WWII veteran recalls a touching experience during the Battle of the Bulge and discovers the crucifix that changed his life forever

by Reg Jans

“I have been returning to Bastogne for the last thirty six years”, recalls US veteran John Primerano from Exeter, MA. Back in 1944, the then twenty-year old Private First Class Primerano, served in the Regimental Headquarters -Wire Section, of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. John was also a mapmaker tasked with building geographical sand tables in England and as such missed the Normandy campaign. After making his first combat jump in the Netherlands during Operation Market-Garden, Primerano was then deployed to Belgium at the start of the Battle of the Bulge.

Shortly after his closest friend, Harold J Arnold, died in his arms, battle fatigue started to creep in and Bastogne’s  Saint Peter’s Church (situated across the street from the regimental command post) became a considerable part of John’s Bastogne life. “When I left my switchboard at the Seminary School, my hands were shaking and I no longer had the energy to carry on.” John reflected. As Primerano crossed the intersection, pandemonium broke out as a heavy artillery barrage hit the town center. But an eerie silence fell as he closed the heavy oak church door behind him.

“It was like I’d stepped into some sort of vacuum”, he recalls. “I sat down and took my helmet off. I was sweating. Lying on the floor next to me was this big wooden crucifix that had been blown off the wall and the roof had been punctured by incoming rubble. Looking up as I watched the sky clearing suddenly a shaft of intense sunlight came streaming through one of the holes in the ceiling! The beam completely lit up the crucifix! Alone in that church, suddenly I became acutely aware of a warm sensation that I can only describe as a loving embrace followed by a soft voice whispering ‘Don’t worry son…you’ll be fine!’”. From that moment, John’s hands ceased to shake and the energy began to seep back into his body. Picking up his helmet, somewhat stunned, John started back to the CP but as he crossed the road all hell broke loose again, but he was calm and unconcerned, “I knew I was going to make it”.

In 2012, John returned to Bastogne and visited Saint Peter’s Church, just like he had done many times before but this time with the help of a local man and a Dutch friend, they discovered the crucifix, the same one he had seen back in 1944, in a small room well hidden from public gaze directly behind the organ. The cross was fixed to the wall of the “Candle Room”. John, eyes transfixed on the simple wooden cross, was visibly moved and choking back the tears declared, “I never imagined that I’d ever see it again…back then, this cross actually changed my life”. It has now become a tradition for Mr. Primerano, to light a candle at the church in memory of his comrades and also to remember that short, intense and inspiring experience in Bastogne during Christmas, 1944.