Michael Bradley tells the story of Charles V. Ednie, Catholic and veteran
I recently finished a book I’d received for Christmas titled The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. Published in 2006 by noted British historian Martin Gilbert, it narrates in compelling fashion the circumstances leading up to, and the harrowing realities constituting, the four-month-long 1916 conflict that with over 1.1 million British empire, French, and German casualties was the Great War’s bloodiest battle and is one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare.
Much about the book riveted me. The Somme furnished the tank its combat advent, in September. Hitler was there, serving as a dispatch runner until a British shell fragment lodged in his thigh. Tolkien was there, serving as a signals officer carrying the rank of second lieutenant; the late autumn rains that turned the rolling fields of north-central France into a mud swamp continually churning up, underfoot, months-old corpses inspired the “dead marshes” of The Two Towers. One Manfred von Richthofen, a young German pilot, scored his first aerial victory at the Somme; shot down 18 months and 80 victories later, the Red Baron, the war’s top ace, was honored by the Entente Powers with a full military funeral.
Gilbert explains in his preface that “as a historian of the human condition” he always endeavors to give names and stories to the statistics with which military history is nearly incomprehensibly rife. To this end, throughout the book, he would identify soldiers by name, share excerpts from their diaries or letters (often containing moving poems), and identify their places of burial, if known (often, they were not).
The human portraitures Gilbert so skillfully animates touched me, a combat-aged male, in a powerful way. I often stopped while reading to reflect on how differently than me these men encountered their world and acted within it. I pondered what it means to be a heroic soldier. Churchill, privately critical of the Somme offensive, in the same breath in which he would lambast British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig’s tactics as wasteful—for many of the empire forces were ordered into what amounted to suicide attacks—would testify: “the marvelous devotion and heroism of the troops exceeds all that history records or fancy had dreamed.”
The most powerful emotion I experienced while reading the book hearkened back to something I’d felt while watching Steven Spielberg’s masterful “Band of Brothers” miniseries, which follows the 101st Airborne’s Easy Company through its European Theatre engagements in World War II. The feeling was awe and admiration mixed with a convicted sense of my own pettiness. At the beginning of each episode veterans of Easy Company would speak on camera about the historical content of that episode. Often, they would reduce to silence, or choke up, as they thought back. In those moments I felt ashamed of the banality of my own daily concerns. What these men endured puts things in perspective, and this was no less true of the heroes of the Somme.
As I thought about these men, reading my book, and thought of Tolkien in particular, the devout Catholic, my mind wandered to my own uncle Charlie. I never met my paternal grandmother’s brother. I never even spoke to him on the phone. But I recalled that my dad had mentioned Charlie’s service in World War II. And I knew that Charlie had been a committed Catholic; I distinctly remember him leaving a voicemail on my parent’s answering machine, encouraging me—about whose faith-related campus activities he had learned via my family’s annual Christmas letter—to remain close to the Lord and the Church.
What I didn’t know is that Charlie’s faith had been fired-tried in one of the nearest things to hell history offers: the brutal jungle fighting of the Pacific Theatre in which Allied forces “hopped” from island to island engaging the Imperial Japanese Army.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Charlie dropped out of his Brooklyn high school to enlist, along with his brothers Jimmy and Vet, in the Marine Corps. He shipped out to the Pacific sometime in late 1942 as, or soon to become, a member of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, the U.S. military’s first special operations unit, a legendary group of 800 uniquely trained men led by the Medal of Honor recipient Merritt Edson. “Edson’s Raiders,” as they would come to be known, were involved in some of the war’s most brutal fighting, including the Guadalcanal campaign and the Second Battle of Guam. Charlie made four “landings,” deploying with small light-infantry units on beaches sometimes raked by heavy Japanese fire, working together with his rifle company to incisively strike and trenchantly defend. At Guam, his last battle, Charlie witnessed a Marine get run over by a Japanese tank, being killed instantly. Charlie grabbed a nearby canteen—this was in the heat of combat—and baptized him. He later told my dad he’d heard somewhere that the soul remains in the body for a few minutes before departing.
Honorably discharged in September 1945, Charlie immediately made for an appointment. During the war, a Marine buddy’s sister, back in Philadelphia, had rounded up some girlfriends to write letters to her brother and his comrades, to lift their spirits and gift them with feminine attentiveness. One Bess Levy’s letters found their way to Charlie, who then became a steady pen pal—a portend of a future hobby. Charlie and Bess met each other for the first time at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia right after Charlie returned to the U.S. They married almost immediately. Charlie wore his Marine uniform.
Charlie and Bess settled down outside of Philadelphia, where they raised their three children and attended Our Lady of Peace, and then Our Lady of Charity, parish. Charlie earned his GED and worked in oil refineries, a true blue-collar job, until his retirement at age 62. Charlie loved to read, his son tells me, and even read the Bible front to back ten times. His room was full of books, including on Fatima and Lourdes. It was also full of correspondence: uncle Charlie was a prolific letter-writer who did everything by hand and made copies of all his outgoing mail. The priest who celebrated Charlie’s funeral Mass said he could remember receiving a long letter from Charlie when he first was assigned to Our Lady of Charity, informing him how things at the parish were, and how they should be. I don’t know whether he realized Charlie did that to every new priest assigned to the parish.
Charlie also routinely submitted op-eds to his local paper, the Delaware County Daily Times, which, if sometimes for no reason other than his persistence, often published them. In a June 11, 2009 piece in which he defended John Paul II’s teaching regarding the all-male priesthood, Charlie concluded with these words: “God was in charge from the beginning, is in charge now, and will remain so until the end of time.”
A final anecdote. My dad recalls riding in the car with his father—to whom Charlie, when they were all young, had introduced his sister Katherine, who would become my grandmother—and uncle Charlie in late 1984. Geraldine Ferraro had just squared off against George H. W. Bush in the vice-presidential debate in Philadelphia. Asked late in the debate whether the citizens and enemies of the U.S. might doubt her competence as commander-in-chief because she was a woman, Ferraro replied: “Are you saying that I would have to have fought in a war in order to love peace?” Earlier, she had cited Eleanor Roosevelt, saying, “It is not enough to want peace, you have to believe in it. It is not enough to believe in it, you have to work for it.”
My dad asked uncle Charlie what he made of these statements. Charlie replied, and then said nothing more on the subject: “If you haven’t fought, you can’t have any idea what it’s like.” Given the context, I take it he meant: can’t have any idea what it’s like to really love peace.
Charlie’s son tells me that his father never spoke about his time in the service, probably not even to Bess. Still, I can’t but think that for uncle Charlie the words “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace” took on an altogether new meaning sometime in late 1942—one I’m not likely to understand this side of death.
Charles V. Ednie died on December 17, 2012, his 90 years having largely coincided with a century full of destruction. God alone judges the heart, but all humanly available evidence suggests that the Lord whose providential design Charlie affirmed with unswerving faith—even while truly walking through the valley of the shadow of death—welcomed his good and faithful servant that day. And I suspect that uncle Charlie, like countless men before and since, enjoys now the peace, “not as the world gives,” that he cherished indescribably on account of the wars the world gives all too well.
Michael Bradley (’14 B.A., ’17 M.T.S.) was the Rover’s editor-in-chief in 2013 – 2014. He lives in Hyde Park, Chicago with his wife Madeline and their daughters Anastasia and Helena. Contact him at email@example.com.