The Message:

“If Thou Art Willing”

by Elder Paul H. Dunn

of the First Council of the Seventy

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    I started preparing to be a professional ball player at the age of three, and I never took my mind off it. And that was one of my problems. I didn’t think that public school or church had anything to do with becoming a ball player, and because of my poor vision in terms of values, I had to learn a very hard lesson. Everything I did from age three until I was 18 and signed that first professional ball contract was oriented toward the ball field. I ate, slept, and drank baseball. That’s all I could think of, but it was necessary in terms of my preparation. My only problem was I got overbalanced in it. I collected more Wheaties box tops than you can ever imagine, because I thought there was some correlation between eating Wheaties and being a better ball player.

    For 12 years of public education I never took a book home to study. I’m not proud of it. I’m sorry, and I’ve tried to repent, and I’m spending the rest of my life paying the price of the void that I created by that silly observation of a few years ago, thinking as I used to in algebra and English, “Of what value is this to me if I become a great pitcher? I can throw a curve ball just as well without algebra and English as I can with it.” I used to go home and say, “Yep, I’m all prepared for life. I can throw as hard as anybody and run just as fast and hit just as far. So don’t bother me.” I’ve lived to see the fallacy of that one.

    When it came time to go to church on Sunday, I took it as a personal affront to me, because how could church help me be a better ball player?

    That’s the way my mind worked. I’m not saying that becoming a great ball player or lawyer or doctor isn’t important. It is; it’s necessary for temporal salvation, but it isn’t the most important thing that we’re sent to earth to do. It’s the eternal things that really count, and it’s a sharp, intelligent person who can catch this vision early and do something about it.

    At the age of three I had not calculated that World War II would be on the scene. I hadn’t put that in my program. I didn’t know about it, and little did I know that Uncle Sam would tap me on the shoulder when my 18th birthday came and say, “Come on, buddy, follow me. That’s what you’re going to do for the next three years.”

    Three months before I had signed my first ball contract. Do you know what that means? Here I planned for 15 years to be what I wanted to be. I had eight major league scouts tracking me down; I was finally graduated from high school and arrived at age 18 when I was permitted by my parents to sign that contract and to put my name on the dotted line with what was then a pretty good bonus. You know what kind of thrill that is for a teenager? I wish I had the ability to tell you. And then I reported to that first team, and I stepped into that dugout with a new number. You know what a thrill that is? Then to get a letter two or three months later that says, “Forget that, brother, and follow me. We have other plans for you.” That’s what I hadn’t counted on. That was the uncertain part of my life that I had never planned for; there are those things in the lives of us all.

    I was whisked off to basic training, and it was a terrible way to live. I could see then in some small measure, even though I hadn’t the foundation that I should have had, the value of other things that I had neglected—schooling, training. I got all the dirty work because I couldn’t qualify in any field of endeavor. Couldn’t do anything. And then as I commenced to experience the temptations of the world, I could begin to appreciate in a small measure the other side—the religious and moral and spiritual values. Well, as I thought and experienced, I began to question in my mind. About 11 months later I found myself on a troop ship in the Pacific Ocean—out there on the water, on one of many boats in a convoy heading toward an island for the first combat experience of the group. Some 3,000 American soldiers were all going into war for the first time, men who represented all walks of life: lawyers and doctors and teachers and merchants and bums and criminals—the works, and a few ball players thrown in, all mixed together with the common charge to defend their country at all costs.

    Well, the first two or three weeks out there weren’t bad. While war was very much on our minds because of our previous training and the films we’d seen and all of the other things that train a boy to be what he ought to be in war, it still wasn’t real. Interestingly enough, during the first two weeks of our voyage, the army and navy, because they are always interested in the well-rounded personality, held a general church service every evening at 5:00 where we could come and sing a common song, whether we were Jew, Catholic, gentile, or Latter-day Saint, something that would bind us together in a religious cause. And the chaplain would talk to us for four or five minutes, and then we’d just sit and visit and talk about home and girls and all the other things that seem to be important to men at that stage of their lives, and then we’d be dismissed—about an hour of service every day at 5:00. Out of 3,000 there were 35 or 40 who used to go to this little service every day. Thirty-five or forty! That’s typical of life, isn’t it, as you look at your campus, your stake, your ward, or surrounding communities?

