) State College, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and a surprising number of churches of mainline denominations–excepting, of course, Church of Christ and Southern Baptist. (You may remember the old joke about why Baptists never have sex standing up–they’re afraid someone might see them and think they’re dancing.)

I teach 11 dances–Fox-trot, Waltz, Swing, Polka, Cha-cha, Tango, Mambo, Rumba, Merengue, Samba, and Bolero–and 223 patterns. A recent study found ballroom dancing one of the best exercises to help stave off Alzheimer’s–because you have to use your brain at the same time as your feet.

I certainly realize, and appreciate, how fortunate I am that I’m still able to do all these activities at 82 . (I also feel, in a sense, that I’ve been living on borrowed time for 60 years, anyway.) Whatever one’s physical condition, though, the important thing for us “senior citizens” is probably just to keep moving, as much and as long as we can.

And, of course, keep on thinking Freethought.

Donald O. Worrell is a Life Member of the Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation