History’s Paradoxical Lessons of Love in War

Fred L. Johnson III, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of History

As a Marine veteran and military historian, Dr. Fred L. Johnson III is regrettably too familiar with the atrocities of war.

As a college professor, he has not tucked away that horrific knowledge, but instead is adding a new perspective to it.

Johnson recently gravitated toward extraordinary stories of friendship and forgiveness during times of conflict and struggle, stories that are equal parts head-scratchers and heart-warmers. He told them first in a lecture series at local colleges that he titled “Acts of Love in Times of War,” and in 2020 he expanded his research to compile additional historical, humane tales for a book of the same name. Johnson, who has published three novels and a biography since joining the Hope faculty in 2000, plans to include 25 to 30 essays.

These moving examples of compassion in wartime have afforded him a window onto human resilience and morality under the harshest of conditions. Johnson hopes the stories will do the same for future readers of the book.

“I hope it exposes the fact that for all the separation we have and have had in society, it doesn’t have to be that way. So many people can come together naturally, as they are inclined to do,” says Johnson.

“It is in those moments when people show who they have been all along: good, decent people irrespective of their politics, irrespective of their race or gender, irrespective of what kind of maniacal regime they may be part of. Mind you, I don’t disregard that there are evil, cruel people and acts in war and in times of struggle. But these people, they decided, ‘Do you know what? I’m not going to do that awful thing.’ No matter what they’ve done before, no matter what they do after that, in that one moment, they know that if they don’t do the right thing, they lose their humanity.”

Examples abound.

  • During World War I, American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd went to France and set up shop to create realistic masks for men who had disfiguring scars and wounds that required facial reconstruction. “World War I was the first modern war in which national governments created terrible weapons of war to inflict maximum devastation and misery,” Johnson says. “The wounds that soldiers suffered were horrific. What Ladd did was give these men a sense of dignity so they could go back out in public and live their lives with some semblance of normalcy and dignity.”
  • During World II, as the Battle of the Bulge raged for weeks in a dense, snowy forest in Belgium, a German woman and her son allowed three lost American soldiers to take refuge in her home. When a few German soldiers later knocked on her door, the woman let them in, too, but with one stipulation: everyone had to leave their weapons outside. “By that evening, those German soldiers, those American soldiers, that German woman and her son, they all shared Christmas dinner together. During the Battle of the Bulge!” Johnson exclaims.
  • During the Korean War, U.S. naval aviator Ensign Jesse Brown was shot down over North Korea and trapped in the wreckage. His colleague Lt. Thomas Hudner belly-landed his aircraft in the snow and tried to rescue him. “And it becomes all too apparent that they aren’t going to succeed. Jesse tells Tommy to call for a helicopter, which he does, and Tommy says as he leaves, ‘We’ll come back for you.’ Brown replies, ‘Tell Daisy [his wife] I love her.’” The gravely injured pilot died there, but decades later Hudner kept his promise to come back, in an effort to retrieve Brown’s remains. “Here were these two guys — a white guy from Massachusetts and a Black guy from Mississippi — looking out for each other, caring about each other’s lives and wives,” Johnson declares. “They had that human connection working right, no matter the color of their skin — while fighting against tyrants in a war thousands of miles from home, while back in the United States African Americans were fighting against the tyranny of second-class citizenship.”
  • During a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in London, Black protester Patrick Hutchinson came to the aid of a counter-protester who was injured and in danger. “Here is an opponent,” Johnson says, fired up as he recalls the incident, “or at a minimum, an antagonist, being saved by one of the very people that the white supremacists say aren’t worth keeping alive. And it just makes you scratch your head in wonder that such acts can happen.”

Johnson has found that a common characteristic of the real-life characters in the events he’s researching is a strong spiritual foundation or moral rooting. “At that moment when they commit acts of love in times of war or conflict, the basis of their formation — who they were, who had mentored them, the lessons they had been taught and what they believed — all of this pointed these men and women toward answering to a higher call, mortal or immortal,” he says.

“I’m amazed that these people, during a time of great stress and struggle, exemplified the best of what Christian sacrifice is,” he adds. “‘No greater love can a man or a woman have for their fellow man or woman than to lay down their life for their friend.’ That’s what Tommy Hudner was prepared to do for Jesse Brown. As a Christian, what it says to me is that following Christ is tough. And it may quite literally cost you your life.”

Johnson is an award-winning public speaker who has advanced eight times to the semifinals of Toastmasters International’s World Series of Public Speaking, winning second place in his competition rounds in 2017 and 2018. It’s no surprise, then, that this current project started as a few oral presentations. Their adaptation for the printed page has required just a little tweaking.

“The way that I think about this material for oral presentation is pretty much the way I would write it,” Johnson says. “One of the things that makes this project most powerful is letting the people speak for themselves. So, I’m letting you hear Tommy Hudner and Jesse Brown. ‘Tell Daisy I love her.’ ‘We’ll come back for you.’ How can I add to that? I offer context, but their own words speak louder and clearer than mine.”

Johnson and his research assistant, Scott Joffre ’20, have been conducting primary source research in academic and government digitized archives such as Cornell University’s History of the War of the Rebellion archives and several military archives, to find stories from as early as the Civil War and as recent as the Iraq War. They are often buried in other documentation. Some were based on news stories but faded with time. Others were footnotes to more prominent stories.

Joffre calls the project “a powerful, much-needed work. Stories of the side of humanity that is not often told — or when it is, it’s dramatized to fantasy in movies — are largely left out of any K-12 curriculum, or even college education.”

He and Johnson are diligently fact-checking every incident, because as Johnson puts it, “the legend of the story can become more real than the facts. So, I’m doing my historian’s due diligence, making sure that I’ve got documented support.”

“I think that what these stories speak to is the absolute, urgent, immediate, essential, critical relevance of history,” Johnson concludes. “History, like a lot of the subjects in the arts and humanities, make us human. What these acts of love do, what these stories do, is draw us right to the center of the reality that history is — at the first, and in the final, analysis — always about people.”