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Mercy in the midst of war

It was near the end of WWII, and I was weary of battles, of marching, of lack of sleep, of eating rations, of seeing death everywhere.

Somehow I had made it through landing in Normandy, being wounded in the hedgerows of France, the Battle of the Bulge, and now in Germany. I couldn’t wait to get home.

We were in Germany waiting for Russian soldiers to meet us so we could capture all of Germany. Our commanding officer ordered eight of us to keep watch on a hill for any German soldiers. We hid out in an old abandoned farmhouse, and we were each assigned to a couple of hours of guard duty. Early the next morning, through a window, I heard German soldiers speaking. The house was surrounded, and we were about to be discovered. I was ordered to go out and delay the soldiers, while the rest of the men broke down their weapons so they could not be used by the enemy.

I had picked up a bit of German, so I came out with my hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.”

The German sergeant said to a young private, “take him out and shoot him.”

I had cheated death many times in the past year, yet now this was the end. The young German soldier took me out and put his gun to my head. I dropped to my knees and prayed while waiting for the bullet to plunge into my head. Nothing happened. The young soldier could not pull the trigger.

Maybe he had seen too much killing and didn’t want to add another notch to his belt. I don’t know his reasons, I just knew I had his and God’s mercy for that moment.

The sergeant then came out of the farmhouse with the other American soldiers and told the private to march us to the nearest POW camp. As we walked, I remembered I had a hidden gun strapped to my boot, and I decided I would kill the private and escape.

I told the soldier I needed to relieve myself, and he indicated some bushes nearby. I ran to the bushes and pulled out my gun. Then a completely unbidden thought entered my head: He had saved my life by not pulling the trigger when he could have. Should I not return the favor? Could I callously end his life just because this is war and he is the enemy? Is there not something more powerful in saving a life than in taking one?

All I knew was that just as he could not pull the trigger on me, I could not pull the trigger on him. There was justice in bestowing mercy when it had been bestowed on me. With a clear conscience, I threw my gun down and left it. I rejoined the group, resolved to my fate as a POW. Three weeks later the war ended, and I walked out of Stalag 11A grateful to be alive.

— Frank Hernandez is 92 years old and lives in Medford.