When I stood up to my friends, defending a new girl at my school, the janitor, Mr. Bandon, saw the whole thing. He told me that it can take more courage to stand up to friends than to enemies. That was when he showed me a picture in his office of men from his World War II battalion, and shared the story of Private Johnson, the man he said he admired most.
Their battalion had fought across Europe, incurring heavy losses in the Battle of the Bulge. As the Germans ran out of supplies and started to retreat, the Americans set up a base camp. The supply trucks hadn’t yet come, and what food they had was moldy and stale. They threw away the worst, and ate what they could.
Most of the local Germans were starving, having what little food they owned taken from them for the army. That night some of them snuck into the camp to take the rotten food that had been thrown away, but they were captured. The next day, the Colonel who was in command, still angry at the losses his battalion had suffered, ordered the Germans to be shot.
Mr. Bandon and Private Johnson were among those chosen for the firing squad. The Germans were brought out. They had suffered great deprivation, and most of them were so thin that their flesh hung loosely over their bodies. They were all just boys and old men because the fighting age men had been taken for war. The Germans were lined up, frightened and begging for their lives, but the Colonel felt little mercy.
He gave the orders. “Ready! Aim!”
That was when Private Johnson lowered his rifle and spoke. “Sir, I can’t shoot them.”
The Colonel was furious at this insubordination. He had Private Johnson step forward. “You will do as you are told,” the Colonel ordered.
Private Johnson shook his head. “I can’t. It isn’t right. They are starving and just trying to find food for their families. They took nothing except what we threw away.”
The Colonel stood there, seething in his anger. When he finally spoke, he nearly spit out his words. “They are the enemy. If you can’t do your job, then you can take their place. You have a choice. Either do as you are commanded, or release them and be shot yourself. Now, get back in line!”
But Private Johnson didn’t get back in line. He walked to the Germans while everyone stared after him. He pulled his knife, and the German prisoners trembled. But he didn’t hurt them. Instead, he cut the ropes that held them. He then motioned for them to go. They stood for a moment until he motioned to them again, then they ran off as fast as they could.
Then he did something no one there would ever forget. He stepped to the wall where the Germans had stood, bowed his head in prayer for a moment, then looked up and said, “I’m ready.”
He closed his eyes and waited. The Colonel had not expected this, and his subdued voice quivered with emotion. “Ready.” Some of the men raised their guns to the ready, but most refused, Mr. Bandon being one of them. “Aim,” came the next command. Private Johnson closed his eyes to wait. He started to tremble from fear, but ready to die rather than kill innocent people. Mr. Bandon closed his eyes, unable to watch.
But no order came. When Mr. Bandon finally opened his eyes, the Colonel had stepped in front of the guns. He had an expression on his face that showed the emotion he felt at the display of courage Private Johnson had shown. The Colonel motioned for the men to lower their rifles, and then he turned to Private Johnson.
“Johnson,” the Colonel bellowed, “you have a new assignment.”
“Sir?” Private Johnson questioned.
“You choose yourself a few men to help you, and you make sure that any food we are disposing of is distributed to anyone who can use it. That is an order. Do you understand?”
Private Johnson smiled. “Yes, Sir.”
Mr. Bandon joined Private Johnson in this endeavor, and they became good friends.
“So, you see,” Mr. Bandon told me, “it can take even more courage to stand up to friends than it does to enemies.”