The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


November 10, 2013

Local WWII veteran, 96, reflects on life and providence

To tell his story, Paul Daniel wears his best blue button-down shirt, one he put on himself, in the house he moves around in on his own, only sometimes with the aid of a walker or wheelchair. He deserves a little support in ambulating as a veteran of both battlefield and mission field, and a good citizen to mankind for nearly a century.

A hundred years is often casual reference for “a long time.” But it all seems like yesterday to Daniel, 96. He is ready for the occasion to remember, revealing the exclamation points of a yet unpublished account of his years. Surely there’s a story to be told, if for no other reason, to explain his enduring optimism.

There is so much time to sort through, years stretched out end to end, longer than the country road winding up to his place on the hill in Upper Sandlick, Raleigh County. Painting an accurate picture in words of his experiences is, like the shirt, a matter of narrowing down to the most colorful. So he begins at the green paint on the big two-story house just down the way from his home today. “It used to be white, but they changed it,” he remarks, remembering being just a boy in the house when the Depression hit West Virginia two-fisted. “I missed out on high school. The emphasis wasn’t on education then; it was on surviving.” Daniel’s father had died in 1932, adding to the emptiness of the family’s situation. They made it on the produce they could grow and on the few animals barely qualifying their patch of land as a working farm. In a manner unlike what most would expect from a senior citizen recounting old-fashioned challenges, Daniel spares the downtrodden details to focus on what he did have. “Mom raised six kids the best she could as a widow in that house.”

Life was only dawning, at least a young man’s appreciation of it, when providence for his family’s situation struck in 1934, and he would be the one to bear it. Daniel became one of few rural fellows to qualify for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide work relief for families. “When CCCs began in the 1930s, I was supposed to be 18 years of age to get in. I ran my age up; I was only 16 and should’ve been going to school.” Enlisted in the CCC in 1934, Daniel traveled to McKee, Ky., for forestry work. The young men were kept in camp-style accommodations. “We worked for a dollar a day. But more than that we had a good place to stay, doctor’s care and three meals a day.” He reserved only enough pay for an ice cream or a Baby Ruth (the only candy bar he remembers existing at the time) when such luxuries were allowed, and the rest, he sent home to his mother. Daniel considers the CCC program one of the more successful solutions to the dire poverty that engulfed American families during the Great Depression. Troops of young men enhanced many of the nation’s state parks by constructing public buildings and overlooks through CCC, like Droop Mountain Battlefield, where Daniel also ultimately contributed, having twice worked with the CCC before WWII.

Drafted into the Army in 1943, Daniel’s next stop in history was at Fort McClellan, Ala., where he learned the art of being a rifleman, a replacement for already battle-weary soldiers. When he was first deployed, it was to Naples, Italy. “You’d face death every day,” he recalls of being a young, green soldier. “We wanted to go north and there was an enemy up there that didn’t want us to go north. They’d shoot at us and we’d shoot at them, and that’s the way it was.”

On the Anzio Beachhead, reported by historians and veterans as one of the longest battles of the war with more than 25,000 casualties (including the wounded), Daniel was hit, affecting his left leg and left hand most seriously; he nearly lost a finger from the flying shrapnel. Eventually, his injuries were considered permanent and he was awarded the Purple Heart. Still, his proudest work as a veteran was being called upon because of his Christian faith to pray with the troops before battle.

“They put me to work leading services on the front line.” He remembers near Mother’s Day 1944 prior to his injury, when a relief squad was supposed to be on its way, but had been “all shot up.” There at Anzio, so far away from their mothers, wives and all that was of any comfort to them, the squadron endured an extra 12-hour post under the hot Mediterranean sun. Daniel’s sergeant asked him if he’d hold a service and he did, reading from Proverbs 31 about the character of a noble woman. From that moment, the soldiers turned to him as an unofficial chaplain.

May 22, 1944, the day Daniel would sustain his injuries, the soldiers had orders to break from their foxholes and move out, as Daniel puts it, “to face the enemy who wanted to take our lives.” Daniel was on guard duty when the orders “to get packing” came. A soldier with the last name Boatright approached him. “What do you want me to read tonight?” Daniel remembers asking. “How about, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid?’” suggested Boatright. “You believe in God, believe also in me. For in my Father’s house are many mansions,” continued Daniel through John 14: 1-3 in the Bible.

Daniel remembers spending the biggest part of his day on duty reading scripture, searching for something appropriate and of comfort to the men, all facing the possibility of death, some who would realize it within the next 24 hours. He read about the Last Supper, where Jesus faced his own death and told his disciples he would not eat again until he entered his father’s kingdom. “At the close of my reading, I made a few comments and I prayed.” The pause amplified the sobbing and weeping of the men, among the many sounds and sights Daniel will never forget. “The commanding officer blurted out an order while I was still praying — I didn’t stop. I think God was in control. Everything got quiet when I quit praying, and then he told us what he wanted in a different tone.” Many of the same men lost their lives that day, including the man with the scripture request he knew simply as Boatright. “Someone told me our division lost 66 people,” Daniel recalls.

 To the question of where did he go after, he replies, “There is only one way to go in war — and that is forward.” His ultimate destination was France, then home.

But there is much more than war to Daniel’s story. Before he was drafted, he had met Virginia Elkins, who he says “upset the apple cart” of family predictions that he would marry another local girl. He and Virginia were married 61 years before she passed away in 2002.

After the war, Daniel returned home to his Virginia in West Virginia, traveling to Barbour County under the GI bill, thinking he’d learn the farming trade. A desire nagged at the back of his mind; he had always wanted to go to Bible school, but he hadn’t found a break from war and working to have the opportunity. “I came to a place where to really do farming, I had to have thousands of dollars to invest.” The lack of resources could have been discouraging, but to Daniel, it became an open door. He took some time he had coming to him to think about what to do. “I was walking across a potato field, when it sounded like a voice said to me: Now you can go to Bible school.  A couple of days later, Daniel was called and asked to consider pastoring a church in Tucker County. “So that’s where I started.” He pastored there for two years before attending Bible school in Spring Arbor, Mich., after which he pastored for 35 years.

In addition to his pastorate, he and Virginia spent three years as missionaries in Haiti, missions being what his wife had felt a strong pull toward since she was a little girl, he states. “Virginia was good at doing sewing, and every student in Haiti had to have some type of uniform. We took three sewing machines with us when we went.” The couple stayed from 1973  to 1977.

They retired together to Florida in 1983, but when Virginia passed away nearly 20 years later, Daniel decided to return to where he grew up, coming a fuller circle than a younger version of him may have imagined, back to West Virginia.

Glory falls to the quiet mission field, as Daniel lists it highest among his earthly accomplishments. “I’m proud of our work in Haiti. It was the most rewarding of any place we’d served. I suppose that would also be the most exciting thing I’ve done.” Having attained an age where habits are of little concern, his single habit is one to keep at any age — acknowledging God’s providence in the most desolate situations. Provision is a constant he can attest to receiving for nearly a century, in unlikely situations and places, yet always in unlimited supply.

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