“I Started Out a Warbird but Ended Up a Dove”
THE droning sound was all too familiar. Soaring through the blue sky above was a B-17 airplane, a relic of World War II, just like the one I used to pilot. Its mission now, however, was a far cry from dropping bombs. The payload was fire-retardant chemicals to preserve the forest. Still, the sight and sound of that old “flying fortress” stirred my heart, bringing back a flood of memories of my warbird days—some good, some bad.
Ever since I can remember, I had a keen desire to fly. As children growing up in northeastern Wisconsin in the 1930’s, my brother Robert and I would spend hours making models of airplanes from balsa wood and tissue. Come Saturday, we couldn’t wait until our chores were done so we could bicycle out to the county airport and watch the old biplanes take off and land.
The desire to fly lingered into adulthood. So when World War II started, I enlisted in November 1942 in the Army Air Corps. Now I could serve my country and also realize my life’s goal—to fly.
On August 4, 1944, I received my coveted wings as a second lieutenant. Ten days later I married Mary Ann. Since it was wartime, our honeymoon was cut short. We spent it on the return bus to the air base.
I was ordered to Sebring, Florida, to learn to fly the famed B-17. This plane bristled with gun turrets—from its back, belly, nose, chin and tail—13 machine guns in all—and could carry three tons of bombs. No wonder it was nicknamed the Flying Fortress!
In the early spring of 1945 I was assigned to the 8th Air Force, given a brand-new B-17 and scheduled for combat service in England. I proudly named my ship Mary Ann II. I loved that plane so dearly that my wife would jokingly accuse me of bigamy.
Yet something gnawed at me, a Roman Catholic, as I thought about bombing cities filled with Roman Catholics. ‘The Catholic priest who lives on the base,’ I said to myself, ‘can help.’
“If I drop a bomb on a city in southern Germany and a thousand people are killed,” I asked the chaplain, “how many would be Catholic?”
“About 95 percent,” he answered.
“So what right do I have to take the lives of 950 people who are of the same religion as we are?”
The priest replied: “We are fighting a just war.”
“What makes a war just?” I asked.
“You are defending your country,” he said.
“We are invading Italy and Germany,” I said, puzzled. “Wouldn’t they believe they were fighting the just war because they were the ones defending their homeland?”
“No,” he answered. “We are fighting the just war.”
That answer left me even more puzzled. I then asked the chaplain: “Why did the pope, the Italian bishops and priests bless the Italian troops to fight against us, and why are German priests now doing the same to their troops?” Patting me gently on the shoulder, he replied: “You must have faith, my son. The responsibility is not on our shoulders.”
I was sick at heart. The little remaining faith I had in the Roman Catholic Church was ebbing fast. But I was soon out of my dilemma. Just a week before I was to take off for England, Germany surrendered and Mary Ann (the B-17, not my wife) was returned to the government. I took up a new line of work in a retail lumberyard, eventually becoming part owner. By this time our son had been born, and we settled down as a family.
In 1947 Al Ellquist entered our lives. He was a full-time pioneer minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wisconsin. When some in my wife’s family began to study the Bible with Al, Mary Ann joined in.
I didn’t like it one bit. The Bible was a foreign book to me. The priest never encouraged me to read the Bible, and I resented that my wife was trying to bring a new religion into our home. I became jealous of both the Witnesses and their God, Jehovah. I had always felt that the husband was Number One in the home, and if the wife wanted to know anything, even about the Bible, she should come to her husband for information.
Sensing my hostility, Al encouraged Mary Ann to get a Roman Catholic Bible for me. Then he suggested that she ask me noncontroversial questions such as: “How many animals of each kind did Noah take into the ark?” “What did man and beast eat in the garden of Eden?” I didn’t know the answers, but it surely whetted my appetite for more Bible information.
Next, my wife tried this approach: “Ray, I wonder if you would help me with these new things that I am learning from the Bible. You are so much more logical than I am. You wouldn’t want me to believe something if it isn’t true, would you?”
I had absolutely no basis for proving whether something was true or false. And when she began asking me where she could find scriptures about purgatory and limbo in my Catholic Bible, I realized I needed help. I telephoned the priest, asking him for the Bible passages that would prove the things we believed as Catholics. The priest confessed that these teachings were not found directly in the Bible but, rather, evolved from early Roman Catholic Church theology.
That answer didn’t satisfy me, nor could it withstand the bombardment of my wife’s Bible questions. Frustrated, I ordered Mary Ann to stop her Bible study with the Witnesses.
