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Almost Home

     Sometime back, I shared my memories of a brother in Christ, Chick Mensching, who left a deep impression. I later passed that writing on to a relative of his, through whom Chick’s history, love of God, and lessons from the Bible were read and discussed in many families. Praise God! Chick’s elderly but younger brother, Larry Mensching, subsequently contacted me and shared firsthand accounts from “Bud,” as he knew his older brother. What follows is my latest attempt to tell the story well and draw from it the lessons God would have us learn.  Danny Pickett


Almost Home

     Just nineteen, a kid really, and far from home, Private Wilfred H. “Chick” Mensching was on patrol when a barrage of bullets from a Japanese Nambu machine gun tore into his tender flesh. It was a Sunday morning on a barren point of land on the southwest shoreline of the Bataan peninsula. Shortly after that storm of bullets, seventeen of the twenty-two in his Marine patrol fell wounded or killed. Mensching was left for dead on the battlefield. When a patrol came back to reclaim the bodies of their fallen comrades, someone heard him moan, and fellow Marines carried Mensching to safety.


     Upon arrival at the field hospital, another badly wounded Marine attempted to defer his own treatment to a buddy telling the Navy corpsman, “take care of Chick first, he doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.”


     Chick yelled in reply, “You bet I’m gonna make it!”


     Mensching was treated then triaged to the tent for those expected to die. Days later, a surgeon approached him with scalpel in hand intending to cut and change the bandages, Chick misinterpreted the doctor’s intentions and screamed, “If you’re gonna cut my leg off… just let me die!”


     The young Marine recovered from his wounds and returned to duty with Gun 3. Just prior to the fall of Bataan in April 1942, Mensching and his unit pulled the breaches out of their cannon and pitched them into the ocean, rendering the guns useless to the conquering Japanese. Chick then escaped capture, along with others from the 4th Marine Regiment, by swimming the two miles across Manila Bay to the fortress island of Corregidor. Once there, the Marines endured constant bombing and shelling, surviving in tunnels on meager rations and drinking water that was rationed out twice a day in the tropical heat. Mensching fell ill and was treated by Army nurses, surviving an astounding thirty-eight bouts of malaria. Once he regained sufficient strength, Chick returned to his cannon.


     When all hope was lost, General Wainwright surrendered Corregidor to the Imperial Army. The Japanese culture at that time reflected the view that any warrior who surrendered had no honor, thus was not to be treated like a human being. Some of the prisoners were marched over sixty miles to a prison camp. Many died or were executed by Japanese soldiers in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Chick was in the group from Corregidor that was taken to the Bilibid prison in Manila, where many died from harsh treatment, starvation, and poor sanitation. In October, American prisoners of war were loaded aboard three Japanese transport ships to be taken to Japan. Conditions on the ships were horrible: overcrowded, no provisions for air or light, and no sanitary accommodations. The men received little to no food during the trip. Many died as a result. Two of the transports were later sunk by U.S. submarines which were unaware of the presence of the POWs. Chick was on the lone ship that made it to the Japanese mainland.


   The new prison was no less brutal. Guards were vicious and cruel. One made Chick catch flies to “earn” his starvation size daily ball of rice. Once, when he did not catch enough flies to satisfy the guard, he complained and the corporal hit him in the jaw with a rifle butt. Mensching learned to hate all Japanese people, until the day a village woman compassionately offered rice through the fence to a starving prisoner. She was struck by a Japanese guard, her robe ripped open, and her breast slashed by the sword of a Japanese officer. She was left to die alongside the prison fence while Chick watched.


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Almost Home Continued….


     In 1945, the U.S. began bombing Japan. Napalm was dropped on the city closest to Chick’s prison camp. Japanese homes were then constructed with wood and paper, and the ensuing inferno destroyed much of the village and burned many people to death. Mensching and other prisoners were forced to pick up the charred burned bodies. They were attacked by enraged Japanese. Prison guards had to intervene to keep the prisoners from being killed by the mob. Of the many horrors he suffered, Chick shared that this was “the worst.”


     When finally rescued, he had once been terribly wounded, was twice near death, endured more than three years as a prisoner of war, suffered beatings, severe malnutrition and unspeakable terrors. His physical body never fully healed, but Chick found spiritual healing through the Prince of Peace. Like Joseph before him, instead of bitterness from his suffering he chose to embrace God. When he was lost in hatred, he found love of the Savior; the wounded heart of a warrior was replaced with the gentle heart of a servant.


“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30


     The man I knew in the early 1990s was a kind gentle man and faithful Christian. He bore neither self-pity nor vain pride. He was without hate. At first, I was only vaguely aware of his service. I’ve since learned: thirty years a Marine, two wars, two Purple Hearts, and a Bronze Star. As with most brave men, he didn’t seem a hero, rather a regular guy. One day, we learned that Chick was in the hospital. Our church family in Oceanside, California prayed for him and his wife, Hazel. We feared this honorable man would die from his illness, which was made worse by the lingering effects of the abuse suffered during his wartime imprisonment. Only, he didn’t die. We were overjoyed.


     After regaining strength and energy, Chick shared a lesson with the congregation. We waited with love and great anticipation for him to speak. The first words from this seventy year old man, from so long ago, bring a surge of emotion still.


     “I was almost home,” he said with regret. I was stunned by his words!


     The text for Chick’s lesson: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell.  For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” Phil. 1:21-23


     Death was no stranger to this Marine, for he had been in its presence more than anyone could know. Chick knew that he had nothing to fear. In fact, he desired to depart! Like the apostle, he spoke with confidence that dying would place him in the presence of Christ. Our hero was caught in a dilemma: seeing Christ or continuing life with his loved ones in this world. He so clearly, so vividly, saw the advantages of both death and of living. The peace of God that passes all understanding gave Chick the ability to say, with confidence, “I would be better off to have died." Our brother had self-assurance in his faith and sureness in the promises of our Lord.


     This faithful servant’s words shocked me then and still linger in my memory. I simply can’t forget. I don’t wish to forget. When I think of him and the passage in Philippians, Chick still ministers to me. His words tell me what the apostle said to the young preacher, Timothy: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." 2 Timothy 4:6-8


     Our heroes of faith live within us, even though they may have passed from this life long ago. Chick died in 2007 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was wed to Hazel for sixty-one years. But he survives still! Wilfred Mensching lives in a world not made with hands. It is the same world of other spiritual heroes of mine: my father, my friends Raymond Maxwell and Jerry Covington. They are gone, but they still live in my mind and in my heart. The saints who came before us still speak to us today with lives lived in faith and service to the Lord. Will we listen?


     And what of us? The opportunity is presented to each generation to be heroes of faith for those who come after. Today belongs to us; tomorrow belongs to those who live on. We may not wear war medals nor have a heroic story to share, but for those who serve in God’s vineyard, who raise a child, lift a brother, care for a sister, or who love a spouse, the opportunity calls. Eyes are watching, both young and old. We are in the arena. Will we strive valiantly or be with the cold and timid souls who never try? How will we be remembered?  Whose hero will we be?


     Philippians 3 17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.