Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men

Barbara Smythe


The ancient story told by shepherds of angels singing a song of peace on a starry winter night still haunts and inspires us to hope and dream of a better world, a better country, a better neighborhood, a better and more peaceful family. But where do we find that illusive calm, that spirit of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”? Are we fools to cling to our hope for peace? Recently, a veteran of World War II came into my office and told me a story about himself that renewed my belief that peace can be achieved even in the most incredible of circumstances.

The cold winter rain had made their invasion into the countryside of Germany a slow, miserable struggle through quagmires of mud and swollen streams. “Buck” Private Boyer, an eighteen-year-old recruit from California, longed for the sunny days of home. What he got was a colder day, no rain, and the real possibility of snow. He stamped his feet in his still damp and muddy boots and slapped his hands together in an attempt to shake off the bone-chilling cold. In spite of his misery, Private Boyer was proud to finally be old enough to be in this war and serving his country.

Today he and another buddy, Steve Williams, had patrol duty around their temporary encampment. Their unit would be spending the day cleaning weapons, drying out as much as possible and getting ready for a final charge. They all knew the war in the European theater was coming to an end. The allies were moving with little resistance, the Germans were on the run and more and more enemy soldiers were giving up and surrendering to the Americans. It was not the time to drop their guard, however. Boyer knew his patrol duty was critically important in assuring the safety of his comrades. He and Private Williams were on full alert with rifles ready for any unexpected encounter.

That unexpected encounter happened in the late afternoon, shortly before Boyer and Williams were to go off duty. They heard him before they saw him, the German accent unmistakable. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” They stood immobile, their guns pointed in the direction of the voice, straining to see who had shouted to them. Appearing from the nearby woods was a young boy in the uniform of a German soldier, hands over his head, his eyes wide with fear. He appeared to be around 15 or 16 years old.

“Ah, that’s a damn shame,” muttered Williams. “Those Krauts are so desperate they’re recruiting kids to fight their stinking war. They’ll have their mothers out here next!” Boyer grabbed the boy, indicated to him to keep his hands over his head, nudged him in the back with his rifle, persuading the boy to start walking, and said, “I’ll take him to the C.O. and see what he wants us to do with him.” He marched the boy back to his unit and found his commanding officer.

“Sir, we picked up this deserter on patrol.”

“I see.” The C.O. looked at the prisoner and then at Private Boyer. Silence followed. Private Boyer stood uneasy, not sure what he was supposed to do. He looked at his C.O. for guidance. Finally, the C.O. spoke. “We have no time or manpower to take care of prisoners here. Take him out five miles and one minute from camp, Private. That’s an order.”

“Yes sir!”

Boyer stood stiffly at attention, then turned sharply, motioning his prisoner to start walking toward the nearby woods, his gun prodding the boy in the back. He knew the order meant to take him out five miles from camp and shoot him. But, in spite of his commitment to following orders, his honor as a soldier and his loyalty to his country, he was conflicted. This unarmed and frightened boy posed no threat to him or his unit. An order was an order, but how could he shoot this defenseless boy? The more he struggled with the demands of the order, the more he knew that he could not carry the order out. What was he to do? The prisoner and his captor kept walking.

The solution appeared over the next hill. Another unit was bivouacked there. Private Boyer knew immediately what he was going to do. He marched the German into the camp and asked for the C.O.’s tent. Pushing the boy ahead of him he reported to the commanding officer. Saluting smartly he said, “Sir, I found this deserter while on patrol. Your unit is closer than mine, so I brought him to you.” The C.O. acknowledged Boyer.

“At ease, Private. We’ll take him. You better get back to your unit.”

The walk back to his unit was lonely. He had disobeyed a direct order. His fate was uncertain. His knees trembling, he reported immediately upon arrival to his C.O. “I didn’t hear a shot,” the C.O. muttered, not looking up from his maps.

“You didn’t hear a shot because I didn’t shoot, Sir.” The Commanding Officer looked up and locked eyes with Private Boyer. “I turned him over to the unit that is camped about four miles from here.” Boyer did not lower his eyes, returning the steady stare of his C.O. and waiting for his reply.

“Dismissed!” He left the tent on unsteady legs knowing that he had dodged his own bullet. His duty continued without further incident until his feet submitted to the harsh winter and he was sent to the hospital with frostbite. After his release from the hospital, he was assigned to guard duty at a prisoner-of-war camp in France. On his first day of guard duty, as he was making his rounds, he heard someone in the camp calling his name. “Boyer! Boyer!” Startled, he turned to see who had called his name. He knew no one here and couldn‘t imagine who would know him. But there, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, he recognized the young German deserter he had refused to shoot so many months ago! An incredible reunion, unlikely at best and impossible if Private Boyer had obeyed his orders.

Boyer was stationed at the camp for nearly a year. Whenever Private Boyer took prisoners out on a work detail “Victor” would get in line to go with him. A friendship was formed between the two young men, one a prisoner, the other his guard. Victor told Boyer in broken English that he didn’t know if his family was still alive or if his home was still standing. It had been over a year since he had been conscripted for service in the German army. But when Private Boyer completed his tour of duty and was preparing to leave, Victor hopefully gave him his address.

Boyer always intended to get in touch with Victor but time went by and he never did. The memory of Victor, however, and what he was supposed to do to him has never left his mind. “I just couldn’t do it---I couldn’t do it,” he whispered with tears in his eyes.

And I thought, as I looked at this old warrior, yes! Peace on earth is possible! In the most unlikely of places, this man lived the angel’s message of ‘peace on earth, goodwill to men’ in a heroic act of disobedience.