    As we entered the third week, things started to pick up in tempo a little bit. They brought out some big rubber relief maps, and they had our target island depicted right down to the last palm tree and pill box, everything perfectly marked. Then they’d say, “Boat team 27 (that was mine), you’re going in.” And then, since it was the last hour and because they didn’t have room in the regular meeting place, we held the evening services topside on the bow. And there was one of the most interesting studies of human life I have ever watched in my life.

    Do you know what happened that July 21, 1944? Three thousand men came to church! How about that? Three thousand got kind of excited about higher values in life. When the crisis is really on, watch people get religion. They sensed, as you can only when the chips are down, the need for higher aid, be they merchant, criminal, or ball player.

    Well, I’ll never forget that church service conducted by a marvelous Protestant chaplain. I don’t even know what faith he represented. But bless his heart, he was honest and sincere, and he came straight to the point. I’ll never forget that calm day; the water was almost like glass, and we were sitting out there, 3,000 strong, singing that opening song, “Abide With Me, ‘Tis Eventide.” Can you imagine a chorus of 3,000 male soldiers letting their souls go, probably in many cases for the first time in their lives. Can you imagine what that sounds like? And you could even hear other ships echoing the same type of activity. There was a brief opening prayer, and then the chaplain got as serious as I’ve ever seen a man.

    He said, “Men, I’m not going to kid you tonight. You’ve been training for the last year for what you’re going to do tomorrow, and you know full well what’s before you. Army statistics tell us that in an invasion like you’re going to experience tomorrow morning, a lot of you aren’t going to make it. We’ve got to pay a price to get this island.” He said, “If our records are accurate, half of you will lay your lives down sometime before 8:00 tomorrow morning. What I’m trying to say, men, is that one-half of you will be standing before your Maker tomorrow morning at 8:00. Are you ready?”

    Well now, what would you say, young people? I was 18 years old at the time. If someone said, “Tomorrow morning at 8:00 you’re giving an accounting to the Savior for your life and your attitude and your activity,” how would you feel? There I was, sitting out there thinking of all my great and glorious ball days. See how insignificant they appear to be all of a sudden? Contracts and fame and fortune—a lot of nonsense, aren’t they, when you get right down to what really counts?

    And for the first time I wanted to know something about the validity of religion. Does God really live? Why am I out here? Why should I take the life of a person I’ve never even seen before? Thousands of questions like that started to rush through my mind. Why? Why? Why? And it’s questions like that we ought to ask right now. Why do we do any of the things we’re doing in this existence of ours?

    Well, that service ended, and there wasn’t one person I knew who slept that night. And there wasn’t much talking going on. You held your rifle and reported to your boat team station, and at 5:00 when that whistle went off, we prepared to embark. I was assigned to the seventh wave that morning. Unfortunately, the first six waves didn’t even get ashore. Completely blown out of the water. Thousands of lives sacrificed for you, for me, for the defense of this country. And I remember how I felt as I was put on shore on that little coral reef; by then the tide was in and I had to wade to shore in water clear up to my chest, rifle extended, and I had to push through the dead bodies of my friends and those I had trained and associated with. Don’t tell me you don’t ask questions. Why was that wonderful kid, 19 years old, face down in the water? Why? As I crawled ashore, and finally made a little progress about ten feet up the beach and dug a little hole there, I took off my helmet and started to ask the Lord why. Why, Lord, why should I be out there?

    I’d never prayed like that before. I’d been a Latter-day Saint all my life. I’d watched my mom and dad get on their knees in family prayer. May I confess again, mine was an attitude at ages 16 and 17, “Let’s get this over with, folks. My gosh, my folks are fanatical. Pa, do we have to pray tonight?” You know those feelings. I find that others feel and think this way in our society, and it’s because our vision is short; we haven’t been able to see enough to ask penetrating questions.

