The following is a recounting of a true story involving my grandfather, Fred Heerema, during World War II. I remember the story originally being told in various forms by my grandmother. This telling is by my father, Jim, and was originally published in the Des Moines Register sometime prior to 2002. (We’re still hunting down the exact date, but it is long enough ago that it is not in their online archives).
This recounting of the story is dear to me, and I hope it will be a blessing to you as well. I also have a few brief reflections after the story.
SILENT NIGHT, PEACEFUL DAY, A Christmas story
When the last of the late afternoon twilight had faded, there was an unfamiliar silence. Only the wisp of the gentle breeze and the crackling of a frozen twig falling into the snow could be heard. The men hesitated with a pensive if not fearful curiosity. The constant shooting and the barrage of machine gun fire and the constant pounding of heavy artillery which had been with them for the three weeks prior at least gave them a sense of the distance and direction of the enemy around them. The quiet meant change, but gave no indications of what. “Are the Nazi soldiers altering positions under the veil of darkness? Are they advancing or retrenching? Are they entrapping or encircling us?” these foot soldiers were asking.
One of the men of the platoon moments earlier had said, “Listen they are not shooting any more.” Then every body stopped shooting, and in the quiet, wondered.
They observed, and they listened. Just as Fred Heerema, First Lieutenant and the commander of the unit, was about to send out some scouts, a tremendous Christmas tree lit up on the nearby hill. Weary, but amazed and hopeful, the American infantrymen observed for a moment. From the other hill echoed a chorus of “Silent Night”. The limited German learned in intensive language training, aided by the familiar tunes, translated the words of several Christmas carols and hymns in the lieutenant’s mind. Filled with this moment of joy which the season, to this point had not provided, one of the more ingenious men of the American camp rigged up a Christmas tree of sorts from spare materials, wire and shrubs. A rapidly growing blaze of their campfire helped illuminate the huge tree the German soldiers had decorated. Then everyone on both sides joined in the singing. Even though it was Christmas Eve, they remained cautious and ready, but still there was a kind of relaxation and tranquillity. Soon after that, the Americans and the Germans, just a short distance from each other, partied.
All was quiet Christmas day. With the enemy all around, one’s guard can never be down. Still it was a time for reflection. Most of the day, they rested and shared stories of their homes and families. They spent some of their time repairing gloves and socks and other personal equipment necessary for the weather. For part of the day, some of the men celebrated this Christmas by reading from their thin, brownish Gideon copy of the Psalms and the four gospels which they carried with them. Fred carried his in a leather wallet-like folder. Also in the folder was a picture of a young Jesus, probably the twelve year old Jesus at the temple. On the back of that picture was written, “Psalm 103 is very dear to me. Hope you read it often, Fred. [signed] Mother.”
They were all well trained and conditioned soldiers recently attached to the 95th Division which was assigned to the Third Army under General Patton. As reinforcements shipped to the continent after the D-Day invasion, most in this platoon had only seen their first front line combat early in December when they battled for and gained the bridgehead at Saarlautern. The bridge had been captured intact! From then on, in that cold and snowy December, in an area just south of the where the “Battle of the Bulge” was unfolding, they were immersed in intense combat against the heavily fortified Siegfried defenses of the Nazi army, fighting to gain ground yard by yard, pillbox by pillbox, fighting hand to hand at times. Casualties were many. A week after encountering this stiff defensive line, the young lieutenant, a basketball standout whose college days had been interrupted by this war, had the most important athletic event of his life when as accounted for in a cablegram later received by his parents:
“While reconnoitering near a strongly held enemy pillbox in Saarlautern-Ruden a scout of First Lieutenant Heerema’s platoon fell, seriously wounded, near the door of the fortification. Unhesitatingly, First Lieutenant Heerema ran out into a hail of machine gun and rifle bullets and carried the wounded man to safety, a distance of 60 yards.”
Another cablegram message informed his parents that just one week later Fred himself had been wounded, but remained in action.
They were engaged in this vicious confrontation with the Nazi’s the entire month of December 1944….
…except for that one blessed, blessed Christmas day.
At exactly midnight, as Christmas came to a close, the tree lights went off and the guns again began to roar.
For the first time in this winter-laden month, the skies had cleared, and in the ensuing days, the superior Allied air corps flew once again, aiding advances of the Third Army to Bastogne to re-supply the garrison of Americans there. The 95th advanced to the Ardennes area to join in the Battle of the Bulge, and then to other battles in Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland, and finally into Germany.
This story is passed on to Lieutenant Heerema’s grandchildren and great grandchildren, most who never knew him.
Fred’s mother, Jeneke Heerema had expressed her hope that he would read Psalm 103 often.
“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children”
Psalm 103, vs. 13-17
In passing this story to Fred’s grandchildren, most who never knew him, a message was found from grandmother Jeneke whom most her grandchildren never knew. She died on April 29. 1945 while Fred was still in the midst of the final stages of the war. “But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.”
Wishes of peace to all in this Christmas season and always…
by Polly Heerema as told to Jim
I remember reading the story when originally published and being impressed by the writing and being glad that it was recorded, but tonight, as I read it for the first time in years, I wept. Being a parent now, the mother’s urging her son (my grandfather) to keep Psalm 103 close, rings loud to me now, as does verse 17 itself: “But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” Because my grandfather feared the Lord, and my father fears the Lord, and raised me in the faith, I am that child’s child.
Both of my grandfathers are war heroes, and the brief mention of how Grandpa Fred won a purple heart and bronze star for heroism is stirring. Knowing that he did not have a medal in mind, but rather his fellow soldier in mind is incredible.
I am amazed at the beautiful power of Christ’s impact on the world, that can stop even warring nations from firing at one another for a day, bringing a ray of light into the dark and broken world. Truly the words from “O Come O Come Emmanuel” came true for a moment: “O come, Desire of Nations, and bind in one the hearts of all mankind. Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”
And thanks to my hero, Dad, for recording this.