In this story from December 1963, the Oscar winner recalls a wartime Christmas Eve when his practice of praying before turning in for the night proved an inspiration to his fellow soldiers.
It took place on Christmas Eve 1939. I had just arrived in England from Hollywood to volunteer for the British Army. Having had some previous military experience, I was commissioned a second lieutenant and given command of a platoon.
We were about to be sent to France and no one was very happy about it. Most of the men had been conscripted from good civilian jobs; this was the “phony war” period before the big German attack of the following spring and it all seemed a big waste of time to most of them.
Being commanded by a Hollywood actor was an additional irritant for them and made the whole thing seem even more ridiculous. The men were not mutinous—but they were certainly 40 of the least well-disposed characters I ever have been associated with, let alone been in command of.
We were not permitted liberty on that Christmas Eve because we were due to leave England and our families the next day—a fine prospect for the holidays. The entire platoon was billeted in the shabby stables of a farm near Dover.
I could sense the hostility in every soldier. The air was thick with sarcastic cracks about my bravery in various motion pictures.
It so happens that every night of my life I have knelt down by my bed and said a simple prayer. But that night I was faced with a difficult decision. If I suddenly knelt in prayer, here in front of these men, it occurred to me that 40 tough soldiers would take it as a final evidence of Hollywood flamboyance.
On the other hand, I have always felt it wrong to avoid saying my prayers because the situation was not convenient. Besides, here it was the eve of Christ’s birth.
Finally I summoned up my courage and knelt by my bunk. As I prayed there was some snickering at first, but it soon died away.
When I finished and lay down on the straw, I looked rather sheepishly around the stable and saw at least a dozen soldiers kneeling quietly and praying in their own way.
It was not the first time God had entered a stable—and touched the hearts of men.
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.