    I remember kneeling a number of times with my father and listening to him pour out his soul to his Heavenly Father. My dad was a sharp, capable businessman, respected by the community, a great leader from whom others sought counsel, and yet in his own humble way he would often kneel and say, “Lord, here’s my problem. Help my boy Paul, and my sons Bob and David,” or “There’s a difficult area in my business. What’s your counsel, Lord?” And I watched time after time as my father got off his knees with a tear or two in his eyes, and looked heavenward, and gave thanks and appreciation.

    Up to the time I went ashore at Guam, I had never known God. But one thing I did know as I waded ashore on that fateful day was that my dad knew that God lived, and my dad got answers. And as I dug in, I knew that I could do exactly what my dad did, and I’ll be eternally grateful for his guidance and teaching. As I knelt down with my head bared, even in the danger of cross fire, I asked my Heavenly Father very simply, “Do you live? Are you real? Is Jesus Christ really the Savior? Was Joseph Smith a prophet of the Church, like I’ve heard all of my life and can’t understand?” And then it came. That sweet inner commitment and verification. Spirit touching spirit, saying in a silent voice, “It is so.” And so complete was that feeling within my heart on that July day that I could actually have gotten up out of my hole, I felt, and walked unharmed across that battlefield. The peace and the security were that great.

    A testimony was born, because I had asked with real intent. I had prayed a thousand times before in a mechanical way because the pressure was on from family and church. But now I really wanted to know. Are you there, Lord? Will you tell me? And he did. And since that day, I have given my life to him. And I’ve had verification upon verification that this church is true, that Joseph Smith was called and ordained to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Now I haven’t taken it just on the basis of one testimony, because my mind won’t permit me that luxury, and I don’t think most minds will. I came back from that war and used my GI bill and went to college. First of all, what a struggle that was because of the void I’d created in high school. I happened to have married out of the Church, and while I was fortunate to convert my wife and see her come in and be one of the strongest Latter-day Saints you’ll ever know, what a risk I took, as I reflect back. Anyway, she came from a very strong Protestant family, and in order to handle myself effectively, or at least as effectively as I thought I should, I attended a Protestant theological school of their faith and graduated with their ministers, because I wanted to know, scripturally speaking, whether the Mormon Church could stand the test of the world. And how happy I am to report that not only did I get a testimony when I asked as Moroni indicates, but I put it to the test for years in one of the best theological schools on the west coast. And the gospel is true, brothers and sisters. Are you willing to invest the time and energy and the commitment in prayer to see if I’m right?

    Before I went into combat experience, I had, at the prompting of my father, a patriarchal blessing given to me. As you know, that’s an opportunity, under the hands of those who hold the priesthood, to have the spiritual gifts and opportunities, the actual capacities that are within us, revealed to us in such a way that we can actually formulate our lives for the future as we apply the principles of the gospel. And you know, that patriarchal blessing stated in a number of paragraphs that I would live, as we might term in the vernacular, to a ripe old age, that I would have a wife and a family and certain experiences in the Church. And then it concluded, as they often do, with the conditional clause, “if thou art willing.” See, there’s the condition. If you are willing, Paul, these things will come to pass. And one of the paragraphs indicated divine intervention in time of combat.

    Now there were 1,000 of us in my combat team who left San Francisco on that fateful journey, and there were six of us who came back 2 1/2 years later. How do you like that for odds! And of the six of us, five had been severely wounded two or more times and had been sent back into the line as replacements. There had been literally thousands of incidents where I should have been taken from the earth by the enemy and for some reason was not.

