The Chapel In The Sand
The following is a word-for-word article written by Rev. Howard D. Honsinger and published in the Pentecostal Testimony, June 1984, on the fortieth anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Prior to the article, Rev. Honsinger had been a District Superintendent of the Western Ontario District of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and the pastor at Glad Tidings Assembly, Burlington, Ontario.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, his 3rd Canadian Division, 19th Field Regiment, 23rd Battery landed at St. Aubin, France, five kilometers from Juno Beach.
The piece seems very fitting this June 6…
THE CHAPEL IN THE SAND by Howard D. Honsinger
On June 5, 1944, an armada of more than 5,000 ships began to move beyond the protective booms at Portsmouth and Southampton into the waters of the English Channel. Operation “Overlord” was underway under the direction of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.
The weather was bad. Rain, driven by hurricane winds, cut almost horizontally into the boyish faces of soldiers who, on the morrow, would become veteran fighters on the beaches of Normandy. Some of them would die. Others would survive, and still be alive 40 years later to relive memories of that day and the savage battles that followed to bring Hitler’s Third Reich to the place of unconditional surrender.
Each man had his own thoughts in that distant day, and each man will have his own particular memories as the eyes of the world turn for a fleeting time of remembrance 40 years later. I was there. I will remember. It is difficult to express in words what I will remember, but I will remember… Well, let me put it like this: I will remember the crashing of the waves that threatened to submerge the shallow-bottomed, heavily-laden landing craft.
I will remember the barrage balloons tied to the boats, floating overhead and looking so much like the toy balloons at the old hometown fair. I will remember the inability to escape from the wet chill of the water, the muted conversation of men who conversed together as they shared an anxiety sharpened by fear of the unknown. I will remember the silence that descended at dusk came on to introduce the protective covering of merciful darkness. Sleep was fitful and troubled.
Then came the dawning of a new day—June 6, 1944; D-Day! The coast of France appeared on the horizon like a thin blue line. And then at last, the landing in the midst of indescribable racket. I remember the clanging of armor. The stunning explosion of bombs and shells. Ear-splitting. The cries of the wounded. Unspeakable loneliness. The fear of death clutching at the heart with invisible fingers—vague, indefinable, and curious. I remember the almost imperceptible trembling of hands as cigarettes were lit, then deep calm as, in the purgatory of the conflict, courage was born to enable men to do what had to be done.
Eternity So Near
But there was something else, something I’ll never forget, something that I will cherish above all other memories—the still small voice of God within my heart. I was not a Christian. But God and eternity were very near. I was conscious that if I died, I was not prepared to meet God. I wanted to be at peace with Him. How could that come about? What should I do? I ransacked my mind for the answer in the teachings I had received in the church in which I had been raised.
I recalled the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and stumbled through the 23rd Psalm. I pondered the words of a padre who had encouraged us to believe that a place was assured in heaven for all who die in defense of their country. But my soul refused to be comforted. Nothing worked. There was no eye to pity, no hand to help.
And then I remembered. I remembered the voice of my Christian aunt who had tried to penetrate my drunken stupor as I said farewell before heading overseas. I thought of her face and its awful intensity as she grasped my hand in hers, kissed me, and said, “Howard, if you ever want to get right with God just pray and say, ‘Oh God, be merciful, to me a sinner.’ ’’
Slit Trench Altar
I had shrugged her words off. I had laughed. Teasingly, I made fun of her. But now, in a slit trench on the beach at Bernieres-sur-Mer, I remembered, and that hole in the ground became a chapel. I began to talk with God in silent prayer. I said, “Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I thought that something magic would happen. I did not fully understand. Nothing happened. Everything was the same, except for one thing—a sense of the nearness of a protecting presence. God was with me. I alternately cursed and prayed. I tried to forget when it was inconvenient to remember. When the battle cooled I put God out of my thoughts. When it heated up, I returned to Him with that short, one sentence prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
God was patient. He knew my heart. He spared me from death. When the war ended, I came home. I accepted an invitation to attend a Pentecostal service. I heard the gospel preached. I recognized in that gospel the answer to my quest for forgiveness and rightness with God. I responded. I prayed again: Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Something happened. I was born again—supernaturally converted. God came into my life. Sin’s power was broken. The peace of God flooded my battle-weary soul. A song welled up from within—a song that finds expression in the words of the hymn which so beautifully says:
“I cannot tell the half of love,
Unfeigned, supreme, divine,
That caused my darkest inmost self
With beams of hope to shine.”
Monuments have been erected to commemorate D-Day. Fighting men will relive memories, but my most precious memory will be the memory of the chapel in the sandy beach where I came face to face with God.
Monuments erected by human hands will vanish. They will perhaps be desecrated by vandals. They will be changed by the alchemy of the years, but that which is written in my heart by the power of God’s redeeming love will last throughout eternity. Come sickness or health, come joy or sorrow, come life or death, all is well. Saved from sin, and death, and hell. Saved for time. Saved for eternity. Blessed be the name of the Lord who answers the short prayer: “Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Rev. Honsinger passed away in 1986, before I had a chance to meet him. But his legacy lives on. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to know his widowed wife, his son and wife, and his grandchildren: solid Christians for whom the Reverend would be very proud.
We’ll never know “the half” of what Rev. Honsinger and the other war vets went through for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today. Please pay honor to them and remember them this June 6, 2015, on the 71st anniversary of D-Day, when the largest amphibious invasion force in the history of mankind struck the first blow at freeing continental Europe from Nazi tyranny during World War II.
Photos courtesy of Howard's son, Kelvin, seen in these photos along with Howard's granddaughter, Rebecca, at the Juno Beach Memorial in France, 2009.