However, Al suggested that before she canceled her Bible lessons, she should try to get me to agree to read the Bible with her for a month. If, after the month was up, I didn’t understand what I was reading, Al would study the Bible with me.
I like challenges and I wasn’t going to back out of this one. Surely I could read this world-famous book and understand it. So, together, Mary Ann and I started reading from Genesis through to the Bible’s fifth book, Deuteronomy.
Thirty days were up and Mary Ann asked, “Do you understand what you read?” I gave the same type of answer that the Ethiopian gave to the Christian evangelizer Philip: No. I needed guidance. (Acts 8:30, 31) Therefore, being a man of my word, I agreed to have a Bible study with Al—but with an ulterior motive. I was going to shoot him down and show Mary Ann how wrong Al and those Witnesses were.
Prior to Al’s weekly visit, I would sit up into the wee hours of the morning thinking of ways to stump him. I couldn’t do it. When I threw a challenging question to Al, he would shift into this answering pattern: First, he would commend me for being a deep thinker. Next, he would say: “I know you do not wish to hear what I think. Let’s see what the Bible says on this matter.” In just a few minutes Al, in a kind, loving and convincing way, would shatter my hours of hard work by getting me to reason on the Bible.
After about nine months of losing all these battles, I surrendered and buckled down to serious Bible study. I progressed rapidly and Mary Ann and I got baptized on November 19, 1950.
When my mother found out about this, she cried out to her priest, “They’re leaving the Church!” and pleaded with him to “save” me and my brother Robert, who was also beginning to show interest. A meeting was arranged with the priest, with my mother and my brother, our wives and me at my parents’ home.
“You have committed a mortal sin by leaving the religion of your parents,” the priest charged. I asked: “In what religion was the Virgin Mary raised?” “Jewish,” he replied. “Did Mary die in the Jewish faith, or did she die a Christian?” I asked. “She was a Christian,” came his answer. “So, then, did Mary commit a mortal sin, too, by leaving the religion of her parents?”
That question and others concerning the human soul, Trinity and hellfire drew a blank from the priest. From then on my mother, brother and his wife progressed in their Bible study and eventually got baptized by the Witnesses. My mother died faithful to Jehovah seven years ago.
My wife soon felt that she should serve as a full-time evangelizer, and in January 1956, when our son was seven and settled in school, Mary Ann began serving as a full-time minister. But I was tied down to the lumberyard business. I had to supply the physical needs of my family, I reasoned. Actually, I wanted a larger home on a lakefront, so I could own a plane with floats and skis and start my own little paradise. Remember, I still loved flying.
So I spent ten hours a day at the lumberyard dealing with customers and their problems and came home beat. My wife, on the other hand, would come home from pioneering, bubbling over with enthusiasm—refreshed by the progress of her Bible student or the interest she had found.
My conscience started beating me. I realized that I could preach full time and still provide for my family. I also realized that the lumber business was throttling my spirituality. I ended up setting June 1, 1957, as a target date to start my full-time service as a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I got busy readjusting my life. I sold my stock in the lumber business. I sold our house and bought a mobile home. But it would never hold our belongings! We soon learned, however, that we could live with a lot less than we thought!
My father died in 1962, and after four years in the full-time ministry in southwestern Minnesota, we returned to Wisconsin to help my mother. To support my family I started a small janitorial business. My first job? The office of the lumber company where I had been vice-president! Was that a humbling experience!
The year 1969 found our son married and my mother well taken care of. Mary Ann and I widened out in our ministry. We became traveling representatives of the Watchtower Society. I started out in my first assignment as circuit overseer—North Dakota Circuit Number One. My brother and his wife, Robert and Lee, entered the circuit work too.
We are now in our seventh assignment and figure we have met about 10,350 brothers and sisters. How many of them would we have known if we had refused this privilege of service?
As I look back now, I can see that any anxiety I had about providing for our needs was completely unfounded. Mary Ann and I feel like King David when he said at Psalm 37:25: “A young man I used to be, I have also grown old, and yet I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.”—As told by Raymond Hurst.
[Blurb on page 20]
Something gnawed at me, a Roman Catholic, as I thought about bombing cities filled with Roman Catholics
[Blurb on page 20]
I was sick at heart. The little remaining faith I had in the Roman Catholic Church was ebbing fast
[Blurb on page 21]
I ordered Mary Ann to stop her Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses
[Blurb on page 21]
I started studying to prove them wrong, but after losing all the battles, I surrendered and buckled down to serious Bible study