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Serving WWII airmen became pastor’s most memorable ministry

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The Rev. Robert Bearden

Aug 10, 2005

By Jack Hill and Jan Snider*

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (UMNS) — He didn’t carry a rifle, pilot a plane, or help steer a warship, but the Rev. Robert E. L. Bearden Jr. did his part to ease the burden of war.

As the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches — the fighting with Japan ended Aug. 15 — he looks back on those days when he was a young Methodist pastor in a quiet Arkansas town.

“I’d say in nearly 60 years of ministry, it was the most exciting years I had,” says Bearden, now 90. “You were doing a little something in an enormous human situation and tragedy.”

Less than two months after the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bearden and his wife, Ellen, arrived in Walnut Ridge, Ark. At the time, U.S. air power was largely undeveloped, with about 25,000 men — up against a German air force of a half-million men and a strong Japanese air force as well. To address the imbalance, more than a hundred flight schools were quickly planned and constructed in the United States.

The Walnut Ridge Army Flying School broke ground June 20, 1942. The massive project covered more than 3,000 acres and included mile-long runways, five auxiliary airfields, housing and support facilities for a community of 5,000. When the school was completed four months later, the population of Walnut Ridge had more than doubled.

“It was awesome,” Bearden recalls. “It’s just unbelievable — a little sleepy, quiet town, a  delightful county seat, but when we heard this was going to happen, it was a maelstrom, believe me.”

Suddenly, Bearden was preaching to a congregation brimming with uniforms. “I imagine at the height, we had more soldiers than we did locals in our Sunday morning worships.”

Reaching out to the new arrivals, Bearden began a letter-writing campaign that he promoted in the church bulletin.

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Soldiers could request personal letters be sent to their parents, thanks to the Rev. Robert Bearden.

“On the back, it had a message there to the service men: ‘If you’ll write your parents’ name and address, I will write them next week, a personal long-hand letter,’” he says.

The soldiers took him up on the offer, even writing to him after being shipped out. “Sure was glad to hear from you,” one enlisted man wrote. “I’m sitting in my tent writing this letter by candlelight.”

The pastor hadn’t realized what a hard job letter writing could be.

“It just went on all those years, and so many responses came and there was so much pathos and pain and concern in those letters,” Bearden says. However, the relationships that developed over pen and paper are cherished memories. “I just had so many personal relationships that were such a blessing to me.”

He shares many of the now-tattered letters. One mother wrote from Pennsylvania, thanking him for the note he sent after it was discovered that her son was missing in action. “We had a phone call from New York. It was another son of ours — just landed in New York from overseas. He was overseas 30 months and would be home on furlough 30 days. Well, there we had joy on top of our sorrow. It did ease the heart, but there is only one way to heal the heart, to know Bob is alive and safe. I hope and pray he is.”

Prayers for safety were abundant. “It’s very hard to convey the feeling, the anxiety that was pervasive in the whole town,” Bearden says. “Of course, it was everywhere.”

Occasionally more unusual requests would arrive by post. “I had mothers write to me and say, ‘Would you please have one of your ladies bake a cake and take it to our boy?’ Just so they could have some of mother’s food is really what it was for.” In a time when many baking ingredients were rationed, it took extra effort to fulfill such favors, but they were accomplished.

The danger facing the airmen could not be overlooked. It wasn’t unusual to awaken to the sound of a wailing siren as farm boys learned to become fighter pilots. “It was so frightening to hear that siren and know what it means,” Bearden says.

Planes came down in fields and pilots attempted emergency landings only to crash into trees, sometimes within feet of residential backyards. In the end, more than 40 men were killed at the flying school.

“You see, this was the basic flying field, and they had a lot of deaths,” Bearden explains. “There were just a great many boys killed in those trainers because it was the first plane they had.”

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Photo courtesy of Robert Bearden

The Rev. Robert Bearden and his wife, Ellen, reached out to cadets at the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School.

He felt the men needed a place to get away from it all. “I was just determined early on that we were going to do the very best that we could to have some peace, if possible, in this very grim situation.” So the church opened its basement on Saturdays to act as a recreation center for the servicemen. From 2 to 10 p.m., the basement became a “place to read, write letters, meet friends,” according to a church promotional piece.

Young women of the church were recruited as hostesses. There were homemade desserts and games. “And the boys just flocked in there,” Bearden recounts. “We were astonished.”

Eventually, a group of German prisoners of war were held on the base at Walnut Ridge, and Bearden went out to visit with them. “They were good-looking boys,” he says. He was surprised when one requested a book by a well-known theologian.

Reflecting on that era, Bearden is proud of the little town of Walnut Ridge, the church members who responded and the soldiers who made the ultimate commitment. His wife and partner, Ellen, died July 28, less than a month shy of the 60th anniversary of the end of the fighting.

While Bearden went on to have an extensive career in ministry, his experience during the war years stands out. “It may be the only time in my life where I really did a true Christian witness of any real significance.”

*Hill is a freelance producer in Little Rock, Ark. Snider is a multimedia producer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Jan Snider, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5474 or Videos

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