    Not too many battles later my squad got the assignment to go out and find the enemy position and their ammunition and supply dump—an assignment that was frequently given to an infantry squadron. We used to rotate this and we took turns. This required an all-night skirmish. We were to go out and spend one complete day and night and come back the next morning. We went out and finally got behind their lines and secured their position and ammunition dump, plotted it on our map, and started back. But our battle line had changed, and the enemy now occupied the area where we had been the day before. They had pushed our forces back a quarter of a mile in a counterattack. So we came around a hill into a valley, thinking it was held by our side, but the enemy now held both hills, and we were in a valley right between them. By the time we discovered it, they had annihilated one or two of our squad, and the rest of us took cover in a deep shell hole right in the center.

    It was late afternoon when we found ourselves in this particular position. We knew we had to be out of there by nightfall because they’d just squeeze us out, the fighting being what it was in that sector. So we sat there, 11 of us, plotting what we’d do and how we’d do it. We were still 350 to 400 yards from our lines. In fact, we could even hear our fellows yell when they saw our plight, but it was too late. So we kept calling back over to them that we were going to make a dash for it, but we’d let them know just as soon as we could decide, and as we sat there surveying our situation, we decided that right at dusk we would go as a team, realizing that some wouldn’t make it. But it was the only way to get some of us out of it. There’s a long inventory-taking episode, let me tell you, as you sit there waiting.

    We decided that we’d go at 6:15 because it would be just dark enough that we would be less of a target but light enough that we could make our way. We called over to our fellows to give us as much cover as they could with fire power, that the 11 men they would see scampering would be us, and to protect us with all they had. They called back that that’s what they’d do. We stripped our rifles down because we couldn’t take them with us, and got rid of all the heavy weights: there was the ammunition, the pouches, the grenades. We disassembled them as much as we could so that the enemy wouldn’t get any value from them. Then we sat there meditating and talking, and the others asked if I would kneel and lead them in prayer. And then we promised certain things we’d do for each other in terms of family welfare and all the rest if one made it and the other didn’t. I always carried my blessing with me, and I remember looking at it at 6:05, and I opened it up and studied it again, and it said, in essence, “Paul, you will live to see certain things come to pass if you’re willing.” There wasn’t a human way out of the situation we were in. You’d have to have been there to appreciate what I’m trying to tell you.

    Well, the zero minute came, and we shook hands, and you never saw 11 men scamper like that before. I wished I’d had the track coach there. I think I set a new world record as I made my way to the American line. Three or four of the others didn’t get above the surface of the ground; they were cut down with machine guns. One of my good friends was almost cut in two with a burst, and as I stopped to try to help, I could see it was hopeless, and so l started on. It had been raining hard, and it was slippery, dirty, muddy, and so cold, and you’d fall as many times as you’d take a step almost, trying to get some traction. I’d move this way and that way, and I could tell I had a sniper with a machine gun right on me because the dirt and the mud behind me would just kick right up, move right around me, and then I’d move this way and then he’d pick me up again and move back. I was going with all I had. By then it was everybody for himself, and as I scampered within 50 yards of our hole, the sniper got a direct beam on me, and the first burst caught me in the right heel. It took my combat boot right off, just made me barefooted that quick without touching me physically, and it spun me around, and I went down on my knee. As I went down another machine gun burst came across my back and ripped the belt and the canteen and the ammunition pouch right off my back without touching me. As I got up to run, another burst hit me right in the back of the helmet, and it hit in the steel part, ricocheted enough to where it came up over my head, and split the helmet in two, but it didn’t touch me. Then I lunged forward again, and another burst caught me in the loose part of the shoulders where I could take off both my shirt sleeves without removing my coat, and then one more lunge and I fell over the line, into the arms of one of the dirtiest sergeants you ever saw. He’d watched the whole encounter, and he said, “Paul, you sure are lucky.” He said, “Follow me,” and I crawled back up, and I was the only one of the 11 who had even made it the first 100 yards.

    Lucky? Oh, you call it what you want. I’d had verification after verification. A thousand such incidents happened to me in two years of combat experience. I only relate these things because I feel that young people everywhere, in and out of the Church, need to commence a serious investigation of their own souls and status in this life, because they are at a time when they can prepare.

    Illustrated by Larry Winborg